Peterborough, N.H. — Every so often, a concertgoer has a chance to encounter special performers in close quarters, before their career has propelled them exclusively into larger venues. Such was the case at Saturday’s concert by the outstanding young mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano, with her husband, Christopher Cano, at the piano. The recital, in the Electric Earth Concerts series, took place in tiny Bass Hall.
The intimacy of the room offered a magnified picture of Jennifer Johnson Cano’s gifts. Her voice is radiant and intense, rich in the lower part of her range, bright and precise at the top, with astonishing evenness throughout. For such a commanding singer she also cuts a remarkably approachable persona on stage, and has an uncanny ability to discern and embody the character of each song.
The concert’s sole drawback was that the power of her voice, along with her husband’s occasionally strident accompaniment, overwhelmed the small room at times. After a selection of Canteloube’s “Songs of the Auvergne,” I left the third row for the back of the hall, where the sound was less overpowering and could be better appreciated.
The Cantaloube was the opening of a program divided neatly between folk and art songs. The boundaries between these are fluid, as was apparent from Cantaloube’s florid and sophisticated piano writing, which Christopher Cano managed with aplomb. Jennifer Johnson Cano brought to her singing a natural sense of drama and wit that never became trite. Similar flashes of nonchalance were strewn through de Falla’s “Seven Popular Spanish Songs,” along with a smoldering sense of anger in the final “Polo.” But the deepest impression was left by “Asturiana,” a melancholy song whose subject is sorrow itself. Here Cano seemed to cast aside vocal shadings and reveal something steely and pure. The effect was devastating.
Alternating with these were two sets of songs for voice, piano, and viola, with Electric Earth codirector Jonathan Bagg joining the duo. Brahms made this combination famous in his Two Songs, Op. 91, although Saturday’s performance seemed somewhat unpolished, the balances often askew. More successful were three songs by Frank Bridge. The freighted texts ask after memory, life, and death, and Cano managed to invest each word with consequence without losing her immaculate sense of phrasing.
The two streams came together in Dvorak’s “Gypsy Songs,” in which approachability and refinement exist in equilibrium. Over her husband’s muscular accompaniment, Cano unleashed the full dynamic range of her voice, from the sentimentality of “Songs My Mother Taught Me” to the tempestuousness of “May the Falcon’s Wings.” There was a glorious sense of abandon at the end.
The pair offered a bittersweet encore, John Jacob Niles’s “Go ’way From My Window.” Cano brought the same elegance and honesty that distinguished everything that came before.
David Weininger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.