Authentic Selves, the name given to a weekend run at Jazz at Lincoln Center by countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo and vocalist Justin Vivian Bond, assumes layers of meaning even in a city where a Gay Pride Month might erupt any day of the week. On stage in front of the New York Philharmonic, Costanzo and Bond were authentic to their very different musical selves, finding common ground in carefully crafted medleys and duets. But through an eminently entertaining evening, they were also true to their dramatic, flamboyant, passionate selves.

Jaap van Zweden conducts the New York Philharmonic
© Chris Lee

They shared the second half of the program, following a fast first half featuring the orchestra and Costanzo premiering a dramatic setting of a Tracy K Smith song. The evening began with Joan Tower’s 1986 Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman, a fast blast of brass and drums that left little doubt as to the evening’s agenda (and had maestro Jaap van Zweden all but dancing on his rostrum).

Costanzo entered to enthusiastic cheers for the premiere of Joel Thompson’s setting of Smith’s The Places We Leave, the orchestra now swollen to full ranks. It was sweepingly dramatic. Costanzo didn’t quite act the part of the jilted lover finding new confidence, he actually barely moved, but he was resplendently in character, neither floating atop nor sinking into the strings. The dramatic tension was nearly unbearable.

Where does one go from there but Prokofiev? The quick quarter hour of the Symphony no. 1 in D major was given a taut and crisp reading by the orchestra, celebratory even. The familiar Allegro con brio was anthemic, the Larghetto luxuriant, the Gavotte confident and the final Molto vivace enthralling, concluding a speedy first half, in both duration and momentum.

Justin Vivian Bond and Anthony Roth Costanzo
© Chris Lee

The second half revived, in condensed form, Costanzo and Justin Vivian Bond’s recent stage show Only an Octave Apart, with a bit of salon, a little more old school revue and plenty of banter. (Bond: “The wonderful thing about the opera is when you wake up, you’re at the opera!”) Octave, too, was layered in meaning. Written for Beverly Sills and comedienne Carol Burnett, the song was given the added dimension of the short distance between Bond’s downtown cabarets and Costanzo’s uptown concert halls. But their voices – Costanzo, a countertenor, and Bond, billed as a ‘vocalist’ – cross other distances as well. They’re rather like an oboe and saxophone duo: a textual duo, constantly in contrast.

The set of songs, mostly ‘mash ups’, was rehearsed and blocked, hardly subtle, sometimes quite beautiful, at other times a bit too clever. Costanzo delivered a moving Dido’s Lament, followed by Bond’s rendition of pop singer Dido’s White Flag, suggesting little more than a play on names. Meshing the Bangles’ Walk Like an Egyptian with Hymn to the Sun from Philip Glass’ Akhnaten, based on the life of the Egyptian pharaoh, however, was inspired. Costanzo, who has performed the title role in the opera, interjected Glass’ metered aria like a hungry bird. And a pairing of Rossini and Antonio Carlos Jobim was just lovely.

Anthony Roth Costanzo, Jaap van Zweden and the New York Philharmonic
© Chris Lee

The big finale, David Bowie and Queen’s Under Pressure, couldn’t quite raise the Jazz at Lincoln Center roof, even with the orchestra augmented by electric guitar and bass guitar. A beautiful rendition of Autumn Leaves, sung in both English and French, was a highlight of the night, closely followed by the intermission: the Ertegun Atrium on opening night became something of a fashion show of upper crust, downtown queer and absolutely fabulous. It was an audience that ran layers of style, and the stars knew for whom they played. 

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