By Elise Rotchford
The Distinguished Artists Concert and Lecture Series brings world class artists to Peace United Church (formerly First Congregational). On Saturday evening, here in the little town of Santa Cruz, Baritone Eugene Villanueva with pianist collaborator John Churchwell thrilled the audience with a performance worthy to present on the world’s finest stages. From Schubert, Vaughan Williams and Tosti to the contemporary American Folk Song arrangements by Steven Mark Kohn, Villanueva captured the regionalism and style of each song as the composer intended. Churchwell was right there with him, the two breathing together through phrases of bold and subtle nuances of dynamics and impeccable technique and artistry. Villanueva’s voice is a rich full-bodied timbre and he sings seamlessly from the bottom to the top of his range. He delivered the high notes in the Schubert songs with lightness and delicacy, the Tosti with fluid portamentos, and the Kohn songs expressly “Americana”.
…“Bright is the ring of words When the right man rings them, Fair the fall of songs When the singer sings them,”…
Bright and fair they were as Villanueva sang Songs of Travel, Vaughan Williams’ cycle of nine songs to texts by Robert Louis Stevenson. Here he conveyed reflective and romantic emotions reinforced by the music. What a beautiful way to listen to these great works in this acoustically correct venue for piano and voice. Both instruments sounded with clear and concise resonance, never overpowered by the other.
Villanueva got his first lucky break when he was brought in with less than 24 hours notice to the Hollywood Bowl to sing Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. He has performed at many famous stages including Carnegie Hall and the Shanghai National Grand Theatre. Villanueva has been hailed by critics for “a voice as handsome as his countenance” and “full resonant instrument, exemplary diction” (San Francisco Classical Voice). He has performed with the San Francisco Symphony, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Toscanini Orchestra of Parma and the Norddeutscher Rundfunk Radiophilharmonie. A San Francisco native, he has performed with many prestigious international companies and festivals including the San Francisco Opera, Festival d’Aix-en-Provence, Teatro Comunale di Bologna, and Michigan Opera Theatre. His has taken the title roles in Don Giovanni, Eugene Onegin, Il barbiere di Siviglia, Le nozze di Figaro, The Merry Widow and La bohème, among others. An avid recitalist, he made his Carnegie Hall debut in January 2008 with subsequent performances in 2009 and 2011. Other recitals include presentations by the Marilyn Horne Foundation, San Francisco Opera’s Schwabacher Debut Recital Series, the New York Festival of Song and the prestigious Niedersächsische Sparkassenstiftung series in Germany.
Truly a profound artist in the disciplines of pianist, conductor, collaborative artist and producer, Churchwell has been an assistant conductor for the Metropolitan Opera and the San Francisco Opera. He has collaborated with leading conductors James Levine, Nello Santi, Nicola Luisotti and Donald Runnicles. A champion of American music he participated in the world premieres of John Harbison’s The Great Gatsby and Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking. He also prepared the world premieres of the Philip Glass opera Appomattox and the Stewart Wallace/Amy Tan collaboration The Bonesetter’s Daughter for San Francisco Opera. This fall he will lead the preparation of Tobias Picker’s new opera, Dolores Claiborne. On the recital stage Churchwell has partnered some of today’s most sought-after vocalists including Joyce DiDonato, Susan Graham, Frederica von Stade, Dawn Upshaw and Carol Vaness. This season he will appear with tenor Michael Fabiano and at Hollywood Bowl for Prairie Home Companion with Ellie Dehn.
Eugene Villanueva will perform in recital again with John Churchwell at Sanford University on April 13th and this spring in the Michigan Opera Theatre’s production of Turandot.