Soloman Howard, the 2019 Marian Anderson Award winner, brought his unique flair to the Kennedy Center in his first-ever solo concert at the venue. As a graduate of the Washington National Opera’s Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program, local fans and family were delighted to hear his thunderous bass vocals filling the Terrace Theater as he tackled everything from opera to gospel.
Soloman Howard, a snappy dresser whose five costume changes allowed him to show off his style, began the program with Samuel Francis Smith’s “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.” He then led the audience to participate in James Weldon Johnson’s “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” This typified the singer’s warm and unpretentious approach to the evening. The audience was then treated to selections from Franz Schubert’s Schwanengesang: “Doppelgänger” and “Aufentault.” These booming German selections allowed Howard to show off the depth of his bass, which was both sonorous and tightly controlled—you’d expect nothing less from a Washington National Opera alum.
My personal favorite selection from the first half of the program was Schubert’s “Ave Maria.” It’s a rare treat to hear this sung by a bass and rarer, still, to hear it rendered by someone of Howard’s caliber. He then sent up two humming pieces, Charles Brown’s “A Song Without Words” and Rachmaninoff’s “Vocalise,” which allowed the soulful smoothness of his timbre to emerge. It takes true talent to move people to tears without singing a word.
He capped off the first half of the program with tender renditions of “O Isis und Osiris” from Mozart’s The Magic Flute and “Il lacerato spirito” from Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra. Both songs show off Howard’s talent as an opera vocalist, while allowing him to exhibit emotional range.
Howard’s describes himself as a person of faith whose life was shaped by his experiences in the charismatic Pentecostal tradition. This was on display in his selections for the second half of the program, where he lent his operatic bass to several classic gospel hymns. For “Goin’ Home” and “Let Us Break Bread Together,” Howard was joined by accomplished Saxophonist Skip Pruitt. Pruitt’s smooth soprano sax provided the perfect foil to Howard’s bass during these songs. Traditional spirituals are more “felt” than “heard.” Both men were able to draw upon this emotional fount and let it roll out of them to stake their claim on these works.
For his final two selections, Howard was joined by Kris Funn on double bass and Carroll (C.V.) Dashiell III on drums. Darin Atwater, who accompanied Howard on piano for the duration of the evening, was also able to show off his considerable musical talents when the singer chose Atwater’s arrangements of “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” and “Wade in the Water” to wrap up the program. Howard played the conga drums while allowing himself to vocally lean in to the crowd-pleasing nature of these poplar traditional songs.
We were, of course, treated to an encore. Howard was joined by Chooky Caldwell—an accomplished guitarist whose credits include tour accompaniment for Mariah Carey and Snoop Dogg—for this round. As he had throughout the night, Howard wove personal stories throughout his selections so that the audience had context for what the songs meant to him. Thinking of an uncle who sang him a song as a child, he treated the audience to a lovely and unique rendition on The Carpenters “Sing.” If you weren’t already convinced that this talented bass can cover a range of styles, his version of this song would have sealed the deal. As a true end to the evening he invited his girlfriend, accomplished opera singer and soprano Ailyn Pérez, on stage as he sang one of her favorite songs in Spanish.
Soloman Howard is clearly a force to be reckoned with. As a bass, he is flexible and able to adapt to several styles of music. He is already a world-traveled opera singer, but I expect this is only the beginning of his long and distinguished career. As with many of the artists who were nurtured by the Washington National Opera, D.C. will always be eager to hear him whenever he returns home.
Soloman Howard in Concert played on November 25, 2019, at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts—2700 F Street Northwest in Washington, D.C. Tickets to future Washington National Opera events can be purchased online.