Return of the crooner

After a successful stint with the Israel Kibbutz Orchestra last year, Leonard Rowe is coming back to perform classical favorites.

Leonard Rowe 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Leonard Rowe 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Leonard Rowe can't help but break out into song at any given opportunity. But luckily, the acclaimed American baritone has a lot to sing about, and he sure has the voice for it. Following his Israeli debut last year in the Israel Kibbutz Orchestra performance of Porgy and Bess, Rowe is returning this week along with his costar, soprano Alison Buchanan, for a series of new performances with the orchestra called Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue. Consisting of selections by a kaleidoscope of the greatest American 20th century composers and performers like Leonard Bernstein, Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Nat King Cole and Rogers and Hammerstein, the show, conducted by the IKO's musical director Yaron Gottfried, appeals to all of Rowe's sensibilities. "If could have a job doing two shows a night in Las Vegas singing these American tunes of Cole Porter and Gershwin, that would be the ideal existence. I enjoy singing opera, but there's something so nice and satisfying about singing these songs," he tells the Jerusalem Post from his farm house in North Carolina, where he and his wife raise quarter horses. And to prove his point, he croons a few lines from Porter's "Night and Day." A graduate of the North Carolina School of the Arts, the affable singer began receiving notices after making his debut with the New York City Opera in the 2002 season, starring in the title role in Porgy and Bess, a role he's reprised many times since. Last year, one of Rowe's musical highlights was singing the title role of the rarely heard opera Koanga by Delius in London, where he was paired with gifted soprano Buchanan. "Allison and I met while performing Porgy and Bess with the New York City Opera at Lincoln Center in 2002. Since then, we've performed it together many times, including in Israel. And this past year, we did Koanga in London and also returned to the NYC Opera to do Margaret Garner by Richard Danielpour and Toni Morrison. And now we meet up again back in Israel," he says. Rowe discloses that his positive experience last year performing Porgy and Bess led him to accept the invitation to return this year. "I enjoyed performing Porgy and Bess in Israel so much, and I'm excited to be coming back again. I felt that the Israeli audiences were very knowledgeable and appreciative, and some of the best I've ever sung for." SINCE ITS establishment in 1970, the IKO has evolved into the only orchestra in Israel that provides concert series for both subscribers and the broad public in venues in outlying regions of the country. Pianist Gottfried, a highly touted composer and conductor, has led the orchestra since 2002. Now with 36 musicians, the orchestra performs 120 concerts every season and Gottfried has made it his goal to bridge the gap between classical and contemporary. "I think Yaron is a wonderful young conductor and it's fun to make music with him," says Rowe. "Sometimes what happens with established orchestras is that people get caught up in other aspects of the performance and the artistic music making process is compromised. With Yaron, it's all about the music." The same could be said for Rowe, who realized by his mid-teens that a musical career beckoned. He was into contemporary pop and R&B as much as any other American teen, but realized early on that his unique voice was meant for something else. "If there had been American Idol when I was a kid, I wonder if I would have done well. I always knew music would be a part of my life, and if I could have sung like Marvin Gaye or Luther Vandross - that smooth kind of R&B - then I definitely would have pursued that kind of career. But my voice didn't lend itself to that music," he says, throwing in a few Motown couplets that actually sound pretty darn good, before switching to a powerful operatic tone that sounds, well, even better. He credits singing in a Fred Waring workshop in high school as opening up the doors to the great American songbook. Waring was a popular musician, bandleader, and radio and TV personality, sometimes referred to as "the man who taught America how to sing," who in addition to his career, held summer choral workshops in Pennsylvania for aspiring singers. "It was there that I learned a lot of American classics like Gershwin, Rogers and Hammerstein, and it seemed that my voice was better suited to that kind of music," says Rowe, who later went on to attend the North Carolina School of the Arts. While he's gone on to great operatic heights - performing with numerous orchestras on world stages and winning the Licia Albanese/Puccini Foundation and the Bellini International Voice Competitions - his heart always comes back to 20th century American classics. "When you think of opera in the 19th century moving over to the 20th, it comes to mind that these songs are the true American opera. Singing those songs is like opera," he says, going off again on a Rogers and Hammerstein riff. "The music embodies real emotion, that's why it's endured. If you're in love with someone, is there a more fitting lyric than 'I get no kicks from champagne?' or 'in the silence of my lonely room, I think of you.' Those lyrics are absolutely wonderful. "Today, to say 'I love you' has no style to it." Rowe then improvises a hip hop verse based on the lyrics "I'm gonna throw you down, gonna get you down," then breaks into laughter. "There's not much artistic quality to it. When people hear these songs - the lyrics and melody together - it's timeless. It's the way people feel, and will endure long after we're gone. Maybe in a few decades, people will be saying 'remember that great 'Lady Bumps' song?' but I doubt it." Rowe and Buchanan will be bringing their memorable experience to a number of venues around the country, beginning on February 14 at Kfar Shmaryahu's Weil Auditorium, and continuing on to Nahariya, Beit Shean and other locations before winding up on February 24 at Kibbutz Dorot. For Rowe, it's more than enough reason to burst into song. "I always said that if I could sing for a living, I wouldn't care if I had to live on a park bench, as long as in the evening I could go onstage and sing. Having that attitude has helped me. I'm able to sing, and I don't have to live on a park bench. Everything on top of that is gravy."