Rising tenor, Jesus Hernandez, sings 'From the Heart'

Mexico-born vocalist a romantic In Series triumph at the Source. Photo: Michael G. Stewart

WASHINGTON, April 23, 2012 – The In Series continued this past weekend with its uncanny knack for staging offbeat, original, and always interesting events. In this case, the Series chose to showcase the considerable talents of up-and-coming tenor Jesús Daniel Hernández in a cabaret-style program entitled “From My Latin Heart.”

His program seems to have been inspired, perhaps in part, by a similarly-styled evening presented in  2009 Constitution Hall, headlined by his mentor, Plácido Domingo and a number of the Maestro’s fellow singers—including Mr. Hernandez.

As this reviewer noted then in the Washington Times, “… it was delightful to see [Mr. Domingo’s] work in the evening’s finale with the two young Mexican tenors in his Domingo-Cafritz program, Jose Ortega and Jesus Daniel Hernández. Both already possess powerful voices, great diction and an exciting stage presence. When they sang with the Mr. Domingo it seemed, if only for a moment, that the Three Tenors were in a process of rebirth.”

Tenor Jesus Daniel Hernandez.

Tenor Jesus Daniel Hernandez. (Credit: Michael G. Stewart.)

Mr. Hernández’ unusual backstory is at least as interesting as his considerable singing abilities. It reminds us, in a way, of a local-boy-made-good—star tenor Carl Tanner. Hailing from Arlington (and still making his home there), Mr. Tanner attended Washington-Lee High and was convinced by his friend, Sandra Bullock (yes, that Sandra Bullock) to join a high school choral group. His voice was good enough to get him into what was then known as the Shenandoah Conservatory.

But it was only after pursuing careers like truck driving and bounty hunting that Mr. Tanner actually got serious about his vocal skills. He resumed his training at a relatively late age and commencing his long but successful climb to opera stardom.

Mr. Hernández’ career seems to be following an oddly similar track. Born in Juarez, Mexico, he became fascinated with the musical career of Frank Sinatra as a youngster. But at the time, his notion of following in Sinatra’s footsteps was a pipe dream which seemed, if anything, even more distant after Mr. Hernández’ family relocated across the Rio Grande to El Paso, Texas. There, he graduated from high school and promptly got a job in a local slaughter house.

Like many young men, however, Mr. Hernández was seeking a bit more out of life. He decided to address the problem by signing up for a stint in the U.S. Army, shipping out for the Middle East where he served in Iraq. Via a serendipitous set of circumstances, when he was stateside once again, he attended a San Antonio recital given by Plácido Domingo and got backstage to meet the world’s reigning tenor superstar.

When Mr. Domingo asked him what he wanted to do when he grew up, Mr. Hernández, who’d been working independently over the years to develop his voice, answered that he wanted to sing in zarzuelas—Spanish and Latin American equivalents of operettas and Broadway shows.

Maestro Domingo invited Mr. Hernández to audition for him on the spot, and was impressed enough with the results to invite the young G.I. to join the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists program operated under the wing of the Washington National Opera. Mustering out of the Army, Mr. Hernández soon found himself in the nation’s capital where he’s already sung in several Washington National Opera productions. Soon, he’ll be testing his newly-honed skills in Europe, singing the role of Rodolfo in a production of Puccini’s La Bohème.

Opera aside, however, audiences attending Mr. Hernández’ In Series recital had a chance to hear him sing the kinds of songs that had originally moved him toward his ultimate career choice. Accompanied by Pianist Mari Paz and assisted by actress-musician Monalisa Arias, he presented a program of popular, traditional Latin American love songs and ballads that had originated in countries ranging from Cuba and Venezuela to Argentina and his native Mexico.

As opposed to his earlier, gala appearance with Maestro Domingo, this intimate In Series production was considerably more “up close and personal,” giving audiences a closer look at the developing career of a remarkable young singer.

Mr. Hernández’ program was well-calibrated, highlighting soulful, romantic songs but punching up the tempo from time to time with fiercer numbers like Jorge del Moral’s “No niegues que me quisiste” (“Don’t deny that you loved me”) and “Odiame” (“Hate me!”) by Rafael Otero and Federico Barreto.

Program highlights included Roberto Cantoral’s rhumba-esque “El Reloj” (“The Clock”), Rafael Hernández’ moving “Preciosa” (“Lovely One”), and his rousing encore, everyone’s favorite “Granada.”

As a vocalist, Mr. Hernández still has some room to grow. Yet he’s already incredibly sophisticated and mature for one who, until recently, lacked the twin advantages of expensive teachers and conservatory training that normally boosts the careers of young, talented singers.

Mr. Hernández possesses a full, well-controlled tenor voice capable of gaining greater power and expression as he continues to hone his technique. Given the Studio’s small but highly reflective performance space, he clearly needed to hold back the volume at times during his performance. In so doing, however, he occasionally misgauged the acoustics and was briefly buried by the piano accompaniment in a couple of his early numbers.

Nevertheless, when he hit his stride, he proved beyond any doubt that he knows how to sell a song. He’s quite an engaging performer, endowed with a rich, well-supported instrument and clearly on his way to bigger, better things as his future unfolds as we’ve already noted. It’s a rare treat to hear a rising young artist like this early in his career and, better yet, in an almost one-on-one setting. Kudos to the In Series for making this happen.

A hat tip is in order to those who almost unobtrusively assisted Mr. Hernández in making his recital a success. Director Abel Lopez helped create the warm and casual cabaret-like setting for the program, and pianist Mari Paz, comfortable and familiar with the repertoire, capably accompanied the soloist.

But a surprising plus on this program proved to be the multifaceted contribution of Monalisa Arias. Comfortably alternating between percussion, guitar, and occasional vocal backup to Mr. Hernández, she demonstrated great musical sensitivity, adding the perfect touch of background color to many of his songs. An added plus: as the designated reader of the evening’s poetry selections (penned by Latina poets and chosen by the director), she delivered, in English, perhaps the finest dramatic poetry reading that this reviewer has ever had the pleasure to attend.

Rating: *** (Three out of four stars.)


Read more of Terry’s news and reviews at Curtain Up! in the Entertain Us neighborhood of the Washington. For Terry’s investing and political insights, visit his Communities column, The Prudent Man, in Business.

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Terry Ponick

Now writing on investing, politics, music, and theater for the Washington Times Communities, Terry was the longtime music and culture critic for the Washington Times (1994-2009). 

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