Baldwin-Wallace Art Song Festival:
Recitals by Christine Brewer & Gidon Saks (May 22 & 24)
by Daniel Hathaway
Cleveland's Art Song Festival, begun at CIM in 1985 by George Vassos, has now settled in at Baldwin-Wallace on an every-other-year basis. The Festival revolves around a week of coaching sessions for ten singer-pianist teams who perform on the festival's ultimate concert, but in between, the distinguished artists who preside over those master classes put themselves on the line in full-length evening recitals. On Tuesday evening, May 22, during the twenty-first festival, soprano Christine Brewer sang Spanish and American music, followed by bass-baritone Gidon Saks on Thursday evening, May 24, whose program visited England, Russia, France, and the US. Both artists partnered with the fine British pianist Roger Vignoles.
Christine Brewer began with three little-heard and contemporaneous sets of Spanish and Catalan songs by Joaquin Turina (1882-1949), Frederico Mompou (1893-1987) and Fernando Obradors (1897-1945), plus a single song by Eduardo Toldra (1895-1962) which had an uncanny link to a Bolcom song later in the program. Ms. Brewer's decision to sing the sets out of program order and even rearrange songs within sets led to some disorientated flipping through the translation sheets, but her delivery was relaxed and natural and her soft enunciation was well-suited to the texts. Her voice is powerful enough to fill any of the world's opera houses, but she successfully reined things in and created intimate effects in the much smaller space of Gamble Auditorium.
After intermission, Ms. Brewer gave us luminous performances of five familiar Samuel Barber songs that must have been in the repertory of every singer and pianist in the audience: The Daisies, With rue my heart is laden, Bessie Bobtail, Rain has fallen and Sure on this shining night. Her interpretations were, in turn, deliciously simple, wistful, eerie, poignant and exultingly expressive, marred only by a few notes that were on the low side of the pitch.
Five very early Copland songs (the composer was in his late teens) set somewhat sentimental texts to rather bland music, but it was interesting to hear a young composer searching for what would become a unique voice.
Ms. Brewer closed with three of William Bolcom's Cabaret Songs, which gave her the opportunity to show her stuff as a comic actress with an operatic accent. If other singers have more naturally captured the sardonic mood of Black Max, the ironies of George and the giddiness of Amor, or scatted less self-consciously, Ms. Brewer put the songs across skilfully and neatly linked the sentiments of Toldra's Mananita de San Juan with Arnold Weinstein's Amor: in both cases, a femme fatale suddenly appears and stirs things up, making policemen, judges, abbots and acolytes forget themselves and all end up chanting “Amor”.
Another canny piece of programming was the encore: long-time New York accompanist Celius Dougherty's Review, a drole setting of an actual review of a vocal recital complete with its final dismissive mention of the pianist, which drew a knowing grimace from Roger Vignoles. Not deserved, in this case; he was an equal and eloquent partner all evening.
Gidon Saks is a man of the theater, and his inner actor was much in evidence on Thursday evening not only in his singing but in his body language — he took up unusual positions onstage relative to the piano, sometimes turned upstage when he wasn't singing, gestured dramatically with his hands, and ended songs with a whole variety of facial expressions.
Mr. Saks launched his varied recital with a Handel set: Thy glorious deeds (Samson), Va tacito (Giulio Cesare) and Thus saith the Lord & But who may abide (Messiah). Though his vibrato interfered with some of the melismas, Mr. Saks fully inhabited each aria and punched up its drama. For Va tacito, he had the assistance of the excellent hornist Ken Wadenpfuhl, who lent an air of refinement to the hunting conceit of the text.
Drawing on his Scottish roots, Mr. Saks treated us to a dialect lesson in three songs by Robert Burns, to a sardonic text by Walter Raleigh, an exasperated Shakespeare sonnet and a nursery rhyme, all set in English (or its northern neighbor tongue) by Dmitri Shostakovich. Jenny (“Comin thro' the rye!) was piquant and playful; Macpherson's Farewell drew spontaneous applause; and The King of France (who went up the hill with twenty thousand men and came down alone) was tossed off with great humor.
Gerald Finzi's harmonically exquisite Let us garlands bring, all to Shakespeare texts from the plays, ended the first half with excellently paced and masterfully declaimed singing. Mr. Saks is able to float high notes effortlessly, and did so frequently. Halfway through the set, I began to wish that the singer would back off a bit on the drama — he began O Mistress Mine arms akimbo, shouted out “what's to come is still unsure” and leered at “then come kiss me, sweet and twenty”. Sometimes less is more.
After intermission, Mr. Saks turned to bluesy, sardonic settings of Langston Hughes poems by John Musto, Ibert's Don Quixote songs and six Victorian parlour songs — an odd mixture of styles and in the case of the Ibert, an odd choice of positioning. The parlour songs would have made fun encores, but six in a row at the end of a long program tended to overstay their welcome, even if invested with more drama than they deserved. Taking another tack, at the end Mr. Saks gave the appreciative audience a dose of Sondheim, “lachrymose, suicidal music” he promised, grinning. Mr. Vignoles agreeably and seamlessly switched styles, as he had done all evening.
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Published on ClevelandClassical.com May 29, 2012
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