Monday, February 16, 2009

Fitting the Voice to the Space

The last time I reviewed a performance in the Schwabacher Debut Recital Series (run under the auspices of the San Francisco Opera Center), I discussed the problem of a singer who had not been particularly successful in scaling her operatic voice down to the intimacy of a recital setting. In yesterday's concert in this same series at Temple Emanu-El in San Francisco, baritone Quinn Kelsey had no such problem with scale. There is no questioning the strength of his voice, wonderfully demonstrated this past fall both in the role of Marcello in the San Francisco Opera La Bohème and as the baritone solo in the San Francisco Symphony performance of Gustav Mahler's eighth symphony. Yesterday, however, he demonstrated that he was just as comfortable with smaller-scale settings, although he did not choose to diminish his interest in the dramatic in his selections for his program.

Three languages were represented by this program: English, German, and Russian. I do not know enough Russian to account for his diction in that language; but his English and German had the sort of splendid clarity that draws the ear to the words themselves, even when, as was the case with the selections by George Frideric Handel, the texts themselves left much to be desired (and probably had not occupied much of the composer's attention). Still, Handel could take texts that were, at best, "borderline ridiculous," such as John Gay's libretto for Acis and Galatea and Newburgh Hamilton's for Samson, and serve them up with a thoroughly sublime treatment. Kelsey clearly favored Handel's side of the story, using the energy of his settings to begin his recital with a dynamic opening.

From this point of departure he could turn to far better words in the hands of a composer with a keen sense of English poetry. The composer was Gerald Finzi, whom I know best from his settings of the poems of Thomas Hardy. Kelsey's selections, however, were from Let us Garlands Bring, whose texts are by William Shakespeare. I used to hear these from time to time back when XM Radio had their Vox channel, but I could not always follow the words on the recordings they broadcast. The combination of Kelsey's clarity and the texts in the program revealed the merits of Finzi's ear for setting Shakespeare, as well-tuned as that of any actor or director with the Royal Shakespeare Company. Finzi also had a nice trick of rendering nonsense syllables ("hey ding a ding a ding") in double-time, rather than letting them weigh down the import of the text that they embellish.

Finzi's faithful setting of Shakespeare's well-crafted way with words was followed by Mahler's hyperemotional setting of his own texts for his four Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen. This is the young Mahler getting his act together (particularly since material from his cycle later emerged in two of the movements of his first symphony); and we are back in the domain of texts in dire need of rescuing by the music. Kelsey approached this as the mini-opera captured by the narrative that cuts across the four poems in the cycle. He also had no trouble letting us know that the protagonist of this opera is more than a little deranged at the very beginning of the first poem, after which the path is all down a precipitous slope. The standard opera repertoire rarely gives the baritone a chance for a mad scene, but the young Mahler did a good job of compensating for this lacuna! Kelsey had the dramatic sense to keep the overwrought texts from carrying him over the edge, but he was also not afraid to unleash some raw emotions to give those texts the impact they deserved.

In this performance particular credit must also be given to accompanist Peter Grunberg. This cycle fares much better in its orchestral setting, but Grunberg clearly had a keen ear for that setting. He knew how to bring out the most important details even when limited by his piano keyboard, and the result was a performance as effective as any orchestral performance I have heard.

The intermission was followed by a different kind of song cycle, the Songs and Dances of Death by Modest Mussorgsky. This is the first time I have heard these four songs in a recital, although I worked on some of them when accompanying a baritone friend of mine back in Los Angeles. There is a bit of a pun in the title, since Death appears as a character in each of these songs. Thus, they are not so much about Death as they are performed by him. The author of the texts, Arseny Arkadyevich Golenishchev-Kutuzov, was clearly very sympathetic to this Death-as-character; and Mussorgsky captured this sympathy in what are four decidedly different emotional settings. Once again this was an opportunity for Kelsey to exercise his dramatic training through opera, endowing each of the songs with the uplifting spirit behind the texts. It was the sort of performance that makes one wish this cycle was heard more often.

The encore, on the other hand, has been heard so much that it is always right on the brink of cliché. It was "Some Enchanted Evening," from Richard Rodgers' score for the musical South Pacific. People who know this show only from the film and subsequent revivals may not know that this song was originally written for Ezio Pinza, who, in his time, may well have been the quintessential Don Giovanni. It would be unfair to expect that Kelsey would be channeling Pinza in this encore; but he endowed this song with the straight reading of a respectful baritone with little care for its inferiority to the standard repertoire. This made for a good encore choice. However sympathetic a character Death may have been, this selection provided a touching way to relieve the hall of his presence.

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