Last night in Herbst Theatre, the San Francisco Girls Chorus (SFGC), led by Music Director Valérie Sainte-Agathe, began its 2016–2017 season with a program called Love’s Journey. Special guests included mezzo Laurie Rubin, pianist Matthew Edwards, and six string players from the Magik*Magik Orchestra, violinists Gloria Justen, Anna Washburn, and Emanuela Nikiforova, violist Evan Buttemer, cellist Erin Wang, and bassist Dave Horn. The program was not so much a journey as an examination of eight different “aspects of love” (already used as the title of a musical by Andrew Lloyd Weber) involving eight different composers (but not in a one-to-one relationship).
This would have made for a 75-minute program worthy of serious consideration had it not been for the interference of one other “special guest.” Charles Otte served as stage director for the whole affair and pretty much singlehandedly undermined any musical virtues the program had to offer. Each song was given its own spatial configuration of performers. At least one of these was advantageous, surrounding the audience with the a cappella voices for John Zorn’s phonemic étude “Colombina.” The remaining configurations ran the gamut from fussy to counterproductive. If that were not enough, Otte also decided to revive the aesthetic practices of François Delsarte, who developed a system that takes every musical gesture and correlates it with a physical one. While Delsarte’s intentions were probably serious enough, it was subsequently trivialized to a fare-thee-well, devolving into “melodramatic posing” (as the author of Delsarte’s Wikipedia page puts it). Last night’s performances may not have labored under melodramatic excess; but, for the most part, they were just plain silly and almost always lamely executed.
One can certainly appreciate why execution fell short. The SFGC singers were provided with an abundance of challenges in the selections on the program. A solid command of the notes and an ongoing balance of resources were always the items of highest priority, and it would be fair to say that all of the composers on the program were well served. Less well served were the authors of the text. Diction did not always prevail over sonority; and, when a piece is called only Seven Part-Songs (Gustav Holst), there is little to assist the listener in identifying the narrative content of the text. A text sheet was provided but only for the purpose of providing translations for the songs that were not in English. (As might be expected, Holst provided titles for his songs; but these, too, were omitted from any of the program materials.) In this respect Zorn fared best, since his text consisted only of syllabic sonorities.
In other words this was a recital that began with a few good ideas concerning how to select repertoire for a program. From that end the singers were well prepared to present that repertoire, and Sainte-Agathe could never be faulted in her conducting work. Unfortunately, one or more planners decided that the audience needed more than a solid performance enhanced with an appreciation of the texts being sung; and this resulted in a generous number of rotten apples that spoiled the entire basket. SFGC offers up some highly talented musicians, who really need to be allowed to let the music speak for itself through clear and expressive execution.