Thursday, November 2, 2017

Palmertree Brings Engaging Cabaret to the Rex

courtesy of San Francisco Performances

Yesterday evening San Francisco Performances continued its Salon series at the Hotel Rex with a recital by soprano Toni Marie Palmertree. Currently an Adler Fellow, Palmertree was featured in the role of Liù in the season-opening production by San Francisco Opera (SFO) of Giacomo Puccini’s Turandot this past September. She was accompanied at the piano by Ronny Michael Greenberg, currently a member of the SFO music staff.

The prevailing atmosphere of Palmertree’s program was one of cabaret. Indeed, she performed selections from two collections by two different composers both published under the title Cabaret Songs. The earlier of these was Benjamin Britten’s settings of four poems by W. H. Auden, three of which were selected by Palmertree. The other was the larger collection of 24 songs that William Bolcom published in four volumes, and Palmertree sang only two of those songs.

Both of these sets were archly witty. Delivery is as much a matter of convincing acting as it is one of musical dexterity, and Palmertree definitely had the acting chops required by each set. Auden’s rhetoric tended towards irony; and Palmertree knew how to convey that the voice of the singer was intended as a target, rather than a subject. Bolcom, on the other hand, was more inclined to levity for its own sake; and Palmertree knew how to make the ongoing joke of “Amor” work without ever overplaying her hand. Humor with a bit of an edge was also evident in the opening selection, “Shy,” which was Carol Burnett’s first big solo number in the musical Once Upon a Mattress.

The earlier composers on the program were Hoagy Carmichael, Cole Porter, and Kurt Weill. Carmichael’s “Skylark” provided an excellent platform for the more affectionate side of Palmertree’s delivery. Both Porter and Weill, on the other hand, followed up on the more edgy selections she had programmed. Her delivery of Weill’s “The Saga of Jenny” (from Lady in the Dark) was particularly effective, playing up the repetition of the punch line while putting a unique twist on each iteration.

Most affectionate was Palmertree’s delivery of two songs by Jake Heggie setting texts by Frederica von Stade, both about mother-child relations. These were relatively lightweight from a musical point of view, but Palmertree used the narrative behind each song as an opportunity to work her acting chops to the max. (She also confessed to the audience that she had similar experiences as the mother of her own child.)

Taken as a whole, the entire program could not have gone down better. A full house in the “salon” room of the Hotel Rex listened to each number with rapt attention; and Palmertree had the chemistry to hold that attention for the entire recital. Naturally, that meant that an encore was in order. Her selection was Jeanine Tesori’s “The Girl in 14G.” Written for Kristin Chenoweth, this is a no-holds-barred satire of those who aspire to sing professionally; and Palmertree pulled off the gags with just the right self-effacing stance.

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