Last night in Herbst Theatre, Chamber Music San Francisco (CMSF) presented the second concert in its 2018 season. The featured artist was tenor Michael Schade, for whom the visit was somewhat of a homecoming, since he is an alumnus of the Merola Opera Program from the summer of 1990. He was joined by violinist Livia Sohn, as well as pianist Kevin Murphy, in the presentation of an evening that had some of the flavor of a Schubertiade.
However, if Schade’s intention had been to reflect on the past, his focus was directed about one hundred, rather than two hundred, years ago. He prepared a program intended to reflect on past performances by the Irish tenor John McCormack and the Austrian violinist Fritz Kreisler, “channeled,” for the occasion, by Schade and Sohn, respectively. This was a time when listening habits had not yet been dominated by the recording industry. Nevertheless, it was an age of ticket-buying customers, in contrast to the intimate gathering of friends that would constitute of Schubertiade; and both McCormack and Kreisler were some of the “hottest items” at the box office.
John McCormack singing to an audience of over 5,000 at the Hippodrome in New York during the 1915–16 season (from Wikimedia Commons, public domain)
Mind you, both McCormack and Kreisler made recordings; and they both benefited from the wider audiences that recordings afforded. Nevertheless, they were both performers for whom making music took place before an audience, rather than in a studio in front of a microphone. I am no expert on McCormack’s repertoire; but it would probably be fair to say that Schade’s selection of arias and art songs by George Frederic Handel, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Franz Schubert, and Richard Strauss, along with a few traditional selections, provided a fair representation. On the Kreisler side, Sohn played three of his arrangements but none of his original compositions. She also presented arrangements by Jenő Hubay, Jascha Heifetz, Leopold Auer, and David Loeb. Curiously, almost all of her selections involved operatic music.
Between the two of them, Schade was the one who better captured the spirit of the occasion. He consistently showed as much respect for the texts being set as for the composers setting them. He also selected an excellent choice of offerings, in all of which the music captured and reinforced the semantic and rhetorical spirits of the text, rather than simply and slavishly trying to follow some strophic pattern. These were poetic offerings that made the poetry worth reading as part of the listening experience.
Sohn’s performances were more problematic. Her intonation never seemed to align with Murphy’s piano, and things were no better when she was performing with Schade. Given the context of the program, she had to confront the demands of a generous number of virtuoso challenges; and she knew how to rise to those challenges without suggesting that she was concerned about overcoming them. Nevertheless, she never revealed any of that sense of rhetoric that Schade conveyed so well, even though, as readers of this site probably know by now, rhetoric is as significant a factor in instrumental music as it is in settings of text.
As a result, by the time the program had concluded, one sensed that any effort to revive a century-old spirit had never been able to rise above the level of mild entertainment, after which no particular moments were left resonating in memory.