Sunday, May 18, 2008

A New Voice in San Francisco

I spent the better part of the day at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, since a Graduate Piano Recital at 11 AM was followed by a San Francisco Performances event for which I had purchased tickets at the beginning of the season. This latter performance was the final event in their "Young Masters Series," consisting of the San Francisco debut recital of mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard. Ms. Leonard certainly deserves to be called a "young master," since she has already made her Metropolitan Opera debut (as Stéphano in Charles Gounod's Roméo et Juliette) and has sung Zerlina in the Chicago Opera Theater production of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's Don Giovanni and will sing Cherubino this summer in the new Santa Fe Opera production of Le Nozze di Figaro. Nevertheless, the circumstances of her schedule make her new to San Francisco.

Her selection for a program was particularly interesting. For one thing all the selections fit within the span of a single century, although that century happened to begin in 1890. For another it was refreshingly polyglot, with songs in Spanish (Joaquin Nin and Manuel de Falla), German (Hugo Wolf and Arnold Schoenberg), French (Reynaldo Hahn), Russian (Serge Rachmaninoff), and English (Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, George Gershwin, Meredith Wilson, and Richard Rodgers). I tend to be skeptical about opera singers venturing into both cabaret songs and show tunes. However, Leonard did both (Schoenberg providing the cabaret repertoire) and pulled it off more than effectively, first by recognizing that these songs were not the same as the other "art songs" on the program and second by endowing her performance with a level of theatrical smarts that was neither too much nor too little.

Since some of that skepticism came from my recently recorded impressions of Heidi Melton's Schwabacher Debut Recital last month, I should also observe that Leonard did not have that problem of scale that had frustrated me at the Melton recital. The Concert Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music is on a scale comparable to the Temple Emanu-El auditorium (the site of Melton's recital); but Leonard had a good sense for how to project into this space without overwhelming it with an intensity intended for a full-sized opera house. Indeed, she was so good at maintaining a proper level of energy that she had enough strength at the end of the recital to give three encores, two of which featured music that she had prepared for Roméo et Juliette and Don Giovanni. Those theatrical smarts also cultivated a well-understood sense of the diversity of the program she had prepared, which made for a much broader sense of variety than I had experienced at the Melton recital.

When programs are so diverse, I tend to dwell, as I did in writing about Melton, on those selections that are personal "old favorites" (usually associated with memories of first hearing them at recitals during my concert-going days in Manhattan). The "old favorites" that Leonard offered to me were six selections from Wolf's Italienisches Liederbuch (which I had the joy of hearing performed in its entirety at one 92nd Street Y recital) and Falla's Siete canciones populares españolas (for which, at the latest count, I have two recordings). Leonard had an excellent feel for the Falla songs, which are definitely "art songs" rather than "popular songs," that feel being one of an almost impetuous spontaneity. There was less of that variety in the Wolf selection, but she still endowed each song with a distinctive personality. These "old favorites" helped whet my appetite for the works that were unfamiliar to me and left me hoping that Leonard will be returning to San Francisco for further performances in recital, with the San Francisco Opera, or with the San Francisco Symphony.

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