Toni Marie Palmertree (courtesy of San Francisco Opera)
Last night in the Taube Atrium Theatre of the Diane B. Wilsey Center for Opera, the third of the four programs in the 35th anniversary season of the Schwabacher Recital Series was a solo recital by former San Francisco Opera Adler Fellow and alumna of the 2015 Merola Opera Program Toni Marie Palmertree. This past November Palmertree demonstrated to those fortunate enough to have attended her Salon series concert for San Francisco Performances (SFP) that she was as comfortable in a recital setting as she was on the opera stage. Indeed, she displayed a taste for departing from familiar paths to explore more adventurous domains of repertoire.
For last night’s recital, Palmertree returned to a composer-author pairing that had been a high point of her Salon performance, Benjamin Britten setting poems by W. H. Auden. For her Salon program, appropriately enough, she sang three of the four poems from Cabaret Songs. Last night she turned to On this island, which was Britten’s first song cycle for voice and piano.
Auden tends to be a poet of elegant opacity, more talked about than read. Britten selected five poems from a collection whose typescript title was simply Thirty-One Poems. Auden’s publisher, Faber & Faber, wanted him to provide a more engaging title but could not reach Auden while he was traveling in Iceland. So the poems were published under the title Look, Stranger! without his permission. Because Auden disliked the title, he asked Random House to call the American edition of the book On This Island.
Does it matter that we have no idea what island Auden had in mind? Not really. The five poems in Britten’s set (from which Palmertree selected four) each have a distinctively individual voice. Each of those voices tends to be elegantly convoluted, each an example of that aforementioned opacity. Leonard Bernstein even admitted that his “The Age of Anxiety” symphony never took in much more than the title and the general plan of Auden’s poem of the same name. Britten, on the other hand, had a keener sense of using music not only to establish the context of each poem but also to provide a vocal line that would negotiate some of the more peculiar twists and turns of the content.
By the time the listener has come to the final song in On this island, (s)he has become familiarized with Auden’s way with words and Britten’s way with Auden. The reward for that endurance is a setting of “As it is, plenty” that bops along with a jaunty pop rhetoric that one seldom encounters in Britten. Auden’s words for this poem were clearly playful, but Britten turns them into an almost raucous romp. Palmertree could not have been more comfortable with this “surprise ending,” just as she had been in following the path of the more serious poems leading up to this conclusion; and that journey through different spirits was perfectly matched by her accompanist, pianist Mark Morash.
The remainder of the program was just as adventurous with a series of selections one rarely encounters in recitals. Morash even went as far as to provide a bit of background about Federico Mompou, although similar preparations probably would have helped for Charles Tomlinson Griffes, Fernando Obradors, and John McCabe. Even the selection by Claude Debussy ventured down a rarely-traversed path; and Morash made it a point to observe that he was setting his own texts.
Nevertheless, each of Palmertree’s selections had its own cache of features to be treasured. The Debussy selection was a set of four songs entitled Prose lyriques; and, while each of them looked like a poem on the printed page, it did not take long to realize that these were prose sentences with line-breaks appropriately inserted. As with the Britten set, each text had its own distinctive mood; and some of Debussy’s turns of phrase with the words were as convoluted as Auden’s. Yet Palmertree’s delivery consistently guided the listener through all of the text’s twists and turns, turning unfamiliar music by a familiar composer into an engaging journey of discovery.
Mompou’s Combat del somni (dream combat) may have been the first time many of us had to follow texts in Catalan, three poems by Josep Janés. Palmertree seemed perfectly comfortable with negotiating Janés’ texts, as well as the dark perspective on dreams established by both poet and composer. The same could be said of her approach to the Spanish texts set by Obradors, whose musical rhetorical drew upon more familiar Spanish tropes.
The remaining selections on the program were trio performances with the participation of clarinetist Jose Gonzalez Granero. Griffes’ Opus 11 setting of three poems by Fiona MacLeod (the pen name of William Sharp) was originally written for voice and piano and then orchestrated. A single clarinet could not make up for full orchestral textures, but Granero’s clarinet work enhanced the Scottish rhetoric behind the texts Griffes had set. The same could be said for the folk-like qualities of the three folk songs set by McCabe.
As if the perspectives of her recital were not already expansive enough, Palmertree turned to Cole Porter for her encore. She had sung Porter (as well as Hoagy Carmichael and Kurt Weill) at her SFP Salon. This time she sang “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye.” As is necessary in delivering a Porter song, she made every word count, reminding all in the audience of just how much artistry Porter could put into a song that seems to straightforward on the surface.