Saturday, January 25, 2020

Chordless Brings a Full Recital to Old First Concerts

Allegra Chapman at an “alternative keyboard” with Sara LeMesh (from the Old First Concerts event page)

Readers may recall that my highest priority during SF Music Day this past October was to listen to the performance by the Chordless duo of soprano Sara LeMesh and pianist Allegra Chapman. Last night at Old First Presbyterian Church the latest Old First Concerts program provided me with my first opportunity to hear the duo give a full-evening recital, and the occasion was definitely a rewarding one. With one minor exception I was able to revisit all of the selections I had experienced in October, embedded this time in an overall repertoire of even wider scope.

The program was presented without intermission but in three distinct sections separated by short pauses. The opening section consisted entirely of music previously performed on SF Music Day. It began with the original version of Igor Stravinsky’s “Pastorale,” scored as a vocalise. LeMesh’s command of the diversity of phonemes resulted in rhetorical colors the likes of which were never equaled in any of Stravinsky’s instrumental revisions of this composition. Her vocalise skills then extended into two of the movements from the five vocalises that Andrzej Panufnik collected under the title “Hommage à Chopin.” My guess is that Panufnik’s evocation of Frédéric Chopin was deliberately prankish, and some of that prankishness could be found in LeMesh’s phrasing and bodily comportment.

There followed settings of Polish texts by two Polish composers. The first of these was Tadeusz Baird with the “Song of cherries” from his 1953 Lyric Suite, originally composed for soprano and orchestra, setting poems by Julian Tuwim. LeMesh then presented two witty songs by Grażyna Bacewicz, which she composed relatively late in her career. She provided the words for the first of these, “Boli mnie głowa” (I have a headache); and the second, “Sroczka” (little magpie), was a setting of a traditional Polish verse. Without the slightest knowledge of the Polish language, I still felt that I could appreciate the lighter qualities of these pieces; and LeMesh showed no signs of struggling with any of the phonemes and lexemes.

The second section shifted into the English language through two highly contrasting composers. The primary selection was three of Aaron Copland’s settings of twelve poems of Emily Dickinson, “There came a wind like a bugle,” “Heart we will forget him,” and “Going to heaven!” Copland’s entire collection remains a “gold standard” for the setting of texts in the English language; and both the semantics and the rhetoric of Dickinson’s poems are so overwhelming that they practically defy being sung. Nevertheless, Copland never showed any signs of being overwhelmed and instead made his setting of American poetry a tough act to follow. LeMesh gave a memorable account, convincing the attentive listener that she was as aware of what Dickinson was trying to say as she was of how Copland accounted for how she said it.

Henry Purcell made for a fascinating “overture” to Copland’s settings. Many of his efforts went into setting the texts of his contemporary seventeenth-century English poets. I always welcome opportunities to listen to Purcell in performance because they arise so seldom. Nevertheless, I do not always respond well to some of the poems he set; and, among the authors of those texts, John Dryden tends to be the one that sends me climbing up the wall. When the text for “Music for a while” ventures into:
Till the snakes drop [this word is repeated more times than I can enumerate] from her head,
And the whip from out her hands.
I find it very difficult to suppress a fit of the giggles. Fortunately, LeMesh delivered an account sufficiently sensitive to Purcell’s musical language that I could put the text on a back burner!

On the other hand, the “overture” to Purcell, in the form of two soprano duets by Barbara Strozzi, was not to be missed. LeMesh was joined by Kate McKinney to prove to music lovers that there is no such thing as too much of Strozzi’s music. She was given a delightful account by Voices of Music this past October; and I have to say that three months has been the shortest interval of separation between Strozzi performances that I have experienced. There was also particular pleasure in being refreshed by Strozzi’s duo vocal passages after such a diversity of solo vocal selections in the Polish language.

The final set began with the world premiere of “Earliest Memory” by Benjamin Pesetsky, known best in the Bay Area as a member of both the Guerrilla Composers Guild and the Phonochrome Collective. The music was so fresh that the accompanying text sheet for the recital did not include the words, making this “first contact” experience a bit of a struggle. Far more compelling was LeMesh’s account of Henry Cowell’s “Spring Comes Singing,” for which the composer clearly knew how to make the words understandable. The program then concluded with four of George Crumb’s settings of poems by Walt Whitman in his Apparition collection. This was a case in which the text sheet was handy, although watching Chapman’s solid command of all the extended techniques on the inside of her piano was often more engaging than Crumb’s approach to the texts.

The encore selection was a Polish pop song making it clear that LeMesh could establish a strong sense of rhetoric even when the listeners had no idea what the words were saying.

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