Last night vocalist and composer Theo Bleckmann returned to Herbst Theatre to launch this season’s series of PIVOT Festival concerts presented by San Francisco Performances. Bleckmann made his SFP debut during the PIVOT Festival held at the end of January of 2020, less than two months before the onset of lockdown conditions. At that time he presented a program of poems by Bertolt Brecht set to music by Hanns Eisler and Kurt Weill. Some readers may recall that I was not particularly taken with Bleckmann’s approaches to these composers, and I accused him of blunting Brecht’s sharp edges.
Last night’s program was “something completely different.” Almost all of the selections were Bleckmann’s own compositions, and his arrangements of the others were more compelling. The title of the program was Elegy, which was also the title of one of his songs. He described that song as speaking to “a yearning for those I have lost.” Indeed, the entire program seems to have been colored by retrospective impressions of the COVID-19 pandemic, which no one saw coming in January of 2020.
The instrumental accompaniment for the Elegy program was provided by a basic jazz quartet. The performers were Shai Maestro on piano, Ben Monder on guitar, Chris Tordini on bass, and John Hollenbeck on drums. Bleckmann’s microphone provided input to a small table’s worth of electronic gear. Many of his songs were wordless, devoted entirely to electronic transformations of a diversity of vocalizing techniques. Only three of the selections drew upon the music of other composers: Henry Purcell (“Dido’s Lament” from his opera Dido and Aeneas), Johann Sebastian Bach (two cantatas, BWV 56 and BWV 82), and Stephen Sondheim (“Comedy Tonight” from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum).
The entire program was performed without an intermission. While each song had its own unique qualities, there was very much a sense of Bleckmann weaving these selections from his repertoire into a unified fabric. He was also more than generous in sharing the spotlight with his instrumentalists. Monder’s guitar work frequently provided intense reflections of the emotional dispositions behind Bleckmann’s singing. Tordini found just the right mix of plucking and bowing to establish the “ground bass” for each of the songs. For the most part Hollenbeck provided the rhythmic foundations from the background. However, when Bleckmann introduced his solo work, Hollenbeck mined a rich diversity of sonorities from his extended drum kit.
I have to say that I was initially skeptical about Bleckmann taking on “Dido’s Lament.” Nahum Tate’s words are the last uttered by the Queen of Carthage after she has been abandoned by Aeneas. However, the “lament trope” of stepwise descent in the bass line is more universal than any specific narrative setting. Bleckmann clearly captured that universality, escalating the performance above the confines of any specific narrative. Nevertheless, narrative was implicit in his accounts, as it was with all of his other selections, including those that involved nothing more than abstract vocalization.