Last Saturday I was at the first concert of BluePrint’s season. BluePrint, the new music ensemble at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, is headed up by ever-chic and adventurous Nicole Paiement, who also directs Ensemble Parallele; this very enjoyable concert offered (among other things) a preview of their February 2012 chamber-opera version of Harbison’s Great Gatsby. I was given a ticket to this concert, so thanks to whoever thought to include me. The box office was very nice about letting me switch the seat to one I preferred.
First up was another Harbison piece, North and South, a setting of six poems by Elizabeth Bishop (some of the poems were ones Bishop did not publish in her lifetime). On Saturday it seemed to me that I had lost whatever vague count of the songs I was keeping, but I see in the program that indeed the last song is not listed and was apparently dropped. I had heard the piece a few times in the recording by Lorraine Hunt Lieberson (to whom the first three songs are dedicated; the second three are dedicated to Janice Felty). This was my first time hearing the piece live.
Julienne Walker, a tall, striking mezzo with short dark hair wearing a black ‘20’s style dress, was our soloist. She started off by dedicating her performance to her mother, who was in the audience, which was pretty disarming, not that her very fine performance needed the audience to disarm. Her diction was perfectly clear; I could make out every word of the poems without reference to the program. The first song in each half of the piece is from Bishop’s “Songs for a Colored Singer,” which she wrote thinking of Billie Holiday. These are by no means minstrel pieces, but when they’re sung as opposed to read on the page they do bring up the dicey question of how far a singer should go in imitating a “black” sound. Harbison’s music for those pieces doesn’t sound like a blues song, but the blues are clearly in evidence. On the recording Hunt Lieberson goes farther than Walker did in performance; each choice is defensible. Hunt Lieberson was, to say the least, a naturally soulful singer, and that keeps her performance from caricature; Walker sang them in a way more in line with how she sang the rest of the set, and I thought it worked very well. Her mother must have been proud.
That was followed by Kurt Rohde’s Concertino for Solo Violin and Small Ensemble, which is from last year, about twenty minutes long, and in three movements; Axel Strauss was the violin soloist. The words that occurred to me were charmingly mysterioso – charming not just in the sense of delightful but in the sense of putting us under a spell; in his program note Rohde describes it as “intricate,” which is an apt word, as if it were a very elaborately patterned knot garden, which means it wouldn’t wear out after a few listens but keep growing.
After the intermission we had Erwin Schulhoff’s Concerto for Piano and Small Orchestra, Op. 43, which seemed quite glittery and abrupt but honestly though I enjoyed the piece I’m not sure I have anything to say about it since my mind was kind of zapping around as is its occasionally overstimulated sometime wont and I found myself going in and out of the moment – no reflection on the performance by the ensemble or soloist Keisuke Nakagoshi. These things happen, especially right after intermissions. Ah, poor Schulhoff! It was your moment, but I failed to pull myself into the moment.
The final piece was an excerpt from The Great Gatsby, in the new chamber orchestration by Jacques Desjardins: the quarrel between Myrtle (Erin Neff) and Wilson (Bojan Knezevic) that leads up to her death. (Interestingly, Myrtle was the role sung by Lorraine Hunt Lieberson in the original production, so both vocal pieces on the program were ones written for the late mezzo.) It was very dramatic and exciting (and well sung), and the orchestration sounded rich and vivid and you don’t really need me to tell you to buy a ticket to this, do you?
The next BluePrint concert is November 19 and features the work of Parisian composer Philippe Hersant, who will be there in person. I am planning on being there in person as well.