14 January 2013

Kate Royal gives a lesson in love

Several Saturdays ago I headed down to Herbst Theater to hear Kate Royal in recital with Malcolm Martineau, presented by San Francisco Performances. The concert had been rescheduled from last season (or the season before? time does get away. . . ) when Royal had to cancel her tour (someone told me later that it was because she had learned she was pregnant). Shortly after the cancellation we ticket-holders received, courtesy of Ms. Royal and EMI, an apologetic note and a copy of A Lesson in Love, the CD recording of the program she had been scheduled to sing. I thought this was not only a clever way of whetting our appetite for her return, but a lovely and gracious gesture, but then lovely and gracious are adjectives that tend to attach themselves to Royal.

Royal arranged the program in four section that are meant to chart the emotional progress of a woman's life: from Waiting to The Meeting to The Wedding to Betrayal. I can see several reasons why a contemporary singer would not want to end such an arc at the wedding, but even so I found it kind of amusing that the inevitable end is Betrayal. Well, as they say, it's funny because it's true, I guess. The program begins and ends with Bolcom's Waitin', though after the emotional journey of the evening the effect is not so much of circling back to the beginning as of launching a new and deeper cycle.

The songs come from a wide variety of composers, some familiar to recital aficionados and some less so (in addition to Bolcom there was Schumann, Wolf, Liszt, Debussy, Schubert, Tosti, Canteloube, Copland, Beach, Ravel, Faure, Richard Strauss, Duparc, Brahms, Britten, Sibelius, Hahn, and Herbert Hughes), and they are in a variety of languages (mostly English, French, and German). This may sound like a hodgepodge but it all flowed smoothly, with a beautiful emotional logic. Within the four main groups each song delineates a subtly separate emotion. In the first group, after Waitin'. there's Schumann's Jemand (Someone) in which the girl is awake, dreaming of someone she loves; he is distant and possibly unaware of her existence, but she is devoted to him and asks Heaven to protect him - it's a very spiritual, emotional kind of love. That is followed by Wolf's Die Kleine (The little girl), in which she starts off with a sort of fairy-tale description to her mother of three young huntsmen on three shining steeds, then she moves closer to home, saying that when Father returns he and Mother can kiss, but she has no one to kiss, but when she's a woman she will have, and she'll kiss all night long - so this song transitions from a more purely emotional and even childlike view of love towards physical longing. Then this set closes with Liszt's Es muss ein Wunderbares sein (There must be something wonderful), in which the girl (sounding more mature now, combining the spiritual and emotional with the physical) longs to be absorbed in a love that will last through to death. The same care was taken in arranging the other sections.

In the Meeting section, Wolf's Erstes Liebeslied eines Madchens (A maiden's first love song) made some in the audience laugh, for reasons that sort of escaped me. I say "sort of" because - well, first let me explain about the song. A young fisher girl checks her net and she has caught either a tasty eel or a dangerous snake, which wriggles in her hands and twists to her breast and bites her and "blissfully burrowing . . . will be the end" of her. So I assume the audience members who laughed were responding to the obvious phallic symbolism. But the song is really - and I think this is also obvious - about the panic, excitement, and fear of a girl both aching for love and fearful of what it will do to her, tangled emotions that Royal conveyed in a very convincing manner. This doesn't strike me as a particularly comic emotion, but maybe some people are more amused by young people's panic and confusion than I am. Maybe they don't remember what it's like. Moments like that are why I frequently feel bemused by my fellow audience members.

The song after that, Schubert's Gretchen am Spinnrade (Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel), was the most haunting version I've ever heard. I had it going through my head for days afterwards: the subtle emphasis she put on words like nimmermehr ("never"), the slowly building sense of desperation, the hypnotic rhythms of Martineau's piano. To me it was the high point of a moving recital. I only wish there had been surtitles instead of the printed programs; the immediacy of surtitles would have helped a lot given the variety of languages and the specificity of each song's emotional content. The encore was a limpid Danny Boy, and there may be those who can resist that song, but I am not among them.

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