23 January 2013

Marnie Breckenridge at the Conservatory of Music

Last Saturday I was at the elegant concert hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music to hear an alumni recital featuring soprano Marnie Breckenridge (class of '96) and pianist Kristin Pankonin (class of '89). I've enjoyed Breckenridge before in several different roles with several local companies, and she is featured in Opera Parallele's upcoming production of Golijov's Ainadamar. The audience was obviously familiar with the performers and gave them prolonged and warm welcoming applause.

Breckenridge is a beautiful Hitchcock blonde and wore a peacock-blue sheath of Grecian pleats. She opened with two Strauss songs from the Brentano Lieder, giving us an ecstatic An die Nacht and a flirtatious Amor. The entire rest of the recital featured American composers (many living, and in the audience) and so it was in English, which was great; it's surprisingly rare for an American audience to hear a recital where they don't have to keep checking what the words mean. Nonetheless there was more program-rustling and, even more annoyingly, program-folding than there should have been; other than that the audience was fairly well-behaved, though there was one rude idiot who brought her dog. This is not the first time I've seen this happen, and I wish concert halls would crack down on admitting those annoying creatures (you can take that to refer to either the dogs or their owners).

I had thought that the entire recital was going to be built around the theme of a woman's emotional journey (like the recent Kate Royal recital), but officially that was only the second half. Well, that's what happens when you only skim concert announcements, but such skimming has lately been my wont, since after all these years of concert-going I like an evening to hold as many surprises as possible. After the Strauss lieder there were four songs by Henry Mollicone from Seven Songs, setting playful and meditative poems by Walter de la Mare, David McCord, and Emily Dickinson (twice). Breckenridge was very charming as de la Mare's melting snowflake. It's material well-suited to her voice, which is large and pure with an agreeably frosty sparkle to it. I had moved to a vacant seat in the front row, my row of choice, but I did sometimes wonder, given the size of the voice, if I should have stayed further back.

The first half ended with a moving rendition of Barber's Knoxville: Summer of 1915. I had coincidentally heard it with piano rather than orchestra for the first time that morning, as one of three versions on the last disc of the set Samuel Barber: Historical Recordings 1935-1960. I do miss in the piano version the flowing lilt given by the string instruments, but Pankonin really brought out the gentle moodiness and deeper uncertainty of the piece, which showed excellent control on her part since she was clearly close to tears at the end. I liked the very slightly astringent quality Breckenridge brought to the words, which emphasized the questioning and uncertainty of Agee's narrator ("but will not, oh, will not, not now, not ever; but will not ever tell me who I am"). It's very easy to get lost in the lushness of the piece and the picturesque word-painting otherwise.

After the intermission we had the woman's emotional journey, though truthfully the whole recital could have fit into that theme. As with Royal's recital, there were different groupings; this time it was Longing, Chaos, and Transcendence, which I thought were well-chosen categories. The first poem was Carl Sandburg's I Sang to You and the Moon, set in a longing and mournful style by Kurt Erickson, but all the other poets were women: Edna St Vincent Millay, Anne Sexton, Dorothy Parker, Emily Dickinson again (of course!), and Gini Savage. (There is, just to be accurate, a tiny scrap of Lewis Carroll amid the Dorothy Parker in David Garner's wistful and amusing Star Light, Star Bright.) All of the composers, though, were men. And all are local: in addition to Erickson and Garner, they were Jake Heggie, David Conte, and Gordon Getty. Not to belabor the comparisons with Royal, since both methods were rewarding, but in contrast to her more detailed, novelistic development, a sort of bildungsroman in song, Breckenridge's choices reflected more general states; I felt the moods in her categories could erupt into each other: a burst of transcendence during longing, for instance.

Chaos, not surprisingly, was represented by Anne Sexton (Her Kind and Ringing the Bells), though she also appeared in Longing (Us). I've occasionally dipped into Sexton the past few years, and I am not sure her work is aging well. It definitely suffers when paired with the acerbic wit and crystalline skill of Dickinson, who can turn a feather duster into a query into the existence of God. But Conte's Sexton settings (from Sexton Songs) brought out the best in the poems; I found them much more convincing when sung than when I read them beforehand in the program. I particularly liked Ringing the Bells, which uses sort of a "this is the house that Jack built" rhythm to describe a handbell chorus in a mental asylum for women. Breckenridge brought out the emotional turmoil just below the narrator's deadened surface.

The only other music by Getty that I've heard was a section of Plump Jack performed at a Merola Concert several years ago. It was based on the "we have heard the chimes at midnight" scene of Henry IV part 2, and I did not like it at all. There are subtle quicksilver emotions throughout that scene, and I thought the music flattened out all of them. But I very much liked the Dickinson songs from his White Election, The going from a world we know and, particularly, Beauty crowds me. Not surprisingly Heggie's songs had the richest and most sensuous settings; under Longing we had his setting of St Vincent Millay's generous Not in a silver casket; Transcendence and the formal program ended with his setting of Joy Alone (Connection) by Gini Savage; the ecstatic thrill of voice, piano, and setting more than made up for what I felt were fairly uninteresting words. Then there was much applause and the handing up of several beautiful bouquets to both women and then there were two encores: a return to Barber and Agee for Sure on this shining night and a setting of Dickinson's If I can stop one heart from breaking, / I shall not live in vain, which I think is, however touching and true its sentiment, not one of her greater aesthetic successes. I'm afraid I don't know who did the setting, which I liked.

I very much enjoyed both Royal's and Breckenridge's different approaches, both of them rich and deeply personal, to portraying a woman's emotional life. It's a great way to use the intimacy of the recital form. And I hope some baritone or tenor will now feel inspired to create a similar program exploring the emotional journey of men.

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