January 19, 2013
Marnie Breckenridge's Poetic Journey
If soprano Marnie Breckenridge were ever to question whether she is loved, she need only recall the grand affirmation she received at her San Francisco Conservatory of Music Alumni Recital. At the start of the evening with a fellow SFCOM graduate, pianist Kristin Pankonin (Class of ’89), the Class of ’96’s initial entry onto the stage of Hume Concert Hall, not to mention the conclusion of virtually every set, was accompanied by an almost embarrassing echt hometown barrage of cheers, whoops, hollers, and applause.
It was a lovely greeting for a soprano whose golden looks complemented the golden top of her very special voice. Outfitted in a rich-blue dress and sparkling jewelry seemingly made to order for her beautiful face and perfect figure, Breckenridge launched a program whose first songs, “An die Nacht” (To the night) and “Amor” (Love) from Richard Strauss’ Brentano Lieder (1918), were both the oldest compositions on the program and the only ones in a language other than English. From there, it was to songs by the Bay Area’s Henry Mollicone, Kurt Erickson, Jake Heggie, David Conte, David Garner, and Gordon Getty, with only the longest work on the program, Samuel Barber’s great Knoxville: Summer of 1915, penned by a composer who did not make his home near the Golden Gate.
If the recital was not an unqualified success, it nonetheless affirmed the gratifying purity and often-shimmering beauty of Breckenridge’s notably strong yet youthful and vulnerable top, as well as the deep sincerity of her portrayals. The tears that accompanied her two encores, Barber’s exquisite “Sure on this shining night” and Heggie’s “I will not have lived in vain” (to a poem by Emily Dickinson), were real. No wonder so many people love her.
From my initial seat in the center of row N, the hall’s imperfect acoustics failed to complement the two women’s artistry. Although the top of Breckenridge’s voice was a joy, even if the initial attack was not always 100 percent solid, her midrange and bottom were characterized by an incongruous whirring sound caused by a surfeit of undertones. In Mollicone’s setting of Walter de la Mare’s “The Snowflake,” for example, it was hard to reconcile the almost troubled whirring of the midrange with the innocent, childlike top that seemed ideal for a sweet little song. Breckenridge’s sound was equally unconvincing in Mollicone’s setting of Emily Dickinson’s “I never saw a moor” and Barber’s aforementioned masterpiece.
The recital … affirmed the gratifying purity and often-shimmering beauty of Breckenridge’s top.
Nor did Pankonin’s half-opened piano fulfill Barber’s intentions. For audience members accustomed to the orchestra’s vital role in Knoxville, a piano with colors choked off failed to differentiate the transition from lazy pastorale and childlike naiveté to discordant street scene and troubled heart. Why, in an institution where the great lieder specialist Elly Ameling once told participants in her master class, “Open the piano wide so it can sing; the audience will be able to hear you!,” does an artist with a voice as substantial as Breckenridge’s insist on keeping the piano half shuttered?
Also questionable was the rather assertive role Pankonin took during curtain calls. Did she need to bow as though the recital was as much about her as Breckenridge, and even take the lead, to the point of directing Breckenridge, in acknowledging the composers who were present?
Thankfully, after moving significantly closer to the stage after intermission, I discovered that the “whirring” was an auditory anomaly of one of the Bay Area’s many imperfect concert acoustics. The beautiful shine on Breckenridge’s voice came through, the whirring subsided, and her vocal production seemed all of a piece. Attendees at future SFCOM recitals would be wise to sit in the first eight or nine rows.
Breckenridge opened her heart fully, and let the beauty of her soul and voice shine forth.
As sincerely and beautifully as Breckenridge sang, some of her interpretations were marked by two recurring problems: a failure to maintain the energy of a song when the vocal line paused, midsentence, to allow the piano to add expression; and a curious refusal to end a song with finality. Mollicone’s setting of Dickinson’s “If you were coming in the Fall,” for example, ends with the words “its sting”; Breckenridge dispensed this punch line of sorts without requisite weight. Similarly, at the endings of Heggie’s settings of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Not in a silver casket” and Gini Savage’s “Joy Alone (Connection),” Garner’s “Star Light, Star Bright,” and Getty’s setting of Dickinson’s “The going from a world we know,” Breckenridge left us hanging.
In other songs, she was nigh-perfect. Even if not all her phrasing in “Amor” held together, the joy with which she breezed through its high tessitura and near-impossible coloratura screamed “Sing Zerbinetta!” Her restrained gestures in Mollicone’s “The Front Pane” were as cute as could be, and her renditions of several of Conte’s wonderful, must-hear Sexton Songs, which she will record, were ideal. She was also made-to-order for two of Getty’s marvelously simple and utterly satisfying Dickinson songs from The White Election.
The final bouquet came with the two perfect, and perfectly touching, encores: Barber’s setting of James Agee’s “Sure on this shining night,” and yet another Dickinson song, Heggie’s “I will not have lived in vain.” In this cap to a musical and poetic journey that explored a woman’s emotional landscape, Breckenridge opened her heart fully, and let the beauty of her soul and voice shine forth.
Jason Victor Serinus is a professional whistler and lecturer on opera and vocal recordings. He is editor of Psychoimmunity and the Healing Process: A Holistic Approach to Immunity & AIDS, and he has written about music for Opera News, Opera Now, American Record Guide, Stereophile, Carnegie Hall Playbill, Gramophone, AudioStream, San Francisco Magazine, Stanford Live, Bay Area Reporter, and other publications.
Recent CD Reviews
Gardiner: Bach Cantatas
John Wilson Orchestra: Rodgers & Hammerstein at the Movies
Gordon Getty: Piano Pieces
Emanuel Ax: Variations