Just before intermission of Sunday’s Lieder Alive! program at the Noe Valley Ministry, German composer Anno Schreier joined the organization’s composer-in-residence, Kurt Erickson, for a short conversation about the Schreier piece that would open the second half of the bill.
Erickson led off by asking his comrade about the formidable German lieder tradition. “That can be a problem,” allowed Schreier, addressing the anxiety of influence. But turning away from the past entirely wasn’t an option for him either, he added. What he aimed to do in his Fünf Lieder was set the contemporary poetry of Nora Bossong in a way that “used the elements of tradition to create something new.”
Talking about a piece is one thing. The proof can only come in hearing it. The North American premiere of these five songs for mezzo-soprano and piano affirmed the composer’s intentions in clear, witty, and largely engaging musical terms.
From the outset, with the broken rolling chords that set “Ganymede” flowing on a sparkling Schubertian stream, Schreier’s allusions to and inventive appropriations of his artistic forebears kept coming. The dramatically spaced chord clusters and yearning melody of “Auszug” (Excerpt) brought Mahler to mind. Later, as if to suggest that German isn’t the only taproot for a German composer, “December Trip” had a Debussy-like sheen, both in its meandering lyricism and shimmering, slightly modal accompaniment.
In mezzo-soprano Kinda Scharich and pianist John Parr, Schreier had accomplished and inspired interpreters for this beguiling work. Attentive to every detail without seeming fussy about it, the two performers found a natural accord with the songs’ forthright and heartfelt emotion and humor. Scharich shifted from murmurous intensity to lilting playfulness to assertive drama along the way. “Names,” set over piano tremolos that captured Bossong’s image of hillsides in spring as a watery illusion, brought out a probing but still lissome character in Scharich’s voice.
Parr partnered both sensitively and decisively throughout. Schreier gives the keyboard some telling moments, all of which Parr delivered.
Keenly attuned to the poet’s “music,” as he called it in conversation, Schreier responded to the verse in openly direct ways at times. The skittering arpeggiated opening of “Outside of Town,” for example, tracked the “Lights whirling fast” that start the poem. (The translations were by Dominic Carcione.)
But Schreier’s songs proved to be much more than musical illustrations. As “Town” moved toward metaphysical abstraction, the vocal line took on an eerie angular aspect. “December Trip,” the final piece in the cycle, seemed bound for a certain static, filtered dreaminess (“The windows are lit so feebly that I/can’t imagine what lies behind them”), only to abandon its turgidity and swerve toward something hotter and more urgent at the end.
Whatever uneasiness he might feel about the shadows of Schubert, Schumann (his personal favorite), Mahler, Wolf et al., Schreier is more than ready to stand in his own light.
Art songs by Beethoven and Schubert bracketed the Schreier premiere. Performed without a break between songs, Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte (To the distant beloved) made a colorful and varied impression.
Among the other virtues of her singing — which include a lustrous, amber tone and exquisite German diction — Scharich knows how to tell a story and strike a mood. In the strophic “Light Veils in the Heights” she evinced a winning, spontaneous exuberance. “Take, then, these songs” moved from caressing wistfulness to a propulsive climax. Even though she sang the entire program from behind a music stand, tuning pages of the scores, Scharich made a strong connection with the audience. Wearing her hair down before intermission and pinned up after, she used her dark eyes and choice vocal gestures to punctuate her vocal command.
Schubert lieder, addictive to this listener under almost any circumstances, were adroitly done while lacking a certain measure of poetic justice to the material. Scharich and Parr kept finding the key moments — a suddenly darkened shift to a minor key, the aching hopefulness of “I Greet You,” the mellowed resignation that hovers everywhere in Schubert. But by the time she reached the final, famous “Night and Dreams,” Scharich may not have had the resources left to plumb its glowing, dark depths.
The demanding, rewarding late-afternoon ended with a Wagner encore, “Traumë” (Dreams) from the Wesendonck Lieder. In a final gracious gesture, Scharich offered it as a gift to those who hadn’t attended Götterdämmerung at the Opera House on Sunday but chose a lieder recital instead.