June 13, 2013
Lieder Springs Alive
“Could this possibly be the liederabend?” I thought, peering through the very large windows at Salle Pianos’ Market Street location. With all these people milling about, many in casual dress, chatting away with wine glasses in their hands, I wondered if it was a preconcert donor reception, or an art opening in another part of the store.
Welcome to the world of Maxine Bernstein’s Lieder Alive!, held since the start of 2010 in the work-in-progress Music Salon at Salle Pianos. If there is a more refreshing setting for a lieder recital in the Bay Area, let alone a less stuffy, more respectful audience composed of people of all ages, please point me to it. On this night, not only did proprietor and co-host, Tibor Szabo, appear in modified chef’s attire as he helped serve wine beforehand and during intermission, but he also spiced up the break with Hungarian goulash.
As the liederabend was set to begin, Szabo stepped to the front. Without introducing himself by name, as though addressing old friends, he invited people to make themselves at home. He also excused the delay, caused by the need to set up many rows of extra chairs, with the words, “We weren’t expecting so many people.”
At last, the recital’s raison d‘être, the artists, entered to hoots, hollers, and applause. The evening of songs, curiously entitled “Songs of Voice and Viola,” revolved around the talents of mezzo-soprano Kindra Scharich, violist Paul Yarbrough (of the Alexander String Quartet), and pianist John Parr (former head of music staff at San Francisco Opera).
It wasn’t just the extra-concert atmosphere, or the welcome casual dress of Yarbrough and Parr, that made the recital unusual. Not only were the songs for the infrequently encountered combination of voice, viola, and piano, but the second half also began, not with vocal music or a short instrumental interlude, but with an instrumental work of substantial length, Brahms’ gorgeous three-movement Viola Sonata No. 2 in E-flat.
Nor was the acoustic anything one might expect … or wish for. With what looked to be 15 foot-high glass windows mostly un-curtained, wood floors bare, metal folding chairs, and virtually all plaster walls unadorned, the space was alive as could be. Even from the third row, the piano Szabo chose for the evening, a big blond Bechstein whose lid was open wide, sounded assaultive when Parr got going. Nor did the fact that the piano lacked the midrange warmth and resonant bottom that could have balanced its assertive top help matters.
The Bechstein certainly assaulted Scharich’s exceptionally fine, smooth voice in the first half of the program. It was bad enough that the acoustic rendered her sound unfocused in louder passages. But when Scharich also had to contend with both Parr and Yarbrough going full tilt, the results were less musical than noisy.
The High Point
The artists seemed to have adjusted somewhat to the acoustic by the second half. Yarbrough and Parr balanced well in the viola sonata, and Yarbrough’s tone was at its best when playing full out.
Thankfully, neither musician tried to outdo Scharich in the high point of the evening, Brahms Two Songs for Alto, Viola, and Piano, Op. 91. Both Scharich and Yarbrough opened up the rich center of their voices, to wonderful effect. Scharich’s easy flow of warm, plangent tone, marked by minimal vibrato, had an instrumental quality all its own, and she seemed without limitations at either end of her range. If only the second song, “Geistliches Wiegenlied” (Spiritual Lullaby), had been sung slower, and Scharich had produced a more nurturing tone. Nonetheless, the performance was so beautiful, and so honored the essence of love and longing at the heart of Brahms’ music, that I wanted it to go on and on.
Searching for other songs for their trio, the musicians alighted upon Joseph Marx’s “Durch Einsamkeiten” (Through lonely places), Adolf Busch’s Drei Lieder, Op. 3a, and Charles Martin Loeffler’s Quatre Poèmes, Op. 5. Although the lovely Marx fared well, save for some ill-tuned, thin tone on Yarbrough’s part, the noisiness of accompaniment in first of Busch’s three songs, “Nun die Schatten dunkeln” (Now the shadows are darkening), failed to serve Geibel’s ultra-romantic poetry. Nor did Scharich’s tone, which sounded strangely happy at the start of Busch’s setting of Goethe’s “Wonne der Wehmut” (The Joy of Sadness), seem appropriate.
The nadir of the evening came when Scharich switched to French for the four songs by Loeffler. Consonants were so smoothed over, and nasal sounds so softened, as to make the words of Baudelaire and Verlaine barely comprehensible. The mezzo’s uninterrupted flow of lovely albeit unchanging sound was so instrumental in nature that even I, who studied French for four or five years, had difficulty finding my place after I looked up from the program for a short time. As the disconnect between sounds, words, and emotional import grew from song to song, the set became hard to bear. Thank God for the Brahms.
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.