December 2, 2009
When Christine Lim of San Francisco Performances invited former San Francisco Opera Adler Fellow soprano Ji Young Yang to present a one-hour Salon at the Rex, Yang proposed a pairing with her fellow, former Adlerian, countertenor Gerald Thompson. Thus was born a duo recital that began with early music, then embraced the unexpected.
The duo immediately set the tone on Wednesday night with two works by Purcell.
Thompson sounded gorgeous in Sound the Trumpet. His smooth, beautifuly produced tone create an ideal counterbalance to Yang’s far brighter sound and he added many touches, such as an artful swell on the word sound, that declared him an artist as well as a singer.
Yang was a puzzlement throughout. Her fetching timbre lower in her range was reminiscent of the finest soubrettes and light lyric sopranos in its silvery uniqueness. But as soon as she rose to her midrange, where the voice opens, she increased volume to such an extent that her singing took on a fierce quality. Cutting through the middle of Thompson’s rounded sound, she upped the ante, leaving accompanist John Parr no choice but to pound away at a gallop. The results didn’t so much sound the trumpet as trample it.
Purcell’s Lost Is My Quiet lost exactly that. Instead of settling into lyrics such as “Lost all my tender endeavours,/ To touch an insensible heart,” Yang boomed them out, as though pushing to match Thompson’s natural volume. The performance was far too wound up for comfort.
Performing solo in Handel’s “Da tempeste il legno infranto” (If a ship buffeted by storms) from Julius Caesar, Yang showed that she shares Thompson’s facility with fleet coloratura and imaginative variations. But again, there was a ferocious edge in the high range that, interacting with the low ceiling of the Hotel Rex’s salon, proved discomforting. As Yang repeated the pattern in selection after selection, I kept wondering if she needed to push that much to get a full tone higher in the range. Artistically and aesthetically, it made no sense.
Even when Thompson lightened up in one of the opera’s great duets, “Caro, Bella” (Dear one, fair one), Yang proved relentless. The silvery voice that so impressed me as the Shepherdess in SFO’s Tannhäuser cut through tender emotions like a sword. As the duo sang a love duet from Mozart's Idomeneo, Yang’s voice bespoke a far fiercer love than Mozart imagined.
Mixed Bag Surprises
Yang devoted her solo section to three Canciones Populares Espanõlas, arranged by Graciano Tarrago. Her partner was guitarist Steve Lin, a fellow San Francisco Conservatory of Music graduate and local guitar teacher who has already won two first prizes in guitar competitions.
Given that Yang discovered the songs through a recording by Victoria de los Angeles, it was reasonable to hope for something of that great artist’s graciousness and tenderness. Indeed, perhaps feeling less need to compete with her quiet, unassuming accompaniment, Yang occasionally allowed the natural loveliness of her tone to shine throughout the range. But when Lin softened his tone in the final section, as the music required, she disappointingly refused to follow his lead.
Thompson may love jazz, which shares with Baroque music a need for improvisation, but he lacks the vocal inflections, sense of swing, and ability to play with words that are essential to put across Harold Arlen’s Stormy Weather, Bart Howard’s Fly Me to the Moon, and Milton Delugg and Willie Stein’s Orange Colored Sky. Perhaps his plain-Jane stylings work “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” where Joyce DiDonato’s recent rendition of same belongs, but not on Planet Earth.
Sticking with soft guitar accompaniment, the duo concluded with Pur ti miro (I gaze at you) from Monteverdi’s The Coronation of Poppea. For an encore, the pair mostly alternated lines in the “Allelujah” from Mozart’s Exsultate, Jubilate! Although Thompson was flat on his highest notes, Yang easily produced a high C. She also sang lighter, which means beautifully.
Yang’s career stalled temporarily while her lack of a green card blocked her from performing in the U.S. With that obstacle recently surmounted, she’s again auditioning. Thompson is already at the Met, Covent Garden, Lyric Opera Chicago, and Glimmerglass, and covering at La Scala. If Yang learns to let go and trust the great gifts that are already in place — a two-hour massage before each performance as well as biofeedback/hypnosis might help — she could soon sing at his side on big stages.