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Shepherdess With a Sword

Ji Young Yang and Gerald Thompson

December 2, 2009

San Francisco Performances

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.

Jason Victor Serinus is a music critic, professional whistler, and lecturer on classical vocal recordings. His credits includes Seattle Times, Listen, Opera News, Opera Now, American Record Guide, Stereophile, Classical Voice North America, Carnegie Hall Playbill, Gramophone, San Francisco Magazine, Stanford Live, Bay Area Reporter, San Francisco Examiner, AudioStream, and California Magazine.


Mr. Serinus,

Thank you for the review of last night's performance. I wanted to make a slight correction:
I'm a graduate of New England Conservatory and Yale School of Music. I've only auditioned at SFCM (and was accepted), but never attended.

Again, thank you for your thoughts and contributions.


Mr. Serinus,
As you are someone who supposedly uses your gifts that are already in place for the healing arts, I find it ironic, to say the least, that you chose to write something as defamatory, insulting, and inappropriate as your last paragraph with regards to Ms. Yang. To give opinions about someone's performance is one thing, but to suggest that someone receive a massage, get hypnosis, or receive biofeedback in order to get their career to the next level is offensive and has absolutely nothing to do with the performance that you reviewed. One would think that, as someone who is in the business of helping to heal others, you might think twice before posting something that can be so hurtful as that. Not to mention it pretty much goes against most of the Codes of Conduct given to members of this very organization that publishes your work.

I have never felt compelled to comment before on any review here at SFCV because I have often found them fair. However, this review was not constructive and was downright insulting.

Although I will never be on the same level professionally as Ms. Yang and Mr. Thompson, I speak from experience as an amateur singer. Singers are a strange mix of self-esteem issues and brassy self-confidence. We are often filled with self-doubt right before we have to turn it "on". Because our instrument is literally tied to our bodies, singers are oftentimes reviewed not just on technical proficiency but certain "x-factors" as well (did we smile enough? did we make enough eye-contact with the audience? etc.). Since singers (I count pop and jazz artists here, just listen to Nancy Wilson) are essentially story-tellers in musical form, reviewing a particular singer on these "x-factors" is valid and constructive. But to tell a musician to have a hypnosis session before a performance is not helpful, let alone for someone as accomplished as Ms. Yang already is.

If you would like to contribute fruitfully to the development of young artists, Mr. Serinus, this is not the way to do it. This review is just... disappointing.

There was something so oddly mean-spirited about this review, and it speaks to something that I've noticed about most of Mr. Serinus' reviews. They are all about him and his vaunted erudition and his exquisite sensitivity, so that I never get an actual picture of what the actual concert and performers were like. When I've attended the same concert and read his descriptions I never recognize the event, even when agreeing with him whether something was good or bad. To call him an untrustworthy narrator is in fact kind, since he's shown himself over and over again to be an egocentric jerk, particularly when it comes to young singers.

It is my belief that if a critic holds an artist to a high level, then the reader should expect at least moderate level writing. Let me add to those who think that this is an unprofessional review. It also contains many examples of poor writing. I see that SFCV has a review editor. It confounds me that this review was published.

I would like to comment on some of this writing.

1. “She also sang lighter, which means beautifully.”

This sentence is irrefutably false. Strictly speaking I am certain that lighter means lighter and beautifully means beautifully.

2. “Yang proved relentless. The silvery voice that so impressed me as the Shepherdess in SFO’s Tannhäuser cut through tender emotions like a sword.”

First of all it is a Shepherd boy and not a Shepherdess. Ms. Yang was playing a boy. A Shepherdess is a female. I am also confused by the sentence. I think it is a compliment. When I read this I wonder how it is possible for the metaphorical sword to cut through emotions. Making the assumption that it is possible, I wonder why it is advantageous for “tender emotions” to be “cut through.” I wonder who had these tender emotions: Tannhauser, the Shepherd Boy, the audience, or the critic? I wonder what happens when the tender emotions are cut through. Are they metaphorically shattered?

3. “As the duo sang a love duet from Mozart's Idomeneo, Yang’s voice
bespoke a far fiercer love than Mozart imagined.”

I am resisting the urge to explore your direct connection to Mr. Mozart. Is this what Ms. Yang would gain from biofeedback??

4. “Perhaps his plain-Jane stylings work “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” where Joyce DiDonato’s recent rendition of same belongs, but not on Planet Earth. “

This sentence would get a fifth-grader many red marks on their assignment. This is not a complete sentence. I really can’t make sense of this “sentence” but I guess you mean that both the jazz renditions of both Didonato and Thompson do not belong on Planet Earth. Perhaps you should contact NASA and have their recordings shipped off with the next mission.

5. “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”

I agree with one of the previous comments. This is insulting and inappropriate. This is just too strange and unprofessional to be commented on.

I would hope that the editors of SFCV read these comments and will consider not giving any more review assignments to Jason Victor Serinus.

I read this review in disbelief, but the closing paragraph is beyond the pale.
Perhaps Mr. Serinus should heed his own advice and have 2 hours massage and bio-feedback/hypnosis before he sets out on assignments. Or better yet, STAY HOME.

As a critic who strives to accept criticism as freely as I dispense it, I have taken these comments to heart.

Besides my factual error, I regret that my reference to hypnosis and biofeedback has been so misunderstood. I am trained in hypnosis as well as massage, and value them both highly. In fact, before my last whistling competition, I worked with my hypnosis teacher to help me relax onstage and perform at my best. My comment was intended as constructive.

I was eager to review this recital because I so enjoyed Yang's performance as the Shepherd, and loved Thompson's Handel. That my appreciation for Yang's gifts did not come across to some readers I find dismaying. Clearly I need to pay more attention to how I dispense criticism.