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Christòpheren Nomura Launches the Sausalito Song Society Series

September 19, 2017

Sausalito Song Society

Baritone Christòpheren Nomura sang the first song of the afternoon – Aaron Copland’s stirring “Zion’s Wall” — and paused to mark the occasion.

“That,” he told the audience, “was the first song of the Sausalito Song Society.” The declaration was met with hearty applause and cheers.

The musical and verbal equivalent of a ribbon cutting felt altogether justified, as a new organization got off the ground with hopes blooming Sunday afternoon at Christ Episcopal Church’s hillside Campbell Hall, overlooking a glittering Sausalito bay front. Founded by singer Jenny Matteucci and pianist Daniel Lockert, who accompanied Nomura in this initial recital, the new Society will present nine more monthly concerts in an ambitious first season. Next up is soprano Laurel Sprigg on October 8.

Nomura was an excellent choice to lead off. Warm-voiced and personable, he spun out a program that became a kind of sung and spoken act of advocacy for the art of the song. As he moved from Copland to Mahler to Ravel in the first half of the program, followed by a trio of living American composers after intermission, the Oakland native burnished his program with telling personal anecdotes.

It was Dietrich Fischer Dieskau, he said, who imbued in him the notion of a song recital as something inherently intimate and best suited to a venue like the compact, wooden-walled Campbell Hall. About the three Ravel songs, Don Quichotte à Dulcinée, Nomura recalled that as an 18-year-old novice, he was advised by the pianist Dalton Baldwin to set aside the French repertoire until he was old enough to drink some good French wine.

At 53, Nomura is a mature and seasoned artist, with a long resume of operatic and concert credits. The assets most clearly evident Sunday included a sense of absorption in everything he sang, pellucid diction, and an ingratiating tone. The sum effect, both musically and theatrically, was convincing. Nomura makes the listener believe that every word and musical phrase matters. He’s a singer who wants to communicate and connect.

While that went a long way toward making Sunday’s recital a success, not all of the musical values held up. Handsome and commanding as it can be, Nomura’s voice tended toward a singleness of effect, without a natural range of color and dramatic variation. With the notable exception of the Ravel songs, which elicited his finest work of the afternoon, a sameness settled in. High and soft notes went thin and ragged now and then.

That said, Nomura is such an ingratiating performer that the shortcomings mattered less than they might have in a larger and more formal space. In Campbell Hall, with its tentlike ceiling and colored clerestory windows, the Sausalito Song Society has an ideal setting for the kind of music-to-listener link Nomura values and delivers.

Following Copland’s three bright glosses on American forms (a revival tune, a hymn, and toe-tapping minstrel song), Nomura took on the meatiest item on his program — Mahler’s Songs of a Wayfarer. The best of the four was a darkly urgent meditation on “A knife, a glowing knife.” In the final song’s fever dream of an absent lover’s blue eyes and a linden tree, Nomura dramatized the lines by shifting from a deep chest voice to one buzzing frantically in his head. At other points, the cycle foundered on overly stretched tempos and rough-hewn phrasing.

Ravel’s three beguiling songs based on the Cervantes tale brought the first half of the program to a gratifying close. Right off, the nasal French seemed to free up something more natural and mobile in Nomura’s voice. He leaned into the Iberian tilt of the opening “Romantic Song” and carried it to an affecting last line full of ardor: “O Dulcinea.” The “Epic Song” was prayerful and pleading, and the final “Drinking Song” spilled over with swooning phrases and boozy big gestures.

The shorter, lighter second half of the program showcased songs by three composers Nomura knows personally. He gave John Musto’s settings of four Langston Hughes poems a pleasing variety of effects, from the stern irony of “Silhouette” (about a hanging) to the jazzy slow burn of “Could It Be.” Lockert, who made the most of the liquid piano runs in “Island,” was an especially helpful collaborator here.

Four Richard Hundley songs brought out Nomura’s flair for long-lined lyricism and tart humor (a satiric riff on the Doxology in “Epitaph on a Wife”). Three William Bolcom numbers emphasized narrative, some of it familiarly spoken. As a single encore, Nomura offered a heartfelt, slightly pompous ballad from the recent, now closed Allegiance, in which he made his Broadway debut.

This inaugural Sausalito Song Society recital had a homey, boosterish feel. Other singers in the series were in the audience. Nomura dedicated Bolcom’s “Amor” to his recently married goddaughter, who was also in the house. A wine reception followed the performance.

The toasts for this new series were well-deserved.

Steven Winn is a San Francisco based free-lance writer and critic and frequent City Arts & Lectures interviewer. His work has appeared in Art News, California, Humanities, Manhattan, Symphony Magazine and The San Francisco Chronicle.