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Singing Across the Channel

April 3, 2007

The historic love-hate relationship between England and France found a musical solution Friday in Old First Church, when artists affiliated with the San Francisco Opera presented a mixed program of almost entirely 20th-century vocal works as their "Basically British X" program. Among the four composers, two are giants (Ravel and Britten), another is a venerable master (Elgar), and one is an also-ran: Gerald Finzi, who is really not in their company. Tenor Matthew O'Neill opened the program with three miscellaneous songs by Elgar: Is She Not Passing Fair?, The Shepherd's Song, and In the Dawn. Baritone Eugene Brancoveanu then sang the five songs that make up Gerald Finzi's cycle Let Us Garlands Bring, before soprano Elza van den Heever highlighted the evening with Ravel's three-song Shéhérezade. Following intermission, O'Neill returned for Britten's large setting of nine of The Sacred Sonnets of John Donne, Op. 35, before Brancoveanu swashbuckled his way through Ravel's final composition, the three Don Quichotte à Dulcinée songs. Pianist John Parr presided at the keyboard throughout. All three singers currently participate in the Merola Opera Program, a San Francisco Opera project designed to polish the vocal skills and stagecraft of young singers. All three vocalists are experienced, and have sung just about everywhere, from Bucharest to Johannesburg, and from Broadway to San Francisco. Even so, van den Heever, from South Africa, stood out as a completely polished, finished artist. She sings star quality right now. Superb Technique Over an Abyss Her performance of Ravel's tricky Shéhérezadewas superb in every respect. Her French was excellent, her intonation and articulation flawless, and her sensibility to fine points of vocal coloration astounding. If you were to hear this performance on the radio, you might well mistake it for the artistry of Régine Crespin (whose shoe I figuratively kiss every time I hear her recording of the work). The horror of Shéhérezadeis that it lies in a vocal crevasse betwixt and between the ranges of mezzo-soprano and soprano. Beyond that challenge lie all those vocal extremes of the long first song, Asie (Asia), in which the singer needs to appreciate and reflect the national colors of Ravel's travelogue artistry. There's the opening music for the singer's imaginary sea journey, as she fantasizes about yearning to see "Damascus and the cities of Persia." And later still, "I wish to see Persia, India, and then ..." (at which point all music stops for a second before the singer's ecstatic, full-voiced cry of) "... China." Here the accompaniment bursts into the finest chinoiserie in Western music. Masterfully done, as it was by van den Heever and Parr, Shéhérezade is sheer magic, an enchantment unto itself, rarely rivaled anywhere else in music. Britten's quite grim cycle The Holy Sonnets dates from the same time that he was at work on his most famous opera, Peter Grimes. As in that opera, the textures are stark, with minimal, bleak piano writing that includes some furious assaults on the keyboard. Interestingly, the vocal lines already show Britten toying with the trigger of his later forays into serial music. They are almost but not quite tonal. That's perfectly appropriate to the ambiguity within Donne's strangely morbid meditations. The performance was not entirely successful. Parr, who had done such a sensitive job of accompanying van den Heever, flayed away at the Britten songs, aggravated by the wide-open concert grand. Such a racket we heard! Even O'Neill's tendency to bellow could not rise above Parr's din. Things went better for the slight, house-music songs of Elgar, where the situation rather reversed itself: O'Neill overshouted his lines, while Parr seemed too modest to truly sound out. Curious. Burnished Tone, Despite Bland Settings Finzi's settings of Shakespeare poems struck me as tame and generally unimaginative. They came close to stepping over the line into dilettante levels, in what Constant Lambert once called "The cow looking over the fence" school of composition. Then, too, the notion that Finzi would dare set to music two already famous poems — Schubert's setting of "Who is Silvia?" and the original 16th-century setting of "It was a lover and his lass" — only underlined Finzi's weakness of inspiration. While his songs passed the time at Old First Church, they did little more than that. Brancoveanu, who sang the Finzi songs, was Austrian trained and has since sung major operatic roles in his native Romania, such as the best-known Mozart operas — Don Giovanni, the Count in Le nozze di Figaro, and so on. He has also performed in S.F. Opera's La forza del destino, a Broadway production of La Bohème, and much more. His is a big, burnished sound of the sort often heard from Eastern European men, a sound that he put to good use. But his most impressive stage experience turned out to be his ability to tastefully act out Ravel's Don Quichotte songs while singing them. He gestured appropriately for the opening ardor of the Don's love song, for the modest devotional prayer of the second song, and for the final ode to drunkenness ("I drink 'To pleasure!' Pleasure is the only goal"). Ravel includes a bit of laughing music in the third song, which the baritone flexed in dynamics. He even added a few more spoken chuckles of his own as asides, which I found insightful, not destructive. The press announcement for this recital had included the promise of some Vaughan Williams songs, though the Elgar works were substituted. As it turns out, June 2 marks the 150th anniversary of Edward Elgar's birth. I assume that's the reason for the shift. (And by the way, December 28 marks the 70th anniversary of the death of Maurice Ravel.)

Heuwell Tircuit is a composer, performer, and writer who was chief writer for Gramophone Japan and for 21 years a music reviewer for the San Francisco Chronicle. He wrote previously for Chicago American and the Asahi Evening News.