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Songs Worth Far More Than a Smile

July 7, 2009

Pentatone Classics has issued a veritable bonanza of recent American song, half of which come from Bay Area composers. And if the Song Be Worth a Smile, which takes its name from a line in Gordon Getty’s setting of his poem “The Ballad of Poor Peter,” features songs by William Bolcom, Jake Heggie, David Garner, John Corigliano, Luna Pearl Woolf, and Getty himself. All but Bolcom’s and Heggie’s creations receive their much-deserved recording premieres.

This essentially local effort, which includes notes by Clifford (Kip) Cranna, features performances by soprano Lisa Delan and pianist Kristin Pankonin, both graduates of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, with additional contributions by Bay Area-bred cellist Matt Haimovitz and, in one duet, mezzo-soprano Susanne Mentzer. Distinguished by direct, clear sound that resists any temptation to over-reverb what are essentially intimate performances, the Skywalker Studios recording comes in high-resolution, optional multichannel SACD format.

As for Getty’s Poor Peter cycle of three songs, given that the composer is also a major philanthropist in matters musical and more, and deserves our immeasurable gratitude, it is not unreasonable to expect a critic to soft-pedal any qualms they may have about his compositions. I thus state, with utmost sincerity, that these three songs are immensely enjoyable. Sung with considerable feeling by Delan, the songs in Getty’s vision of Elizabethan England (or thereabouts) are distinguished by haunting lyricism and, in “Tune the Fiddle,” by body-engaging rhythms. Thoughts of Poor Peter begging for a penny may generate wry smiles, but one was probably on Getty’s face, as well, as he took pen in hand.

Some of Bolcom’s marvelous Cabaret Songs, set to poems by the late and brilliantly witty Arnold Weinstein, have received numerous recordings since their premieres by the great Joan Morris. Sopranos no less distinguished than Dawn Upshaw and Measha Brueggergosman have joined Morris and Bolcom in recording the flirtatious “Amor”; Brueggergosman has also tackled “Toothbrush Time.” Delan’s versions are considerably less operatic, and have a compelling energy all their own.

Delan also gives her all to four folk song and folk-song–like settings by Heggie, many of which were written for Frederica von Stade. (It is difficult not to listen to these without imagining Flicka’s unique sound and soulful sensibility.) If Delan’s voice is neither the most comfortable at the top of the range, nor consistently alluring, she nonetheless handles it with such intelligence as to merit kudos.

Haimovitz’ rich, evocative cello joins Pankonin and Delan on “Im Grasse,” the first of S.F. Conservatory Professor David Garner’s three Annettes-Lieder. Of these beautiful settings of poems by Annette von Droste-Hülshoff, I find irresistible the soothing if conventional melody of “Der Weiher” (The weir). Garner’s gems provide fitting contrast to Corigliano’s two droll Cabaret Song settings of poems by his partner, Mark Adamo. Luna Pearl Woolf’s 10-minute setting of Pablo Neruda’s “Odás de Todo el Mundo” (Odes of all the world) — a vocal tour de force that taxes Delan’s resources — makes for an animated conclusion.

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.