Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Weekend Concerts One: Sasha Cooke

With the music of Henry Cowell and the atmosphere of San Quentin prison still running through my nervous system, I attended a trio of musical concerts last weekend that could have been easily overshadowed. Instead, in a nice surprise, they were varied and enjoyable. First off was an art song recital presented by San Francisco Performances at the San Francisco Conservatory, featuring the American mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke accompanied by the Taiwanese pianist Pei-Yao Wang. The two were filling in at the last minute for British mezzo Alice Coote who had fallen ill and canceled, but Cooke and Wang already had a recital program ready which they are scheduled to perform in New York's Alice Tully Hall next Monday, February 3rd.

Besides having an almost indecently voluptuous singing voice, Cooke is an engaging performer with an easy audience rapport, and also has quite a gift for mimicry. She imitated the Southern drawl of the 84-year-old composer George Crumb, whose 3 Early Songs from 1947 she performed, and also told us a story about Alice Coote. "About seven years ago at the Metropolitan Opera, I was singing the part of The Sandman in Hansel and Gretel with Alice Coote who was sounding absolutely incredible in the role of Hansel. I finally got the courage to congratulate her on the performance, and Alice said, "No! Bravo YOU! Yes, Bravo YOU!" and Cooke's imitative English accent was hilarious.

The program started with five German songs by Hugo Wolf from Morike-Lieder, continued with five wacky French surrealist Poemes de Max Jacob by Francois Poulenc, and the first half of the program ended with Baudelaire's L'Invitation au voyage and La vie anterieure with music by Henri Duparc. After intermission, the songs were all in English, starting with three beautiful, tonal pieces by George Crumb that he wrote as a teenager for his fiancée at the time. The highlight of the evening for me was a 1947 song cycle by Benjamin Britten called A Charm of Lullabies that he wrote for Nancy Evans, a mezzo-soprano who alternated with Kathleen Ferrier in the original production of The Rape of Lucretia. Cooke introduced the five songs by telling us that she and Wang were both working mothers so they could easily relate to the subject, "but there's some very weird moments in some of these pieces." She wasn't kidding, as William Blake's A Cradle Song featured lines like, "O! the cunning wiles that creep/In thy little heart asleep." while Thomas Randolph's A Charm starts with these lines: "Quiet!/Sleep! or I will make/Erinnys whip thee with a snake."

The concert ended with four Copland arrangements of Old American Songs which sounded simpleminded after the sophistication of Britten's music, and there were a pair of encores that ended triumphantly with the strange, sinister and funny Song of Black Max (as told by the de Kooning boys) by William Bolcom with lyrics by Arnold Weinstein. Special note should be made of the piano accompaniment of Pei-Yao Wang. Not only did the two women work together seamlessly, but they were virtuosic, stylistic chameleons depending on which composer they were performing. Though classical art song recitals are not usually my cup of tea, the evening was delightful.

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