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Jill Morgan Brenner presents a stimulating program of modernist art songs

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Last night in the Recital Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM), soprano (and SFCM graduate) Jill Morgan Brenner performed a fascinating program of art songs composed during the first half of the twentieth century. The evening was framed by two cycles of texts in the English language, Samuel Barber’s Hermit Songs and Benjamin Britten’s On this island. Between these “bookends” Brenner presented two cycles in French, Francis Poulenc’s Fiançailles pour rire (whimsical betrothal) and Mélodies passagères (fleeting songs), Barber’s only settings of texts in a foreign language, which he dedicated to both Poulenc and the French baritone Pierre Bernac.

It is important to note that all three of these composers were accomplished pianists. As a result, these were all pieces in which as much thought had gone into the piano part as into the vocal line, escalating the pianist above the level of “supporting accompanist.” It is thus also important to note that last night’s pianist, Mai-Linh Pham, rose admirably to the demands of those piano parts. This was very much an evening in which the relationship between vocalist and piano was as important as the relationship between singer and text.

From that point of view, Hermit Songs provided an excellent way to begin the evening. Barber’s selection of the marginalia of anonymous Irish monks found in manuscripts from the eighth through thirteenth centuries was a bold choice, although those texts had some impressive translators, including W. H. Auden, Chester Kallman, and Sean O’Faolain. These are not so much poems as they are highly personal idle thoughts, and Barber comes up with some impressive piano passages to establish the thinker’s state of mind. Some of this involves depiction, as in several references to tolling monastery bells and the paw-sized tone clusters that step along the keyboard in “The Monk and His Cat.”

More often than not, however, the piano simply establishes a mental disposition. The power of the song then lies in the ability of the singer to capture that disposition and realize it through the words. Brenner did this impressively, whether it involved the quiet wit of “The Monk and His Cat” and “Promiscuity,” the worldly ecstasy of “The Heavenly Banquet,” or the quiet introspection of “The Desire for Hermitage.” All texts were delivered with both clarity and understanding (and just the right degree of wry staging for “Promiscuity”), making for a performance that was all one could hope Hermit Songs to be.

The five Auden texts for On this island, on the other hand, are “Poetry with a capital ‘P.’” Auden had not conceived of them as a set. Rather, Britten selected them from Look Stranger!, the collection Auden had published in 1936. The title of the set comes from the middle poem, “Seascape,” whose first line establishes a view of the sea from the insignificant expanse of an island. The island may well be Britain on the basis of the line:

Where the chalk wall falls to the foam

Three of the five poems are strictly structured with respect to rhyme, although Auden has a way of taking liberty with metre to allow for an almost conversational rhetoric. Britten’s approach is to honor the rhetoric and let the structure take care of itself. This is particularly the case in the final poem, “As it is, plenty,” which offers one of those delightful moments when Britten allowed himself to get jazzy. Here, again, both Brenner and Pham caught the spirit of these songs; and Brenner’s diction and understanding endowed Auden’s words with the energetic life they merit.

The texts set by Poulenc, on the other hand, take an entirely different approach to poetry. They are surrealist verses by Louise de Vilmorin, in which the logic has more to do with the outlandish juxtaposition of words and phrases that may have been inspired by rigorous exercises in free association. The result is imagery that can shift from the mundane to the horrific at a moment’s notice.

Poulenc’s approach to this poetry tended to involve playing up the ordinary through almost chorale-like homophony colored by rich (but often sharply contrasting) harmonies. One might say that he was following one of the traditional approaches to a Gothic tale, which involves taking the highly extraordinary and making it seem ordinary. Both Brenner and Pham were clearly comfortable with Poulenc’s rhetorical strategy, which led to a somewhat detached delivery of the text. Unfortunately, Brenner’s diction could have done with a bit more polishing, particularly for those passages in which Vilmorin’s shock value emerges from her approach to rhyme.

The Barber songs on the other hand, were taken from five of German poet Rainer Maria Rilke’s efforts to write in French. These are poems of imagery, and one gets the impression that Rilke worked hard to find just the right French words to capture his images in both denotation and connotation. Here, again, Brenner’s diction was not always on target; and she may not have always properly captured the sonorities of Rilke’s words. On the other hand Pham’s keyboard work nicely demonstrated Barber’s approach to counterpoint in contrast to Poulenc’s approach to harmony. On a lighter note it was a bit difficult for those of my generation to read the phrase “Valais girls” in the translation without thinking of the song that Franz Zappa wrote with his daughter Moon Unit.

Taken as a whole, Brenner’s program was a delightful gesture of farewell to SFCM, filled with promise of where her talents may take her next.

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