Last night soprano and alumna of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM) Marnie Breckenridge (’96) returned to SFCM to give the third of four concerts in the Alumni Recital Series. She was accompanied by fellow alumna pianist Kristin Pankonin (’89). With the exception of two songs from Richard Strauss’ Opus 68 set of six based on poems by Clemens Brentano, all of her selections were in English and were composed by Americans; and, with the exception of Samuel Barber, all of those American composers were alive and present in the audience.
The focus of the evening was the second half of the program, which was given its own title, Her Journey: Bay Area composers lead us across a woman’s emotional landscape. The “geography” of that landscape was partitioned into three regions, “Longing,” “Chaos,” and “Transcendence.” With the exception of the opening text by Carl Sandburg, all of the contributing poets were women, with a strong emphasis on Anne Sexton. Sexton’s predecessors were Emily Dickinson, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Dorothy Parker. The only living poet in the set was Gini Savage. The composers were David Conte (selections from his Sexton Songs), Gordon Getty (selections from his Dickinson cycle The White Election), Jake Heggie, and Kurt Erickson.
From a musical point of view, there was little to distinguish these features. Indeed, Barber’s presence on the program was most notable for establishing just what a composer with a well-honed sense of literature could achieve in the vocal repertoire. While each of the composer’s contribution to Her Journey could be distinguished by particular stylistic characteristics, there seemed to be a shared rhetorical strategy that involved relatively flat declamations of the text with little consideration for its poetic qualities. Of the four composers Conte came off as most adept through his ability to establish a background for each text he set. “Ringing the Bells,” Sexton’s account of her time in a mental asylum, was the most effective of these. Thus, while Breckenridge and Pankonin worked effectively together to do justice to all those marks on the composers’ score pages, the overall landscape of poems lacked many distinguishing features, to the point that the regions themselves seemed to have more to do with the reputations of the poets than with the actual poetry.
Things were somewhat better in the first half with four selections from Henry Mollicone’s Seven Songs set. Mollicone was far more skilled at recognizing the poetry behind the words and bringing that poetry into his music. As a result Breckenridge had more to work with as a performer, endowing each of the songs with its own individual personality.
However, when it came to awareness of text, Barber was the undisputed champion of the evening. The major work of the first half of the program was “Knoxville: Summer of 1915,” his setting of an extended prose text of the childhood memories of James Agee. This text is a perfect model of the writer’s craft, and it can be read aloud without any musical assistance and still seize and sustain the attention of any listener with even an iota of sensitivity. Barber thus faced a major challenge in providing music that would not succumb to superfluity, and his success has as much value as a model as does Agee’s source text.
I would thus say that Breckenridge’s account of this twentieth-century masterpiece was very much the high point of the evening. Through her performance the listener could apprehend both the impact of Agee’s words and Barber’s own highly personal interpretation of those words. (Barber and Agee could not have been more different in their respective backgrounds.) This was a combined triumph of both music and literature, the ideal to which every vocal recital should aspire. It therefore showed perfect judgment that Breckenridge should complement “Knoxville: Summer of 1915” by taking, as an encore, Barber’s setting of one of Agee’s poems, “Sure on this shining night.”
In this “all-American” context the two Brentano poems from Strauss’ Opus 68 seemed a bit out of place. The fifth of the set, “Amor,” was certainly impressive for its coloratura demands, which Breckenridge ran through with just the right level of graceful elegance. However, the quieter “An die Nacht” (in the night) gave the impression that she had not yet oriented herself to the unorthodox logic and grammar of Strauss’ harmonic progressions. Since these songs were composed in 1918, they may have been introduced to provide the context from which the rest of the program would depart; but Barber proved far more representative of the contextual foundation for the evening.