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Mezzo Sasha Cooke makes a memorable San Francisco recital debut with SFP

Mezzo Sasha Cooke
Mezzo Sasha Cooke
courtesy of San Francisco Performances

As had been announced earlier this week, illness prevented mezzo Alice Coote from traveling from Britain to San Francisco to launch the Vocal Series of recitals presented by San Francisco Performances (SFP). Fortunately, mezzo Sasha Cooke was able to come to San Francisco from Texas on short notice; and last night’s SFP concert at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music became her San Francisco recital debut. Her accompanist was pianist Pei-Yao Wang, who was also making her San Francisco recital debut.

Cooke may have had little time to prepare for this occasion, but she came with an impressively diverse program to provide a generous account of the scope of her talents. She began in German with five selections from Hugo Wolf’s collection of 53 songs set to poems by Eduard Mörike. She then moved on to two sharply contrasting approaches to French texts, Francis Poulenc’s settings of five surreal poems by Max Jacob followed by Henri Duparc’s approach to two of the sensuous poems from Charles Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal (the flowers of evil), “L’Invitation au voyage” (invitation to a journey) and “La vie antérieure” (the former life). All of the offerings following the intermission were in English. Benjamin Britten’s Opus 41, A Charm of Lullabies, was flanked by his American contemporaries, three songs that George Crumb composed at the age of seventeen for his wife-to-be on one side and four of Aaron Copland’s Old American Songs settings on the other.

Through her considerable experience in opera, Cooke has a keen understanding of the dramatic potential that can reside in any text. Thus, while none of the poems set by any of the songs she performed involved an explicit narrative, Cooke could still tease out a dramatic interpretation defined through the use of body language to underscore her logic of phrasing and dynamic control. One thus came away from each interpretation with a strong sense that the words really mattered (rather than just providing a sequence of syllables upon which notes could be hung), even when those words were there to serve Jacob’s illogical free association of imagery. This left the listener with the need to balance attention between the text sheet (particularly when assistance in translation was necessary) and the physical technique through which Cooke endowed each song with its own distinctive “presentation of self” (with apologies to Erving Goffman).

In this respect it is also important to credit Wang’s chemistry with Cooke as an accompanist. Each of the composers Cooke had selected for her program had his own distinctive set of approaches to harmony and texture as applied to setting context for the vocal line. (Crumb’s approach was particularly distinctive, since it was a youthful style that he would subsequently abandon.) Thus, through her accompaniment, Wang had to establish her own “presentation of self” through which Cooke’s presentation would emerge clearly and compellingly. This was the sort of relationship between vocalist and accompanist that every aficionado of the art song repertoire seeks.

That relationship continued without any weakening for the two encore selections, each of which had its own solid dramatic foundation. The first was Enrique Granados’ “El mirar de la maja” (the gaze of the beloved), the fifth of the twelve songs in his collection of tonadillas, all setting texts by Fernando Periquet. This was followed by the most narrative selection of the evening, the “Song of Black Max (as told by the de Kooning boys)” from the Cabaret Songs collection of the music of William Bolcom with lyrics by Arnold Weinstein. This was given an unabashed account by both vocalist and accompanist, bringing the evening to a joyfully raucous conclusion.