One Great City is a duo of recent graduates from the Master of Music program at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, where they were both in the Guitar Department. However, their programming reaches beyond the standard guitar repertoire into the realm of song and poetry, because one of the pair, Alexandra Iranfar, is also an accomplished soprano, as well as a guitarist. The other member, Timothy Sherren, also excels at arrangement. As a result, they have a repertoire that is both unique and innovatively imaginative, inevitably bringing a journey of discovery to every recital they prepare.
Last night the duo made their debut in the Old First Concerts series at Old First Church, and there was much to distinguish the program they presented. Most importantly, it included the world premiere of “Águas da Montanha” (mountain waters), a song with guitar accompaniment by the Chinese-American composer Christopher Tin. The text is a sonnet entitled “Confusion” by the sixteenth-century Portuguese poet Luís de Camões; and the piece was performed as a solo by Iranfar. Tin provided a straightforward account, inspired by Fado style, of Camões use of turbulent mountain waters as a metaphor for the uncertainties of everyday life, concentrating on the semantics rather than the formal structure. Iranfar’s delivery was appropriately conversational with a minimum of rhetorical embellishments for particular phrases of impact. She seemed a bit unfamiliar with Portuguese phrasing but will probably become more familiar with its vocal shapes as she gives this song more performances.
The other major event was the recognition of Ned Rorem’s 90th birthday, celebrated this past Wednesday, with the performance of four of his songs. These were given accompaniment by both guitars in one of Sherren’s arrangements. The first of these was, itself, Rorem’s arrangement of Stephen Foster’s “Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair.” Rorem shared with Benjamin Britten a gift for taking even the simplest of tunes and recasting it in an entirely new, but just as entirely appropriate, light. Equally imaginative was Rorem’s interest in poets, represented last night by Sappho (“Love”) and Gertrude Stein (“I am Rose”), a particularly delightful exercise in a miniaturist setting. The most extended song was a vigorous celebratory setting of the single word “Alleluia.” Iranfar brought just the right level of vocal gentleness to these texts, while Sherren’s arrangements captured the inventiveness of Rorem’s settings.
Equally imaginative was his instrumental arrangement of three of the movements from Samuel Barber’s Opus 20 piano suite Excursions. The setting of “In slow blues tempo” was well suited to the guitars’ capacity for blues rhetoric. The Allegro molto square dance made for a somewhat more challenging fit; but the duo definitely caught its spirit, as they did with the opening Un poco allegro, which Sherren saved for last in his arrangement.
The first half of the evening was devoted to the Spanish tradition, related through relatively recent voices. The instrumental selections were Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s Opus 196 sonatina of three movements in canon form and Sérgio Assad’s arrangements of four of the pieces collected in Federico Moreno Tórroba’s Estampas, originally composed for guitar quintet. Iranfar also sang three of Tórroba’s songs, which she arranged in collaboration with Sherren.
The evening concluded with three songs by Cole Porter, all delivered by Iranfar with a quiet low-key style. This was a far cry from Porter’s own urbanity, not to mention his preferences for outrageous double (and sometime single) meanings. However, Iranfar’s quietude seemed like the best rhetoric for concluding a evening in which there had been so much to discover.