Six years ago, in a Metropolitan Opera production of "Hansel and Gretel," Alice Coote sang Hansel and a young mezzo from Texas was the Sandman, making her mark in a role which has only one aria.
Tonight, in the Conservatory of Music Concert Hall, former Sandman Sasha Cooke came to the rescue of San Francisco Performances, which found out just a few days ago that the long-scheduled Coote is unable to fly from London because of illness.
Cooke, San Francisco Symphony and Opera favorite (she sang the title role of the Opera's "Mary Magdelene," will rejoin SFS on a European tour later this year in Mahler's Third Symphony), conquered once again with a great voice, so rich in legato, wonderful diction in German, French, and English, and unaffected warmth and charm - no surprise there.
But there was novelty in the amazing debut of Cooke's accompanist, Pei-Yao Wang, an exceptional pianist, who brought to mind Yuja Wang, not only because of the name. (Yes, I know "Wang" is very much like "Smith," but the association is irresistible.)
At the very beginning, with just a few introductory notes to Wolf's "Gebet," Wang made the listener sit up and pay attention - remaining enthralled for the next two hours. Every touch and release was exactly right, she "speaks" the music, the notes are full of depth and meaning, the piano a full and equal partner to the singer.
The petite Taiwanese pianist, educated at Curtis and Yale, and now residing in New York, made her orchestral debut at age 8 in Taipei, has collaborated with members of the Guarneri, Orion, Chicago, and Miro quartets; performed at a dozen festivals.
Wang has studied with Richard Goode, is a graduate of The Metropolitan Opera Lindemann Young Artist Program, and has worked with James Levine at the Met, Alan Gilbert at the New York Philharmonic. She was part of the production team at the Metropolitan Opera when the company received a Grammy Award for the production of John Adams' "Doctor Atomic."
So she has a track record and deserved fame, but unknown here until tonight when Cooke and Ruth Felt's S.F. Performances brought her to San Francisco, in a debut to remember.
Now, to the other half of the duet: Cooke put together an unusual, interesting program, which entertained and satisfied - up to a point. There was mirth and charm, vocal excellence, seductive good humor, selections rarely if ever heard, but depth and gravitas didn't go beyond two wonderful lieder by Henri Duparc to text by Charles Baudelaire: "L'Invitation au voyage" and "La vie antérieure" - text and music of substance, inviting repetition beyond the initial experience.
Cooke said recently of the program that "It’s like planning a dinner... you don’t want it to be all heavy or all too light." Emphasis was clearly on entertainment and - without a question - she succeeded delightfully. Poulenc's "Cinq Poemes de Max Jacob" and George Crumb's "Three Early Songs" had their share of strange and bizarre, besides being musically unusual and intriguing.
Britten's "A Charm of Lullabies" and Copland's "Old American Songs" were pleasant if unchallenging; even Cooke's Hugo Wolf selections (from "Mörike-Lieder") were of lighter nature than most of the composer's lieder.
The encores - Granados' "El mirar de la Maja" and William Bolcom's "Black Max" - were in the same vein, although the humor and drama mixing in "Black Max" had a greater impact.
It may sound like it, but I am not complaining, how could I when experiencing such a run of faultless performances. The point is that a bit more drama and pathos would have made the evening more complete.
And yet, I am seriously considering to hop over to the Home of the New Deep Freeze on Feb. 3, when Cooke and Wang perform the same program in Alice Tully Hall. (http://www.juilliard.edu/about/newsroom/2013-14/mezzo-soprano-sasha-cook...)
Never mind weight or lack of same, this concert is that good, a gourmet meal... without too much meat, so I may turn vegetarian.