Thursday, August 13, 2015

Perfect Combo - Zen Box and Source Song Festival

Not quite sure what to do with ourselves after a month of serious choral singing, we decided to spend some time listening to other people sing. The McPhail Center for Music happened to be hosting a week-long festival called Source Song. Many of the events were workshops and master classes designed for advanced students and professional singers, composers, and accompanists, but some of the evening recitals were free, the programs looked enticing, and best of all, they were only an hour long.

I'm a big fan of the art song, whether it be eighteen-century Italian, nineteenth-century German, or twentieth-century French. In the first place, the naked human voice is a lovely instrument, and due to that fact, even the most astringent modern compositions for voice can hardly avoid being lyrical. It also seems that the poems chosen for text often take on added depth or poignancy in a musical setting.

One added feature of these recitals was that they started at 6:15. This meant that we could park down near the river—plenty of meters available at that time of day—and check out the Happy Hour at Zen Box Izakaya, which runs from five to six.

The items we sampled at Zen Box were uniformly fresh and tasty, from the Moyashi Itame (Bean sprouts, carrots, onion stir-fry) to the Age Gyoza (crispy pot-stickers with Kamikaze sauce). I loved the Daigaku Imo (fried sweet yams) and the Chicken Kara-Age (boneless pieces of fried chicken Japanese style). The seaweed salad tasted like the salad they serve on the pier in Morro Bay, California (that is to say, very good) and the Chashu (flame-grilled pork belly) was like limp flavorful rounds of thin bacon sitting in a bowl of rice covered in citrus soy.

The wait-staff at Zen Box all wear t-shirts and headbands, as if they've just stepped in from the rice paddies, or were trying out to be extras in The Seven Samurai. The house wines and sake are served in beakers from which you can refill your little shot glass again and again.

Refreshed and invigorated by an array of bright but not overly spicy flavors, we walked a block and a half to the McPhail Center, stopping along the way to plug a few more quarters into our meter.

The McPhail's Antonello Hall is one of my favorite venues. The chairs aren't great, but the theater space is smallish while opening out to the city via an enormous window behind the stage. The wood paneling on the walls is an added pleasure.

And we were in select company—among the privileged few.  There were eleven artists set to perform (including the pianists, of course), and by my count, there were thirty people in the audience. If we add to the list of artists the four composers in the audience who stood up to receive a share of the applause as their presence was acknowledged by the singer on stage who'd just performed their work, then the ratio between artist and listener becomes more balanced yet.

We ducked into the recital hall too late to read the program, and throughout the set I was thinking that these students were very talented indeed. Only later did I learn that they'd flown in from Maryland, Philadelphia, Delaware, and North Dakota. (Maybe she drove down.) They'd come to study with the composers and vocalists involved with Source Song, including French baritone Francois Le Roux and Russian baritone Anton Belov. It was great fun listening to them sing.

The recital we attended that first night was devoted to compositions by living composers from Minnesota, but thinking back on them now, I couldn't tell you anything much about stylistic differences between composers or individual pieces. The personalities of the singers made a much stronger impression, not only though their voices by also through their choice of clothing, their postures, and their facial expressions. The next night we returned again to hear the same vocalists perform Brahms, Wolf, deFalla and other venerable composers.

Superficial impressions: One soprano had a confident bearing on stage, a warm tone, curly black hair, and great strength in the upper register, but I was troubled by the glittery collar on her black dress. Another had stout legs and bold posturing, but her voice seemed to be beaming from outer space, pure and clear, and the variety of expressions that passed across her face as she sang was extraordinary. One had a pinched and plaintive face that came to life when she sang Poulenc.  And another had the appearance of a well-heeled former soccer mom who'd taken up a new career to find fulfillment—and discovered she had the pipes to pull it off.

Whether it was me, or the hall, or the Daigaku Imo, I don't know, but I also found the pianists very pleasant to listen to. Rather than focusing intensely on their own expressive power, they were focusing on something less predictable—the vocalist's pace. And freed of the burden of relentlessly carrying the tune, they could let the textures flow.   

We ran into our friend Athena Kildegaard after the performance, and I asked her if she might, by chance, be related to the Anika Kildegaard who had just sung so beautifully.

"She's my daughter," she said proudly. "But did you happen to see the recital Wednesday night by Francois Le Roux? I don't speak French, but it was magnificent."

"I'll tell you what," I said. "I have the compete songs of Faure and Poulenc on eight CDs. How would you like I burn you a selection? "

"That would be great," she said. 

And so I did.

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