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October 15, 2013 5:39 pm
For ordinary singers, success in the big opera houses represents a significant career accomplishment. But there is a new generation of US vocal artists who have forsworn Verdi, Wagner and Puccini to immerse themselves in the music of their own time. Soprano Jessica Rivera and mezzo-soprano Kelley O’Connor embody that new noble breed, illuminating works by Adams, Glass and Golijov, while finding satisfaction and providing revelations in the contemporary song literature.
Rivera’s appearance in Berkeley two years ago under Cal Performance’s aegis has prompted a new touring programme of commissions and selected song classics uniting these two performers. No fewer than three premieres dominated this generous recital, for which Robert Spano temporarily deserted the Atlanta Symphony podium to supply lustrous and empathetic, if occasionally over-assertive keyboard accompaniments.
The three commissions testify to the range of subjects and styles that still inspire composers of song. In “That Time with You” David Bruce sets the verse of Glyn Maxwell with a conversational ease that recalls Ned Rorem at his finest, and O’Connor rendered the short cycle in a voice that fused intimacy with grandeur. Rivera’s radiant soprano introduced Jonathan Leshnoff’s touching Monica Songs. The six numbers recall a remarkable woman through quotations from the Book of Ruth, e.e. cummings and the subject’s personal correspondence with her daughter. The rhetoric is heroic, the harmonies are expansive, yet there is a tenderness at the core that was captured rapturously by Rivera’s plush instrument, so sensitive to the power of understatement.
The two singers collaborated on selections from Berkeley resident Gabriela Lena Frank’s Cantos de la Cocina (The Kitchen Songbook), which combine homespun wisdom and recipes in catchy duets. The premiere told us how to prepare sofrito, but the instructions whizzed by too fast to take notes. A tasty addition to the song repertoire.
Rivera and O’Connor leavened the concert with carefully chosen solos and duets, of which the hazy harmonies of Federico Mompou’s Combat del Somni left the most haunting impression. One wished O’Connor had paid more attention to word values in Debussy’s Chansons de Bilitis, but this recital nevertheless emerged a singular experience.
This concert is repeated on October 29 at Carnegie Hall, New York
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