As I was walking up O'Farrell tonight on my way to the Herbst Theater to hear mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe open SF Performances' season I was tempted to put the buds in my ears, but I had nothing on the phone that seemed appropriate for the brief walk to hear a recital by an opera singer. Lately I have this desire to tune out the world around me and this is a pretty effective method. Everything falls into the background when your head is absorbed in "Can't You Hear Me Knockin'," "Midnight Rambler," or "Cracked Actor." When there's nothing else, for the past few months the Stones have been my default musical choice. They've replaced Beethoven. I can't explain why. In fact I have 42 songs by them on my phone- three hours plus, and I had to choose judiciously. I deleted the Fidelio with Kaufmann and Stemme to make room for it all. It's just where I am at the moment.
So I hit "Dance, Part 1" off of Emotional Rescue and was enjoying the Latin-tinged disco strolling down Polk and as I came to the corner of Van Ness and McCallister I was marveling at the impressive speed of the guitar work that closes out "Respectable." Grooving along to all this, I was a little dismayed to see hardly a soul outside the theater. It was incredibly warm tonight, one of those rare San Francisco nights where everyone should be out carousing without thought of what the morning will bring. Jobs? Relationships? Screw all that, what about this heat? It comes too rarely not to enjoy it, but I've heard Blythe deliver a couple of amazing performances in the past few years and this was her first local recital, so in I went.
The sparse crowd outside and in the lobby didn't reflect what I found once I was in the theater. There was a decent sized audience, though nowhere near capacity, which is too bad, because Blythe delivered a pretty strong performance
Accompanied by the very talented and affable Warren Jones on piano, the program featured a first half of twelve poems by Emily Dickinson set to music by James Legg, who died in 2000 at the age of 38 (his partner personally delivered the music to Blythe after his death, and she's continuously performed the work since debuting it last summer in New York), and Three Songs, Opus 10, by Samuel Barber, set to three poems from James Joyce's Chamber Music.
I know this makes me sound like a bumpkin, but I've never been an admirer of Dickinson's poetry and it boggles my mind she has this aura of tremendous genius surrounding her in the popular mind while someone like Amy Lowell remains an obscure, rarely acknowledged talent. Needless to say, while the poems were performed well, I found the whole less than inspiring. There was just nowhere for her to turn it loose. And that's why one goes to hear her in the first place. However, I did enjoy Blythe and Jones reading the poems aloud to the audience beforehand.
Why did they do this? Blythe explained from the stage at the beginning of the show that when she sings in English, she doesn't want to see heads in the audience bowed down to follow the text- she's worked hard so we don't have to, and all in all it was an accurate boast and the pre-reading was unnecessary, even if it was more entertaining than the actual music.
They did the same thing with Joyce's poems, though there were only three, but this time it was more appropriate. Perhaps that's because I do admire Joyce. Or perhaps I just like Barber's music more than Legg's. Regardless, by the time Blythe got to the final part of this triptych, she hit her stride and let loose that enormously powerful voice, even though it was obvious she was holding back due to the relatively small size of the theater. I don't necessarily think she has a beautiful voice, but I can't think of a contemporary singer who has a more impressive voice, and if she had given it all out the audience probably would have looked like that guy in the Marantz ads of the seventies (or was it Pioneer- who cares, we now listen to music loaded onto phones).
The real sparks flew in the second half of the program, which began with Jones playing Scott Joplin's "Peacherine Rag" and then Blythe delivered eight impeccably phrased and sung Tin Pan Alley-era songs, of which the highlights were the sweet sentimentality of Hylton and Brown's "If I Had a Talking Picture of You" and the saucy innuendo of Irving Berlin's "You'd Be Surprised." Blythe obviously loves this material, and at times I could picture her screaming to herself that she didn't get the Mama Morton role in Rob Marshall's Chicago, which after tonight I think she'd be great in. If you've never heard of Blythe, think of Ethel Merman. Not the Ethel Merman whom people parody, but the Ethel Merman who was actually a gargantuan talent. That's Blythe.
During the second half Jones also performed Joplin's "Magnetic Rag" which is infused with classical touches throughout, and his playing was an impressive blending of the two genres which only someone with a deep musical knowledge could pull off so effortlessly. The performance closed with another Joplin rag, followed by a spiritual, and because I'm a heathen I have no idea what it was, but I wouldn't be surprised if the title is "Beautiful Dreamer."
Walking home, I kept the buds out of my ears. The Tenderloin is no place to walk through after 10 PM and not be able to hear what's going on around you, though I see people do it all the time. Outside of Mitchell Brothers, a woman staggered in street, blocking traffic, while a police cruiser sat waiting for the light to change. Her associate, a man on a bicycle, called out to her "You stupid fucking bitch- get off the street- the police are right there!"
She replied, "I can't see 'em, and fuck 'em. Where they at? I can't help it. Can't help myself."
The light turned green and the cops went on their way- as was to be expected. I continued on, and right now I'm listening to the Stones, once again. "Hot Stuff, can't get enough...."