American Songs at Herbst Theater in San Francisco

American Songs: Anthony Dean Griffey (tenor), Warren Jones (piano), Paul Brown (fiddle and banjo), presented by San Francisco Performances, Herbst Theater, San Francisco. 4.5.2011 (HS)

Just as there is something special about German, Italian or French artists performing in their own language, the sum of the parts adds up to more when a first-rate American singer collaborates on American music with accompanists who share the same roots. Such was the case Wednesday when tenor Anthony Dean Griffey, renowned for his Peter Grimes in Britten’s opera and Jimmy McIntyre in Weill’s Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, teamed with pianist Warren Jones for an evening of American songs from traditional to contemporary. Like Griffey, Jones grew up in North Carolina, which brought a palpable sense of authority to the many inflections of the American South that wove through the program, which had been postponed from its original January date.

Paul Brown played two different fiddles and three different banjos in the opening set of American folk songs, bringing a homey and distinctly Dixie-tinged feeling to arrangements of the lamenting spiritual “Wayfaring Stranger,” the bluegrass cast of “Little Birdie,” the self-deprecating humor of “Jack of Diamonds” and the folk classic “Cumberland Gap.” Brown, whose day job is as a reporter on National Public Radio, brought authenticity of less-than-authoritative musicianship to the proceedings.

Here and throughout the evening, however, Griffey deployed a honeyed voice and guileless approach, which perfectly suited the most arresting set of the evening, a last-minute replacement for songs by the almost-forgotten early 20th century American composer Charles Tomlinson Griffes. It was a fortuitous change to combine three of Copland’s utterly charming arrangements of traditional American songs, written in 1950 and 1952, with Bernstein’s “A Simple Song” from his 1971 Mass. Griffey’s big lyric sound wrapped itself around Bernstein’s falling scales and heartfelt reverence, which set up a wonderful contrast to Copland’s way with “The Boatman’s Dance.” He and Jones got the bounce of the rhythm, and Griffey relished the open vowels of “O-hi-o” against a disarmingly puckish ritard. Stage experience showed in Griffey’s demonstrative approach to “The Dodger,” complete with gestures indicative of the politician and preacher portrayed in the song. But the best came last. Copland’s piano and voice version of the Shaker hymn “Simple Gifts” goes less for the grandeur it reaches in his “Appalachian Spring” than for a straightforward rendering of the tune against subtle rhythmic shifts by the piano. The results were stunning.

Jones took a solo turn on Griffes’ tone poem for piano, Barcarolle, a mishmash of Ravel-like impressionism with an expansive climax that might have come from the pen of Rachmaninoff. Jones sketched some delicate moments of scene painting, but the overall effect was that the piece would benefit from editing. Two songs by Barber on poems by James Joyce brought the first half to an uneventful close.

The second half was devoted to Songs in the Rear View Mirror, written for Griffey by Kenneth Frazelle. Another musician with North Carolina roots, he has written material for a wide variety of singers, from Dawn Upshaw to Odetta. The 10 songs, which cover 45 minutes, were inspired by famous photographs by William Christenberry of decaying buildings in rural Hale County, Alabama, which is itself an homage to James Agee’s and Walker Evans’ Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. The nostalgic songs run the gamut from the jazzy humor of “Kudzu,” a paean to the prolific vine that has overrun acres of the South, and “Road Signs,” which juxtaposes roadside adverts for peaches with those for an abandoned church, to the wistfulness of “Beech Tree Initials,” a touching memory of a lost parent.

Frazelle’s musical palette embraces jazz elements, especially in the rhythmic foundations of the faster songs and in its ability to portray the undulations of the road trip that frames this song cycle. The composer can paint a moment with a few chords or a musical gesture, particularly in the quieter, more reflective passages, as in a song about styrofoam flowers on a grave and another about a stark, abandoned interior. A song about incest, however, which could have been chilling with the right musical language, came off as disappointingly generic, and the song that followed, with a subtext of racism, just seemed bland.

For his part, Griffey applied such gorgeous tone and winning personality to the music that it was enough of a pleasure to simply bask in the beauty of the sound. The songs that worked made it all the better.


Harvey Steiman