Sasha Cooke premieres some delectable songs among the 17 written for her during the pandemic

United StatesUnited States Various, Sacha Cooke: ‘how do I find you’: Sasha Cooke (mezzo-soprano), Kirill Kuzmin (piano). Presented by San Francisco Symphony, Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco, 30.1.2022. (HS)

On Sunday evening, mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke – who says she has sung on the Davies Symphony Hall stage 54 times, more than anyplace else – premiered 17 songs written for her during the pandemic (listed in full below). ‘It became an experiment in liberation’, she wrote in a program note, ‘inspired by a time in which so many of us have looked into the mirror and wondered: Is this real life? Who are you now? How do I find you?’

The commissions came from a San Francisco-based benefactor, who had originally suggested a single large piece. It was Cooke’s idea to spread the wealth around and give a range of composers, all in their forties or younger, carte blanche to write what they wanted. The topics range from coping with pandemic lockdowns to big things that happened during the past two years, such as racial reckoning and wildfires in California.

A recording of these songs was released by Pentatone in January, but this was their first live performance. Pianist Kirill Kuzmin, a principal coach with Houston Grand Opera, collaborated on the recordings and accompanied Cooke last year in a virtual recital that included several of the new songs.

Sasha Cooke (mezzo-soprano) and Kirill Kuzmin (piano) (c) Kristen Loken

Among the familiar names in the list of composers are Caroline Shaw (whose song provided the title for the album and the recital), Missy Mazzoli, Timo Andres, Gabriel Kahane and Nico Muhly, the only composer on the agenda with whom Cooke had worked before, singing the lead in his Marnie at the Metropolitan Opera.

All of the songs neatly fit Cooke’s voice, a polished and flexible instrument that lives most beautifully in the middle range but can extend high and low with ease. With her clarity of communication, she can convey nuances of a text, whether in song or opera, with the best of them.

The lyrical music shies away from clashing dissonances or jagged melodies in favor of smoothly singable lines. They are relatable, and the best fuse music and words into powerful emotions, emphasizing the right syllables but also conjuring something bigger than either element could on its own.

The best example: Huang Ruo’s ‘The Work of Angels’ to a poem by David Henry Hwang that explores the brutal mistreatment of nineteenth-century Chinese immigrants in detention on Angel Island in San Francisco Bay. In the opening stanza, ‘Sunday/they say/Is for worship’, Quo’s music summons the ghosts of the women held there with a series of softly dissonant chords in the piano against a melody that could be a hymn. The poem eventually alludes to those who hanged themselves rather than return to the places they left. The piece ends quietly, humming a version of the original tune.

That song is among several exploring emotions that parallel what many have felt about living during a pandemic. The text by Kelly Rourke for ‘Spider’ uses the insect’s web to represent composer John Glover’s willingness to carve out time to see nature’s details. The music creates a mesmerizing sense of suspension.

Hilary Purrington’s ‘That Night’ sets Mark Campbell’s text about a mythical night in New York City (‘The sidewalks dance/And everyone flirts/And everyone who flirts/Knows how to flirt’). Fast-moving piano lines evoke a wild taxi ride down Fifth Avenue, focusing on the colors going by. The piece ends with ‘That night/you miss the most’, the music fading wistfully.

Kamala Sankaram’s meditative music for ‘Listen’ creates an almost invisible platform for Mark Campbell’s words that quietly and poetically urge us to hear those who can tell us about racism from experience. Lembit Beecher’s wistful, elegiac music is background for the words of the people returning to their homes after the California wildfires.

Most of the songs center on coping with the isolation and distractions we all suffered through the past two years.

Some use comedy to great effect. Rene Orth’s ‘Dear Colleagues’ is a virtual operatic scena for a harried mom wrangling online work and child care, with a partner who is not helping. The text, by Colleen Murphy, notes that the average length of uninterrupted working at home during the pandemic was 3 minutes 24 seconds, and the song is exactly that long.

Emily Roller compiled actual Facebook posts, memes and comments into the text for Frances Pollock’s rapid-fire ‘#MasksUsedToBeFun’, a compendium of catch phrases, name-calling and expressions of woe. In ‘(A Bad Case of) Kids’, Andrew Marshall fashions a jazzy cabaret song from Todd Boss’s cheeky rhymes about the ‘mental mariachi’ of coping with lockdowns at home with children. (‘Nothing’s as bad as we think…/I’ve found a new reason to drink’.) Cooke seemed right in her element on those.

More than half the remaining songs take a serious look at our conflicting emotions. Caroline Shaw’s ‘how do I find you’, for which she also wrote the words, employs a repetitious melodic phrase for lines like ‘We fend off the sendoff/suspending the mending’ and ‘tending a garden is mending a love’. Gabriel Kahane, who also wrote the words for his piece, shapes ‘The Hazelnut Tree’ into a Joni-Mitchell-esque song that ends, ‘Open the door. see the sun/On the hazelnut tree’.

Missy Mazzoli looks across the centuries to another artist working valiantly in difficult circumstances in ‘Self-Portrait with Dishevelled Hair’ (the title of a Rembrandt canvas), with Royce Vavrek’s description of painting portrait after portrait to communicate with friends and loved ones.

But it is Muhly’s ‘Altitude’ that sums up what these past two years have done to us. The music uses nervous repetition and echoes between the voice and piano to convey the unsettling feeling of isolation in Lola Ridge’s evocative words. In less than two minutes, this song does it better than the lengthier song that concluded the evening.

Harvey Steiman

Caroline Shaw – ‘how do I find you’
Kamala Sankaram – ‘Listen’
Matt Boehler – ‘Risk Not One’
Missy Mazzoli – ‘Self-Portrait with Dishevelled Hair’
John Glover – ‘Spider’
Frances Pollock – ‘#MasksUsedToBeFun’
Christopher Cerrone – ‘Everything Will Be Okay’
Lembit Beecher – ‘After the Fires’
Andrew Marshall – ‘(A Bad Case of) Kids’
Huang Ruo – ‘The Work of Angels’
Timo Andres – ‘Altitude’
Nico Muhly – ‘Inward Things’
Hilary Purrington – ‘That Night’
Joel Thompson – ‘Still Waiting”’
Rene Orth – ‘Dear Colleagues’
Gabriel Kahane – ‘The Hazelnut Tree’
Jimmy López – ‘Where Once We Sang’

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