Yesterday evening San Francisco Performances (SFP) presented the penultimate program in their 2015–2016 Salons at the Hotel Rex series of one-hour informal recitals. The featured artist was Edward Nelson, the second of two San Francisco Opera Adler Fellow baritones to perform in this season’s programs. (The first was Efraín Solís, who gave the October Salon.) Nelson, singing with pianist Steve Blum as his accompanist, prepared a “songbook” program with a strong emphasis on American Broadway shows, particularly from the first half of the twentieth century. However, what made the program special was the decision to include four songs by Noël Coward.
While many of Coward’s shows made it to Broadway, the man himself was about as English as the day is long (as were just about all of the characters in his shows). He was always responsible for both words and music in his songs. Kingsley Amis was astute enough to include two of his song texts in The New Oxford Book of English Light Verse, which he completed compiling in 1977, including the verse for which Coward may be best known, “Mad Dogs and Englishmen.” Nelson did not include this in his program; but he did offer “In a Bar on the Piccola Marina,” which is just as excellent an example of the acerbically jaundiced but always charming perspective that Coward could bring to the fundamental concept of being English.
Coward packed so much into his texts that one has to hang on to every word lest one of his witticisms slips by unnoticed. Nelson brought just the right amount of clarity of diction to honor this need; and, as one might expect, he brought a more secure sense of pitch than Coward usually mustered in his own sing-song style. The Coward songs were also the ones in which Nelson most clearly appreciated the need for understatement, realizing that undue emphasis would undermine the whole affair.
Would that he had been so consistent in handling the words of Ira Gershwin. His take on “My Ship,” which Gershwin wrote with Kurt Weill for the musical Lady in the Dark, is about as close to the border of “serious art song” as the show tune repertoire is likely to get. It was written to be sung by a successful businesswoman undergoing psychoanalysis; and Gershwin described Weill’s music as sounding “sweet and simple at times, mysterious and menacing at others.” (Among the many sins of incompetence in the Hollywood film industry, one of the greatest was the decision to cut “My Ship” from the film version of Lady in the Dark.) Nelson may not have captured the full breadth of that complexity, but he certainly scored points for coming close.
More problematic were the songs that Ira wrote for his brother George. While there was some sense of gentle crooning in “Do It Again,” both “I’ll Build A Stairway to Paradise” and “I Got Rhythm” were belted out with such intensity that they may have been audible to the diners at Lefty O’Doul’s Restaurant & Cocktail Lounge. It was as if Nelson was “in gear” for the War Memorial Opera House, rather than the more intimate setting of the Rex Salon.
Unfortunately, intensity tended to trump intimacy for the better part of last night’s performance. There were also some significant lapses from the rich personal insights of American music theater, particularly in the two selections by Rufus Wainwright (“The Art Teacher” and “Dinner at Eight”), which never rose above the banality of an unrelenting series of clichés. From the more recent repertoire Nelson was far more effective in his encore selection, Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”
Thus, while the overall experience was an uneven one, the high points were definitely worth remembering.