The Austrian soprano Ute Gfrerer is one of the best kept secrets in her new Boston hometown. A fixture in European festivals and most especially the Vienna Volksoper, she brings a clarion yet sumptuous instrument and an interpretive flexibility to a wide variety of repertoire, from comic opera to cabaret to Broadway—each in a seemingly inevitable and totally engaged style and in excellent French, German and English. At her recital at Crowell Chapel in Manchester-by-the-Sea on Saturday night she gave us a concert of two distinct parts.
Carrying the name “Portraits,” the themed program encompassed work of German Jewish composers who fled the Nazis. The first half was devoted mostly to compositions written in the 1930’s and 40’s in Germany and France. Some of the works were composed while their composers were in concentrations camps or in exile. Many of the texts of these songs came from composers who perished in the Nazi holocaust. The second half traced the legacies of some of that generation’s Jewish-American successors into the realm of Broadway.
Gfrerer made a sweeping entrance down the aisle to the tune Poulenc’s “Voyage á Paris” before segueing into Cole Porter’s “I Love Paris,” seeming to set the stage by evoking the glamorous Europe that was about to vanish, before depicting its degradation in the music that followed. In many of the songs she evoked an Edith Piaf—one could imagine cigarettes and whiskey in her delivery—in others, the purity of a lonely child or a despondency of a despairing father. The moods ranged from abject resignation through ironic cynicism to a Gallic shrug. The concept could have been very depressing, but the delivery was not. If some of the songs were very sad, others showed the persecuted Jewish composers’ abilities to laugh in the face of death.
Norbert Glanzberg (1910–2001) has become something of a specialty for Gfrerer. He was well connected and much appreciated in Weimar Germany and was much in demand as a film scorer for the likes of Billy Wilder. The Nazi’s ascent to power sent him to an exile in Paris where he eked out a living playing piano in nightclubs. His “Ule mein Sohn” was emblematic of the entire first half. In a wonderfully despairing manner only possible in a French nightclub, or from a great singing actress such as Gfrerer, we were taken on a journey into the darkest moments of German history—think of “My Man’s Gone Now” meets “Elrkönig.” The poet fearful of the death sentence and the dying father who can’t see his son grow up were beautifully embodied.
Perhaps the strangest song of the evening was the Buchenwälder March, a competition winner which may have saved the lives of the composer and librettist—both inmates at the eponymous camp. The tune of the march was strangely upbeat and Sousaphonic, but the words were quite seditious—one wonders how they got by the camp’s governor. “Keep in step comrade and don’t give up hope,/ for we carry the will to live in our blood. . .”
In “Der Alte Baum,” Glanzberg set a soldier’s poem. Perhaps the ancient tree was an allusion to the dead Germany of his past. And perhaps the poet was including remorse for his own complicity. If Brahms had remained in the brothels of his adolescence, he might have written that bittersweet song of collective guilt.
The arc of the first half closed with anticipations of the next stage for Jewish songwriters. Michel Legrand’s “Papa can you hear me” from the movie “Yentl” gave us Streisand without the “mirror, mirror on the wall,” and Charles Louis Strouse’s “Children of the Wind” from the musical “Rags” brought us right up to date in a torch song of steerage passengers en route to America.
The second half was unapologetic Broadway, with unfamiliar songs from shows of Bernstein, Sondheim and Blitzstein. If one is going to hear this repertoire in concert with piano, this is the way it should be delivered—a gorgeous soprano in a sexy red dress, a pianist (the estimable William Merrill) totally immersed in the collaboration—and most importantly no mike! For this writer amplification makes current Broadway unbearable. In the Crowell Chapel we had nuance and immediacy from both artists and more importantly, they seemed to know the audience was present.
The highlight of the second half was certainly the penultimate set of three Sondheim songs in which Gfrerer’s full range was shown. We heard an almost baritonal belter becoming a drunken lounge lizard in “Broadway Baby,” the regretful “glitter and be gay” lament of a neglected child in “Glamorous Life,” and finally a poignant consoling madonna with “No one’s gonna hurt you, not while I’m around.”
Gfrerer’s every gesture was effective and her vocal-stylistic range was astonishing. She’s a compleat creature of the theater.