Originally published on March 7, 2009 and reproduced with minor revisions
I spent last night at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music attending the Graduate Recital of Madison Emery Smith. Bearing in mind how many vocal students are out there (completing both undergraduate and graduate degree programs), it is important to recognize that mastery of technique is not enough. Any student with serious aspirations of making a career out of performing, particularly as a vocal soloist, needs to differentiate himself/herself from the rest of the crowd. Smith did this in a variety of ways, all of which deserve some recognition.
- She took the initiative to prepare a post card announcement of the recital; to the best of my knowledge, these were distributed to friends and neighbors, one of whom passed her copy to me.
- She then supplemented the color photograph on her post card with an equally colorful photograph for the cover of her program book (illustrated above), thus dispensing with the usual bread-and-butter text-only style of Conservatory programs. This was the first time I saw a color program book at the Conservatory. It was rather a project unto itself, and I could not help but be impressed by it.
- Note also in that image that the program had a title. I tend to approach every performance I attend by asking if there is any unifying theme to the program, whether or not the performers explicitly cited one. This theme was explicit: real love in the real world. It was even explained in the program notes. Whether or not I agreed with what those notes said is less important than the trouble that Smith took to arrange the program and document her motives.
- The “Garner” on her post card announcement was not Erroll Garner (as I had speculated) but David Garner, who has taught at the Conservatory since 1979. He was represented by the first and last songs from his setting of seven poems by Maya Angelou, Phenomenal Woman, which he composed in 2004. These songs provided a truly unique perspective on the theme of the overall program, reinforcing it and making it all the more memorable.
None of these factors had anything to do with how the songs on the program were performed. As is almost always the case in a program with as much breadth as this one, some composers fared better than others. Thus, in the German portion the almost unembellished simplicity of Franz Schubert’s “Nachtviolen” fared much better than all the elaborate twists and turns of the three songs by Richard Strauss. On the other hand Smith’s feel for “being in the moment” with Schubert’s setting of Johann Mayrhofer served her equally effectively for Garner’s settings of Angelou. Viewing the program (and its encore from Charles Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette) as a whole, Smith was at her most effective (in both singing and making the point of her program theme) when she was not trying to be too “operatic,” which is entirely consistent with the efficacy of any offering that takes place in the Conservatory’s Recital Hall.