by James M. Manheim
The African Canadian soprano Measha Brueggergosman is a sensation in every sense of the word. Start with the name: she grew up Measha (MEE-sha) Gosman in New Brunswick; married a Swiss, Markus Bruegger; and fused their surnames. Continue with the instrument, a powerful, energetic thing, a collection of distinct, sparkling planes that reached new intensity on her recent Extase album, a collection of French operatic arias and orchestral songs. Another source of Brueggergosman's vocal power comes from black gospel music, as was startlingly demonstrated by a hidden track on Extase: a soaring version of the Walter Hawkins classic "Goin' Up Yonder."
And then consider the attitude: a combination of diva-size personality and extreme playfulness (a big photo on her website shows her blowing bubble gum). She seems to have as good a shot as anybody of bringing classical vocal art to young people she has a MySpace page, wears a nose stud, and thanks "mah killah peeps" in the booklet notes to Extase. So far (she's not yet thirty), Brueggergosman has seemed in control of her career, putting across the variety of her personality with a range of music extending from heavy operatic roles to songs influenced by the language of popular music, including those of Gershwin.
Ann Arbor audiences were among the first in the United States to realize that Brueggergosman was really something to see. She filled in for an ailing Audra McDonald at one of the concerts marking the reopening of Hill Auditorium in 2004, and her performance, which included a group of U-M composer William Bolcom's cabaret songs, had concertgoers in town buzzing. Brueggergosman will be performing these songs (with Bolcom again at the piano) and others like them (with pianist J. J. Penna) at Hill Auditorium on Thursday, April 12.
The classical cabaret song essentially a standards-era pop song written by a classical composer is a small but fascinating slice of the classical vocal repertoire, a medium in
which classical composers both link themselves to the vernacular musical language and comment on it. Even so resolute a modernist as Arnold Schoenberg wrote a few. Bolcom's, with texts by Arnold Weinstein, show the influence of Charles Ives. Their straightforward tunes set wry romantic lyrics of middle age, portraits, or gnomic little stories. Many of the songs are quite funny; some open up the chasms of sadness and mystery that lie under everyday human lives. The piano accompaniments live a life of their own, sometimes giving simple harmonic support to the tune but more often running in parallel with it somehow perhaps in harmonically dense runs that suggest life's larger dimensions. From their popular antecedents these songs borrow a conversational quality, shifting periodically between melody and spoken or half-spoken text.
Such pieces are often performed by singers with chamber-size voices (Kerrytown Concert House is a frequent local cabaret-song venue), but I'm betting that Bolcom's are going to get their definitive performance in the larger scale of Brueggergosman's April concert. She has all the ingredients she needs to make that definitive performance: the vocal agility, the humor, the ability to tap into the African American roots that shape the melodies and ragtime rhythms of Bolcom's songs, and most of all the quality that used to be called personality, which is different from sheer charisma and which ought to let her draw the crowd into the intimate quality of these songs even in a hall the size of Hill Auditorium.
[Review published April 2007]