Soprano Saffer displays winning mix of intellect, emotional color

With an exquisite blend of crystalline purity and lively zing, soprano Lisa Saffer performed works by Handel, Schubert, Richard Strauss and Ned Rorem in the first Thompson Concert last Friday night. Judith Gordon accompanied Saffer on piano.

Saffer began with three arias by Handel: “The Soft Complaining Flute,” from St. Cecilia’s Day, “Qual farfalletta,” from Partenope, and “E pur cos in un giorno Pianger las sorte mia,” from Giulio Cesare. The three works aptly displayed the multidimensionality of her vocal abilities: her rendering of “The Soft Complaining Flute” was graceful and delicate, while her performance of the spirited love song “Qual farfaletta” effused jollity, contrasting with the range of plaintive and furious moments in the aria “E pur cos” about the death of Caesar.

She further demonstrated her wide spectrum of vocal colors in her performance of six songs by Schubert. Throughout these songs, her intelligence as a performer became apparent. Not only does she possess the raw material of fine talent, which was polished in her rigorous schooling as an undergraduate at the Oberlin Conservatory and as a graduate student at the New England Conservatory, but she also possesses a keen intellectual understanding of the significance of the texts, and a savvy ability to communicate her intellect.

Indeed, the Sturm und Drang, angst-ridden texts by Goethe set to music by the precocious romantic Schubert demand such an intellectual understanding-yet in her performance, Saffer did not simply sing the songs technically perfectly like a musical automaton, but rather infused humanistic qualities into them. In performing “Rastlose Liebe” (“Restless Love”), she conveyed in vocal and body language feelings of desperation and thwarted-ness, while in “Seligkeit” (“Bliss”) her effervescence made me positively giddy.

Such an effective performance of Schubert would not have been possible without the subtly florid accompaniment of pianist Judith Gordon. Although her exaggerated and, at times, hawkish bodily motions made it difficult for me to watch her performing without snickering, her delicately nuanced rendering of Schubert was masterful, especially since she was accompanying on an instrument that could easily drown the soloist.

Saffer continued the program with Richard Strauss’s “Mäd-chenblumenlieder” (“Maiden Blossoms”) song cycle that uses various flowers as metaphors for a certain “class” of woman. Again, Saffer displayed a wide gamut of vocal characterizations, from the sensuous, earthy song “Mohnblumen” (“Poppies”) to the haunting, impressionistic “Wasserrose” (“Waterlily”).

The program concluded with selections from Ned Rorem’s song cycle “Evidence of Things Not Seen.” Indeed, the somewhat depressing content of the cycle itself was refreshing after what seemed to be an overdose of hedonistic love poetry, or perhaps my relief stemmed from the fact that songs were in English and I didn’t have to disturb audience members by rustling my program notes to catch the translations. In any case, I was again impressed by Saffer’s ability to hone her vocal color to resound the more mundane content of this song cycle, and by her stunning clarity and accuracy of intonation in her upper range.

After three ovations, Saffer kindly graced us with a spoof of an encore by Gershwin to commemorate the 100-year anniversary of his birth. Before coming to Williams, Saffer recently sang the leading role in the Glimmerglass Opera’s production of Handel’s “Partenope.” Other engagements have included performances with the Boston Symphony, the Baltimore Symphony, the Cleveland Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic, and the Dallas Symphony. She has also recently debuted in Carnegie Hall as a soprano soloist in Orff’s “Carmina Burana” with the New York Choral Society.

Pianist Judith Gordon has recently played as a soloist with The Boston Pops, and with Gunther Schuller’s Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra. In 1996, the Boston Globe dubbed her Musician of the Year in their “Best of 1996 Classical” category.

Saffer was asked to sing in the first Thompson Concert after the Department of Music decided first that they wanted to represent a female vocalist, especially since one has not performed at Williams for more than six years.

Professor of Music Kenneth Roberts first heard her perform at Glimmerglass three years ago, and also more recently, and said, “She was clearly a major young singer to watch, so when the department asked for a young soprano, she was on my shortlist. [Finding a performer] is a kind of a research project. I spend time searching, questioning friends in the trade, searching my memory of whom I have heard, and looking at recital series elsewhere.”

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