Finley sings about love and war 

Given the tremendous impact Canadian bass-baritone Gerald Finley recently made as J. Robert Oppenheimer in San Francisco

Opera’s premiere of "Doctor Atomic," it’s a shame that Herbst Theatre wasn’t packed to the proverbial rafters for his Thursday night San Francisco Performances debut recital.

Finley chose as his main vehicle Robert Schumann’s 16-song cycle of love and loss, "Dichterliebe." So moving is this oft-sung setting of Heinrich Heine’s journey from tenderness to bitter grief that virtually every baritone and his mother (witness 53-year-old soprano Lotte Lehmann), plus such polar-opposite tenors as Ian Bostridge and Rolando Villazon, longs to embrace it.

Finley and accompanist Julius Drake wasted no time making their mark with the slowest opening "Im wunderschönen Monat Mai" I’ve ever heard. Nor did they pick up the tempo in many of the subsequent songs. Speed itself wasn’t the issue — Matthias Goerne has sung portions of Schubert’s cycles very slowly, to riveting effect. Rather, forward momentum flagged, Finley so determined to express what he was feeling that pace and rhythm were often cast aside. Though body language and frequent vehemence of expression declared that Finley was looking his absent lover right in the face, the voice rarely suggested vulnerability.

Pianist Drake seemed everywhere determined to outdo his partner, lingering even longer over notes as if to say, "Look how well I could perform Schumann in solo recital if given half a chance."

The pair fared best in "War Scenes," Ned Rorem’s stunning dedication "To those who died in Vietnam, both sides, during the composition: 20-30 June 1969." Given the power of the text, five prose selections from Walt Whitman’s "Specimen Days," Rorem wrote sparingly, allowing the poet’s heart-rending sentiments to speak for themselves. Finley and Drake did much the same, honoring Whitman’s loving words with an unforced clarity that brought home the horrors of war.

Besides some early songs by Samuel Barber — a few lovely, others overdone — the remainder of the recital was devotedto Charles Ives. Most impressive were "The Side Show" and "The Greatest Man," sung in fetchingly naïve, vernacular style. Disappointing were the overly slow conclusion to "Tom Sails Away" and the absence of breathless excitement at the start of the sole encore, Ives’ usually irresistible two-part "Memories." The contrast between not quite nailing the joy and overdone nostalgia could serve as a metaphor for the entire evening.

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A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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