With 22 seasons under its belt, Pacific Serenades still makes a major point of trying to freshen the chamber music repertoire with newly commissioned works.
Sunday afternoon in Pasadena's Neighborhood Church, the series presented its 90th commission -- the U.S. premiere of "Friendly Persuasions," a song cycle for tenor by Jake Heggie (composer of opera's "Dead Man Walking") built on a great idea. Working in a form crammed to overflowing with sentimental love poetry, Heggie and his lyricist, Gene Scheer, deal instead with snapshots from the life of French composer Francis Poulenc in imaginative ways that ring true.
In the first song, Poulenc has a frantic conversation with the pioneering harpsichordist Wanda Landowska, who gives him love advice -- go after that young man whom you fancy -- while demanding that he finish his new concerto for her (which turned out to be the Concert Champêtre). In another, Pierre Bernac, the baritone for whom Poulenc wrote many songs, looks on in horror as Poulenc destroys a draft of a new song.
Heggie deftly and quickly sketches the multiple musical personalities of Poulenc without imitating him per se: the manic clown in the Landowska and Bernac songs; a nostalgist in the slow waltz that ends the song lamenting a female friend, Raymonde Linossier, who died young; a serious citizen in the martial air of the song featuring French Resistance poet Paul Éluard.
Heggie and Scheer also give their tenor a chance to do some vocal acting as if this were an opera, a freedom that the gifted Nicholas Phan exercised to the hilt. And the unusual ensemble for which Heggie wrote this version -- harpsichord, oboe, flute and cello -- relates directly to Poulenc's sound world (the London world premiere in April was for tenor and piano).
With the configuration for Heggie's songs as a base, Phan, flutist Mark Carlson, oboist Leslie Reed, cellist David Speltz and harpsichordist Patricia Mabee were elsewhere deployed in various combinations in a clutch of Baroque sonatas, trio sonatas and arias.
Phan's fresh lyric tenor found more expressive outlets in three arias from J.S. Bach's Cantatas Nos. 99, 73 and 78. Reed expertly articulated everything she touched in Boismortier's Trio Sonata in E minor, Opus 37, No. 2, and Vivaldi's Sonata in C minor, RV 53. Carlson displayed graceful Baroque chops in Bach's Sonata in B minor, BWV 1030.
Speltz brandished a light, leathery, period-performance-influenced tone, and Mabee underpinned everything with solid rhythmic playing.
Overall, though, Bach provided more in the way of substance and ingenuity here than his Baroque colleagues.