Palo Alto Weekly

Arts & Entertainment - July 13, 2012

Return engagement

Acclaimed singers and spouses are back on the Music@Menlo stage this summer

by Rebecca Wallace

As Music@Menlo marks its 10th anniversary this summer, the chamber-music festival continues to draw acclaim and audiences. It's also getting big encores: noted musicians who are becoming regulars.

One set of singers comes as a couple. Mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke will return for her third Music@Menlo, with her husband, baritone Kelly Markgraf, back for the second time.

Based in Chicago, the young vocalists are very accustomed to playing the East Coast. Cooke earned particular praise for her performance as Kitty Oppenheimer in the Metropolitan Opera premiere of John Adams' "Doctor Atomic" in 2008, while Markgraf's resume includes singing the role of Allazim in Luciano Berio's reconstruction of the unfinished Mozart opera "Zaide" at Carnegie Hall last year.

Still, both said they're looking forward to being back on the Peninsula, where both audiences and fellow musicians are welcoming.

"It truly feels like a family," Markgraf said of Music@Menlo in a phone interview last week. "Everybody's always attending each others' concerts and thrilled to hear the music. ... So often, especially on the East Coast, it's a very demanding, critical kind of environment."

Cooke said she sees festival founders and artistic directors David Finckel and Wu Han — who are also a married couple — as inspirations. She loves teaching and coaching singers, and said she could see herself starting a festival one day.

"It's always intense at Menlo. ... You want to absorb it all. You want to go to all the talks, be at all the performances," she said. "We go and we're sort of lifted up, and we have the energy to last us the rest of the year."

This summer, Cooke and Markgraf will again combine their energies on stage. In one of the festival's "Carte Blanche" concerts, they will present a recital with pianist Gilbert Kalish, singing a program they chose together.

They will also sing in one of the main concerts, a July 27 program called "Transported" that aims to convey listeners to other worlds through music. Markgraf will sing Samuel Barber's "Dover Beach," a look at the natural world and humanity's wars. Cooke will present Gustav Mahler's look at a child's vision of heaven in "Das himmlische Leben," from his Symphony No. 4.

While Cooke says Mahler is the composer she feels closest to, the piece is a bit of a departure. "People think of me for a more grounded repertoire, and this is more of a soprano voice. It's meant to be an angel with this childlike innocence," she said.

Overall, the theme for Music@Menlo this summer is "Resonance." Finckel and Wu Han have sought out music to strike deep chords with listeners and explore music's power to heal and transport. The festival runs July 20 through Aug. 11, with eight main concerts as well as recitals, student concerts and talks. Events are at Menlo School, the Center for Performing Arts at Menlo-Atherton High School and St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Palo Alto.

For their July 28 recital, Cooke and Markgraf said they were thrilled to be choosing their own music. It's a rare gift for a chamber vocalist.

Markgraf, who has been studying his family tree, will honor his Norwegian roots by singing three Edvard Grieg songs. Accustomed to singing in German, Italian, French and Russian, Markgraf realized he'd never sung in Norwegian before. Grieg, he of piano miniatures and concerti, seemed a natural choice.

"He wrote nearly 150 songs. ... They're not all lighthouses in the sea of lieder repertoire, but the ones that are great are more than great," Markgraf said. "His musical language and the lushness of his harmonic texture really make for some affecting songs. There's nothing standing in the way. It's very immediate music."

Markgraf's recital choices also include "War Scenes," a cycle of Ned Rorem songs set to Walt Whitman poetry. "They are extremely demanding pianistically, so to be able to work on them with a pianist as skilled and seasoned and renowned as Gil (Kalish) is quite a treat," he said.

Cooke is singing songs by Brahms including "Nicht mehr zu dir zu gehen (To visit you no longer)" and "Die Mainacht (The May night)," as well as songs by Francis Poulenc and George Crumb.

Closing the recital, Markgraf and Cooke will sing three love duets from the Jerome Kern/Oscar Hammerstein II musical "Show Boat." It's fitting for a program offering something rare to a pair of traveling musicians: the chance to travel and sing together. Usually they're booked at separate gigs, and with a young daughter in the mix, life is difficult to schedule.

Even back at home, Cooke joked, "Half the time we're just arguing over who gets to use the piano first."

Fortunately, the two are getting to perform together more often, typically at summer festivals. "I was just saying we should make an ad on our website," Cooke said. "People like seeing a couple together."

Regardless of what happens with the festival scene, Cooke is scheduled to be back in the Bay Area again next July. She's making her San Francisco Opera debut playing the title role in Mark Adamo's new opera "The Gospel of Mary Magdalene."

Adamo, who wrote the 1998 opera "Little Women," is telling the sacred story from Mary Magdalene's point of view. Cooke says Mary's character is vivid — spiritual, loyal and sensual — and the vocal writing beautiful.

There are advantages to starring in a world premiere. From time to time, Cooke said, Adamo has called to seek her input on musical passages, sometimes even wondering which key she'd prefer.

"You couldn't ask for a kinder composer," Cooke said. "When does a singer get this freedom?"

Info: Music@Menlo runs July 20 through Aug. 11. The "Transported" concert is 8 p.m. July 27 at Menlo-Atherton High School's Center for Performing Arts, 555 Middlefield Road, Atherton; tickets are $20-$65. Cooke and Markgraf will perform their recital with Gilbert Kalish at 8 p.m. July 28 at St. Mark's Episcopal Church, 600 Colorado Ave., Palo Alto. Admission is $15-$60.

For a complete schedule of concerts, talks and other events, go to http://musicatmenlo.org or call 650-330-2030.

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