The border between classical and popular music has always been more porous than it sometimes seems - even Arnold Schoenberg, that allegedly dour modernist doge, wrote for the cabaret. The remarkable Canadian soprano Measha Brueggergosman chose Schoenberg and others of dual stylistic citizenship for her Boston debut on Saturday, presented by the
Four "Cabaret Songs" by a young Benjamin Britten, to texts by W.H. Auden, exhibited the flexibility and creativity with which Brueggergosman uses her sumptuous, sizeable voice. She pronounced the grim, implacable "Funeral Blues" with steely edge; in the breathless "Calypso," she deployed hard Midwestern "r's" and pillowy phrasing to portray a love-giddy innocent. Shifting to a languid, husky tone - with more than a touch of Sarah Vaughan - highlighted the jazz influence in a trio of Ned Rorem songs. His setting of Christina Rossetti's "Ferry me across the water" had a seductive cast, Brueggergosman engineering simmering banter between a sultry, coy passenger and a cool, too-sexy boatman.
Five of Schoenberg's "Brettl-Lieder" showed the composer of "Verklärte Nacht" turning his harmonically gilt attention to witty amorous vignettes. Brueggergosman's timbre became more operatic, though still distinctly shading a resigned cat-lover's paramour, stealing attention by putting the animal on his bald spot, or a bright, bubbly boaster, advertising his besotted, racing heart. She ably tipped further to the classical side in songs by Francis Poulenc, elegant, noble echoes of the café. Most affecting was "C'est ainsi que tu es," perhaps Poulenc's most ineffably haunting melody; over Vignoles's bewitching pastel wash, Brueggergosman spun a rich, unadorned, beautifully controlled line.
For numbers by William Bolcom and Erik Satie, Brueg gergosman cut interpretively loose, working the comedy with regal glee. Her extroverted take on the tragicomic "don't ask, don't tell" fable of Bolcom's "George" ("call me Georgia") contrasted with her eerie-funny vibratoless stoner twang for the surreal interloper at the end of "The Total Stranger in the Garden." For Bolcom's "Amor," she unleashed R&B growling, gospel melisma, and the formidable full blaze of her charm.
The first two encores, a spirit-moved "Ride On, King Jesus" and the sweet-to-sour romance of Harnick and Baker's "Someone Is Sending Me Flowers," were trumped by the last, an impishly, iridescently sweet rendition of Tom Lehrer's "The Old Dope Peddler": With Vignoles in serene complicity, Brueggergosman delicately wreathed the hall in her own expressive, addictive gregariousness.