Can you mention Stephen Sondheim and Richard Wagner in the same breath?
In his spoken introduction to "Flirting with Sondheim," the latest concert in the MacPhail Center's Spotlight Series on Saturday evening, series director Mischa Santora did just that.
Both composers, he said, were exceptional in writing both the words and music for their theater pieces, tasks usually divided between at least two people.
That type of multi-tasking can have benefits. The selections from Sondheim's 1970 show "Company," which opened the MacPhail recital, showed why.
The intricate interlocking of verbal and musical shapes in "You Could Drive a Person Crazy" was exhilarating, a constantly serendipitous wave of aural and intellectual pleasure.
"(Not) Getting Married Today" showed a similar, seamless integration of words and music, one never dominating the other. The patter-part in this trio, where Sondheim out-Rossinis Rossini, was brilliantly dispatched by mezzo-soprano Ivory Doublette, a glint of mischief in her features.
Doublette's comedic instincts also animated "Barcelona,"a morning-after-the-night-before song, where baritone Tom Speckhard was her wryly disinterested partner.
Timing is everything in Sondheim — his songs are often excruciatingly tricky rhythmically — and Speckhard made it all look rather easy.
He struck an elegant balance between amusing and irritating in "You Must Meet My Wife" (from "A Little Night Music"), and deftly mingled the sardonic with the self-deprecating in the duet "It Would Have Been Wonderful."
Verbal agility also marked the sparky contributions of tenor Joey Clark, whose "Giants In The Sky" kicked off the selection of numbers from Sondheim's fairy-tale musical "Into The Woods," which ended the concert.
Soprano Andrea Leap came strongly to the fore in this section: Her "Moments In The Woods" cleverly suggested the disorienting mix of quivering excitement and trepidation that comes from wandering in the "dangerous woods" of Sondheim's fable.
Earlier a clutch of numbers was included from Leonard Bernstein's "West Side Story," a show on which Sondheim worked as lyricist only.
Sandwiched between generous slices of Sondheim's own music, they made a curiously mixed impression, possibly because they work less well when shorn of Bernstein's big-band Broadway orchestration.
Joey Clark's urgent, sappy take on "Something's Coming" was probably the pick of the Bernstein selection. Tenor Dennis Petersen brought his operatic chops to bear on the iconic love song "Maria,"as he had earlier to "Company's" showstopping "Being Alive."
Both numbers seemed curiously unresponsive to operatic treatment: Music theater, at its best, is as specialized a genre vocally as grand opera, and singers who excel in one are rarely as effective in the other.
A small ensemble led by the tirelessly on-point Timothy De Prey on piano played the accompaniments, with double bassist Matt McIntyre and drummer Erik Schee discreetly supporting.
This affectionately curated recital got the spirit of Sondheim right. His wit, taste, naughtiness and erudition were all present and making mischief. The music palpitated in all its life-affirming vitality. Sondheim will be 88 next month, and he has not yet finished writing.
Terry Blain is a freelance classical music critic for the Star Tribune. Reach him at email@example.com.