SUSAN GRAHAM: exemplary recitalist


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Poémes de l'amour
Awards 2005
In recital
C'est ça la vie!
La Belle Époque
DeadMan Walking

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SUSAN GRAHAM in recital proves, hands down, that:
a.) she's a great singer, a versatile artist; and
b.) Octavian/Cherubino "can be a sexy lady!"

At her company debut with the Los Angeles Opera last April, Susan Graham did just that. As soon as she made her way to center stage of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, all towering 6' feet of her attired in a dark rose gown, the audience broke into welcoming applause all but certain that they were in for a special evening of song.

As indeed it turned out to be. Though perhaps aware of her reputation as the quintessential Octavian (the mezzo-soprano pants role in Richard Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier which has become her calling card), most of the audience members probably had never heard Susan Graham in a live performance. With Malcolm Martineau's exquisite piano accompaniment, this recital showcased the extraordinary range of both her voice and her repertoire. Could there have been a better way to find out what makes "America's favorite mezzo" tick?

She started off with Francis Poulenc's light-hearted Quattre poémes d'Appolinaire (Four Poems by Appolinaire), charming the audience with her delightful delivery of this humorous and witty cabaret-style song cycle as she switched with ease from her perfect legato in "L'anguille" (The Eel) and "Carte-postale" (Postcard) * to the near-staccato, rapid-fire patter of "Avant le cinéma" (Before the cinema) * and "1904."

at the LA OPERA

Another song cycle and a half from the French repertoire - love songs for the most part - completed the first half of the program. With piano, flute (Heather Clark), and cello (Rowena Hamill) accompaniment, Ms. Graham communicated the impassioned, exotic eroticism of "Nahandove" and "Il est dous" and the implied violence of the anti-colonialist "Aoua!" in Maurice Ravel's Chansons madécasses (Songs of Madagascar - poetry by Evariste Desire de Forges Parny). With three relatively familiar songs - "Villanelle", "La spectre de la rose" (The ghost of the rose), and "L'ile inconnue" (The unknown isle) from Hector Berlioz' beautiful Les nuits d'été (Summer Nights - based on poetry by Théophile Gautier), she concluded the French part of the program, evoking the varied emotions of romantic love - in style and diction as French-perfect as a Gallic songstress could possibly be. It wouldn't have been surprising if she left many a listener in the audience wondering: "Could Susan Graham have been a French chanteuse in an earlier life?" But it can be said with certainty that the French people appreciate her significant contribution to French culture - she was recently named Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters, France's highest cultural award.

The second half of the program was in part a coming home to one's roots. It highlighted the modern American art song, a genre that has become a significant part of Ms. Graham's concert repertoire and recording career.

A few years ago in an opera, "I became a nun," she said, referring to her acclaimed performance as Sister Helen Prejean in JAKE HEGGIE's successful if somewhat controversial opera against capital punishment, Dead Man Walking, which San Francisco Opera premiered in 2000. It was a straightforward introduction to Heggie's recent composition (for voice, piano and flute), The Deepest Desire: Four Meditations on Love. The song cycle, based on four free-verse poems written by Sister Helen Prejean ("The Call; More is Required; Love", "I Catch on Fire", "The Deepest Desire", and "Primary Colors") is a direct offshoot of the composer's search for the core of Sister Helen's spirituality (and indirectly his own). Needless to say, Ms. Graham, for whose voice the music was written and for whom the words clearly had meaning, gave gentle power and magnificence to Sister Helen's deepest desire (aka God's will), and to Jake Heggie's lean, melodic lines. It is a collaboration that one hopes will bear more fruit.

Switch back...

... to the light-hearted (as in "1,2,3" - perhaps the shortest song there ever was)
... and sentimental - as in "The Things Our Fathers Loved" ** and Memories (B - Rather Sad)
... and funny - as in Memories (A - Very Pleasant)
... and dreamy-nostalgic - as in "From the Swimmers" and "The Housatonic at Stockbridge"

... to five distinctly American/Yankee songs by Charles Ives - from the songbook that in 2005 won her the Grammy for Best Classical Vocal Performance. Clearly at home with these songs, Ms. Graham sang them all with ardor and, when the song called for it, a genuine sense of fun ("Memories - A. Very pleasant"). ** (P.S.  As you can hear, she's not only a great singer; she's a good whistler too!)

Lieder from Gustav Mahler's wonderfully melodic cycle of songs based on folk poetry about nature, life and love, Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Youth's Magic Horn), were a fitting finale in place of the three opera arias listed on the printed program. The audience was in awe as Ms Graham sang four songs that stirred a variety of emotions - from the bright and lively Rheindlegenchen (Rhine Legend) and Wer hat dies Ledlein erdacht (Who thought up this little song?) to the sad and melancholy Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen (Where the beautiful trumpets blow) and the profoundly tragic Das irdische Leben (The Earthly Life). Her beautifully nuanced singing earned her warm thunderous applause, no doubt an appreciation of the certainty that the foremost specialist of the French art song will soon be known as a leading interpreter of German Lieder as well. It was an exceptional evening of pure song.

For encores, Ms. Graham sang the moving love song "A Chloris" (drawn from La Belle Époque her album of French songs that may very well have immortalized the composer Reynaldo Hahn), and then to the audience's delight and her first concession to opera for the evening, spun out her first "Habañera" from Bizet's Carmen ever (She said so herself from the stage:"This is the first time I'm singing this." A portent of roles to come? One wishes!) With the riotously funny "Sexy Lady," a spoof on her signature trouser roles composed just for her by Ben Moore, she sent the audience home laughing hard but convinced that Octavian (or Cherubino or Giulio Cesare or...) is in truth a "Sexy Lady" - and boy! can she sing it all!
- ©CG/FanFaire 2005

Following the performance, Susan Graham and Malcolm Martineau signed autographs and exchanged pleasantries with fans at the lobby of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

- indicates audio clip

* clip from her CD Susan Graham at Carnegie Hall (CLICK to BUY the CD)

** clip from her CD Ives: Concord Sonata; Songs (CLICK to BUY the CD)

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