26 September 2010

Week of Mezzo-Madness, Part 3: Susan Graham

No home should be without this album.

On Thursday night, Susan Graham and I took a little walk along the beach. We followed a little trail in the dunes until we found our way to the shore. At first, we waded in the surf. Barefoot in the sand, the water lapping gently at our toes, we skipped and smiled and rescued starfish stranded in the sun. At other times, we stood on a cliff overlooking the sea and stared out at the storm-tossed waves. The sky was like steel, and the wind and rain beat hard against our faces. Every now and I then, I thought one of us was going to fling himself into the water — but I wasn’t sure which of us would go first.

In short, my week of Mezzo-Madness concluded with a concert by the Orchestre de Paris, conducted by Bertrand de Billy, featuring Susan’s performance of Ernest Chausson’s Poème de l’Amour et de la Mer as a centerpiece. Though she recorded this music a while ago, with Yan Pascal Tortellier and the BBC Symphony, and I’ve worn a groove through the CD since then, I’d never attended a live performance (by Susan or by anyone else) of the piece.

And so for this concert, I gave myself over to the pleasure of listening. This isn’t a challenge, really: I’m in Paris, a beautiful woman is standing in front of me and singing almost absurdly gorgeous music. Crowned heads would know this evening for the luxury it was.

From an anonymous source, a photo of Susan
in the gown she wore at the concert.

But this concert was something specific and special. I don’t know the Chausson well enough to sing along, but I’ve heard it often and don’t need to use the analytical part of my brain while I listen. It’s a moody, atmospheric piece, lushly orchestrated, and very often you can hear the swelling tides and driving winds. Not least significantly, I’m also nuts about Susan (perhaps you’ve noticed this), and she’s a wonderfully sensuous artist: from her first intake of breath, I smelled the salty sea air, and I seemed to experience the music through her. She led, and so I followed her on this journey.

The temperature of her voice seemed to change as she sang, now warm with love, now cold with loss. Colors I could see but not name shimmered and shifted in the air, and Susan’s voice seemed to embrace and caress me, to wrap me — but not to constrain me — in a velvety, invisible fabric. As is her habit, she made me feel there was no one else in the room with us, and what she had to say was private, for me alone to hear. She told me the story of the songs, but she did so in a language beyond words, and the pleasure I found was physical.

Afterward, I wondered whether I listen this way often enough. I’m so lucky to hear fine artists who have, each in her own way, a power like Susan’s. Do I permit myself to surrender to them? Or do I think too much? Surely certain performances have been spoiled for me because my expectations went unmet — but what if I came to the concert hall with no expectations, or (at least) with no demands?

Well, perhaps I’ll reserve this strategy for artists I trust and for concerts as good as this one. Maestro de Billy, leading the Orchestre for the first time, started off the concert with a youthful piece by Anton Webern, Im Sommerwind, that made an excellent companion to the Poème, giving us the “summer wind” before Chausson’s stormy seas. After the interval, the Orchestre returned with Henri Dutilleux’s Mystère de l’instant and Schumann’s Fourth Symphony — but I missed them, because I went backstage to say hello to Susan. Friends from Paris and from Texas had gathered there, and we had a merry time. But it’s just as well that I wasn’t reviewing the performance.

It was a splendid conclusion to a week of riches beyond reason, and even before Susan started to sing a line from “À Chloris,” a cappella after the concert (I nearly passed out in ecstasy), I was reminded of the message of that song: no matter what happens after, we have shared this moment.

Photo by the great Dario Acosta

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