02 February 2012

Songs Announced from the Stage, and Other Notes from Susan Graham

Susan Graham returned to Carnegie last night for a new recital program, once again accompanied by the indispensable Malcolm Martineau, and once again cheered on by me. Almost all the material was new to Susan’s repertory, including the first song she’s ever performed in Russian, but the mix of moods and characters was just what you’d expect from her, by turns poignant and hilarious.

Indeed, the stated purpose of the program was to present a series of portraits of women, and Susan actually has a choice in the matter — that is, having played so many trouser parts, she could just as easily present a gallery of men — she reminded us with “Sexy Lady,” a comic number written by Ben Moore for that first Carnegie recital, in 2003.

Sexy indeed.

In all seriousness, Susan is a very sexy lady in her own right, and she brings to her music a whole set of decidedly physical pleasures, both for her listener and (I presume) for herself. That’s what makes her unbeatable in French rep: the warmth and sensuality of her voice find their most congenial resting place in that music.

Thus it was no surprise that Susan and Malcolm performed La Mort d’Ophélie, by the Berlioz who understands her so well, in the first half, and Poulenc’s Fiançailles pour rire, an ideal selection, in the second half of the evening. Yet as I have witnessed the collaborations between these two artists over the years, I’ve come to appreciate that their goal is never merely to make Susan look good. With their previous program, Un frisson français, they offered a survey course in French art songs — so thoroughly that any music-appreciation instructor could use the album as a starting point for a syllabus.

This time, offering their portrait gallery of women, Susan and Malcolm effectively split the program into two parts — nice girls and nasty girls — with a change of gowns at intermission, from demure white to vavoom one-shouldered dark-and-sparkly, to heighten the contrast that ranged from the Blessed Virgin in Part I to Lady M*cbeth in Part II. But in between these two extremes the distinctions weren’t so clear-cut, and the Poulenc, for example, depicts a number of ladies whose stories are very different, one from another, and from all the other stories Susan and Malcolm told during the evening.

The Lady M piece, by Joseph Horovitz, was new to me; it takes three of the titular character’s speeches and sets them to mostly conversational music that — if nothing else — gives the singer plenty of opportunity to act one of the greatest roles in theater. Seated off to the side, and thus not lost in Susan’s gaze (as I usually am), I had the chance to admire her use of gesture, economical and true, as Lady M descended from majesty to madness.

Kennst du Midland?

The set of five Mignon songs inspired me to read Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship at long last, and I confess I’ve gotten only about 10 percent of the way, according to the handy measure on my Kindle. Without having finished my reading, or even gotten to Mignon’s first appearance in the book, I’m left knowing what I knew already: that Mignon appealed to 19th-century composers because of a certain variety of innocent victimhood. What I get from Susan’s interpretations of the songs is a direct connection to the physical: when she sings of lemon trees and orange blossoms, you can smell the fragrance. Malcolm is very much complicit in evoking the sensuality of this music, it should be said, and at times I caught him “watching” a phrase as it floated away from his piano.

Susan’s wit is part of her charm as a performer, and in the final sections of the evening, “Other songs announced from the stage” and a couple of encores, she made the promised announcements with flashes of humor, as well as putting over the comic numbers (also including Messager’s “J’ai deux amants” and Porter’s “The Physician”) with verve.

We were beside ourselves with happiness, to the point that at least one fellow in the audience was shouting out requests. He wanted to hear “A Chloris,” and Susan meant to give it to us — but according to her own schedule. She is still finding fresh insights, though she’s sung this piece a thousand times, surely, and it’s grown ever more mystical, sacred even, in the purity of its feeling. Yet she turned this mood on its head a moment later, delivering Sondheim’s “The Boy from…” and cracking us up, before calling it a night.

This was the sort of musical evening when I went backstage just because it's the equivalent of pinching myself: yeah, I really do know this person who uplifts me and who decks me in beauty. And she kissed me, too, just in case I didn’t already feel like the luckiest guy on earth. Afterward I walked alone in the warm moonlit air, with her voice still ringing in my heart. It doesn’t get much better than that.

The recording of Susan’s Carnegie recital debut:
if you listen closely, you can hear me cheering.


Chelsea said...

I was there too! In the 2nd row of the balcony. After waffling back and forth, quite literally since the day tickets went on sale, I finally purchased a seat at 5pm Wednesday night, arrived at the theater just in time, and have been thanking my lucky stars ever since that I had the good sense to attend.

From the the moment she came onstage, I couldn't take my eyes off her- it was like some kind of tunnel vision. In fact, I don't think I blinked until the applause at the end of the Purcell. The whole evening was that way. Every gesture, every move she made was simple and perfect and alluring in all the right ways. I was absolutely enthralled. So much so, in fact, that when I waited at the stage door and finally had the opportunity to meet her, I lost the ability to form coherent sentences and I believe I uttered something along the lines of "You looked pretty". Somewhat less of a propitious first meeting than yours, but she was just as charming as could be, in spite of my ineptitude. I can only hope that there will come a time when I can make a better first impression.

On the whole however, I could never have dreamt up a better introduction to Carnegie Hall or to the wonders of Ms. Graham. :)

Chelsea said...

I forgot to mention that I also thought M. Martineau was heaven at the piano and that I found it particularly delightful to see in person how collaborative the two of them are. I felt a few times that I was gazing on, not a recital, but two old friends sharing an inside joke. It was such a priviledge to be allowed into the inner sanctum like that.

I will admit that I was once truly distracted- It came at the beginning of the second half when I noticed the page turner and found myself wondering if this particular man had ever attended Juilliard...