Monday, January 16, 2012

Graham: Which Concert Did You Hear?

Susan Graham gave a recital at Cal Performances the other night, and reactions are varied.
At least one other blogger was there beside me, and I hope he will eventually weigh in on the recital.

As for my opinion. Among other things, I have to wonder whether I am really cut out for vocal recitals, especially those that run two hours. I think the last one I attended (and reviewed) was Anne-Sophie von Otter in the fall of 2005. (Right, I have missed quite a few really good ones along the way, and previously, most prominently, every last LHL recital.) It's not so easy to listen to one voice for so long; there's a built-in lack of variety even when it's the greatest artist in the world on stage.

And lest there be any doubt, Graham is among the greats of our time, a singer who pretty much has it all: a beautiful and beautifully-controlled voice, great technical facility in fioriture, skill with languages, a fine actor, and, well, sincerity. I believe every word that comes out of her mouth; there are no false notes.

I loved most of her program, especially the French songs, and thought the half-dozen plus encore from Wilhelm Meister a real stroke of genius, especially the contrasting settings (by Liszt, Duparc, Wolf, and Thomas) of "Kennst du das Land?" The Poulenc set on the second half, with its delicacy and wry tone, suited her especially well. She was magnificent and touching in the Purcell scena that opened the concert.

Still, I found myself feeling faintly dissatisfied afterward. It's not that she did anything wrong. The whole recital, including the funny and often sexy encores, was immaculately done, everything where it should be. But I was never deeply moved and also never got the sense that she was taking chances or pushing her own limits. I think this might be what Jason is getting at in his review (although see below for comments on one area where he faults her).

Next question: is that a problem, or a mismatch of what the artist is offering in a particular program with my hope for being transported or overwhelmed in some way? I think it's perfectly reasonable for an artist to offer a program that is superbly performed in every way (as this was) and that isn't an attempt to plumb the depths. After all, half the program was French, where the emotions and intellect are engaged in a different way from, say, German or some English (see Britten) works. And French chanson seems the perfect match for her, or was the other night.

As for the Horowitz setting of Lady M.'s major speeches from the Scottish play: Jason, honestly, the reason she didn't grab you in that is that the composer didn't give her a damn thing to work with. The texts, so different from each other in mood and style, were set to music that hardly varied. Sure, she could have shrieked more, but I doubt the composer called for it, and in his particular idiom, it would have been out of place. The idiom itself is flat - all that damn parlando - and the magnificence of the texts simply overwhelmed the mediocrity of the idiom.

This got me thinking: how many great Shakespeare operas are in English?

(pause for reflection)

Right, two. Verdi and Reimann - and even poor Thomas, whose Hamlet is not very good - all have the luxury of setting paraphrases, a choice that Thomas Ades made in setting The Tempest. How Britten got away with setting Shakespeare, and creating music to match the language, is one of the great triumphs of composition.

As to the critical distinctions, I think Jason's speculations about Graham's motives for this program are just that - speculation, and unnecessary speculation. I've heard a couple of tiny signs of age in her singing (a few unnecessary glottal attacks, a surprising amount of sliding around - perhaps a style choice? in Xerxes), but I think the comparative restraint of the other evening had more to do with the repertory she was singing than anything else.

Update: Yeah, couldn't stand the cute but inaccurate headline. A mezzo, but not mezzo.
Update 2: Added a link to Brian's review on Out West Arts. He heard exactly what I heard. And so much for spontaneity; she sang the same program as in Berkeley.


Brian said...

Don't worry. I'll see her stop here in the SF Valley on Wednesday and set you all straight. It does sound that this is more or less the same show she sang last time she had a recital here in LA a few years back.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Ha - definitely, set us straight!

John Marcher said...

Seems to me like you, Jason and I pretty much heard it the same way- a great voice in a program that was merely good, though I was more impressed with the Lady Macbeth piece than the two of were.

Looking forward to hearing what Brian has to say (and Patrick when he gets to it).

Joshua Kosman said...

Thanks for calling out the Horovitz piece for the dullardry it was.

As for Shakespeare opera in English: Do you know RVW's "Sir John in Love"? I don't, and I doubt it's "great" but it might be good. Berkeley Opera did it many years back, but I missed it.

Lisa Hirsch said...

You are welcome, re Horowitz. I was planning to shred it anyway, and then Jason took her to task for not doing enough with it....A better composer could do a lot with those texts.

I have a recording of Sir John in Love, and since you and Patrick both asked me about it in connection with great Shakespeare operas in English, I'd better pull it out for a listen.

This also reminds me that I have a half-written posting from 2009 or something that I intended as a review of SFOpera's Otello, the DVD of the Zef production at the Met (with Vickers), and a general commentary on why I don't much like the opera. Not to mention "How Giovanni Martinelli spoiled me for anyone else in the title role."

Some day!

John Marcher said...

In defense of the Lady M piece everyone else disliked, I don't think the fault lies with the composer.

I see the piece as a vehicle to express dramatic character. As it would be on the dramatic stage, Shakespeare's words are enough and don't need any supporting assistance when well delivered. If Graham can be faulted for one thing, it would be for not having taken advantage of the space provided in the lines of only four syllables, which are there to provide the actor with "room" for emphasis, dramatic interpretation, what have you. Had Horowitz cluttered up the score in an attempt to make it more theatrical or dramatic, well, that would have been a terrible choice on his part. I for one appreciated the fact that Graham didn't go histrionic, which would could have been an easy choice for a lesser artist and if Horowitz made one poor choice, it was to not include "screw your courage to the sticking point" as part of the text.

A case in point in how often and easily this is ignored (or executed poorly) was the Sam Mendes directed Richard III with Kevin Spacey recently in town, which relied on histrionic delivery for effect in place of thoughtful delivery of the text and as a result was pretty awful.

Lisa Hirsch said...

But it's a musical piece. If the music doesn't express the words well or is of a character distinctly different from the words, what's the performer supposed to do?

A great opera composer uses the music to heighten the effects of the words. I'm going to point to two examples.

One is Jago's "Credo" in Verdi's Otello. In an essay in his book The Ultimate Art, David Littlejohn discusses the ways that the music makes the speech even more powerful than the equivalent in the play.

Another is John Adams's setting of "Batter my heart" in Doctor Atomic. That is an extremely difficult poem to parse; I found that Adams's setting clarified its structure and made it easier to understand.

If Horowitz's music doesn't convey Lady Macbeth's evil character and willingness to push her husband to commit terrible acts, what is the performer supposed to do?

Joshua Kosman said...

JM sez: "Shakespeare's words are enough and don't need any supporting assistance when well delivered."

In which case one might legitimately ask why Mr. Horovitz bothered to set pen to paper. Surely a composer should either add something to the source, or STFU; my view is that Horovitz's setting did neither. The ennui that ensued was his fault, not Ms. Graham's.

Lisa's sunny nature leads her to cite instances of artistic success. In my own sour and misanthropic way, I'd conversely cite the failure of the "To be or not to be" soliloquy in Ambroise Thomas' "Hamlet," in which the music says very very clearly, "So sorry, ladies and gentlemen. I have nothing whatever to contribute here, so I'll just let the Bard carry the show."

Lisa Hirsch said...

My "sunny nature"? Dear me. Apparently most of my bile and cynicism are living in email these days, if I have succeeded in so fooling my esteemed colleague.

John Marcher said...

Those are two excellent examples, I'll admit, but also two that are scored for a full orchestra (I have no idea if Horovitz's was, but for some reason I suspect the answer is "no"). I think the success of "Batter My Heart" lies in its sparsness, and as for the Credo, well, that's a highlight of one Verdi's best operas and no one mentions the two composers in the same breath, do they ; )

Re Josh's last comment- also a good point- but I still think, especially for this case of Lady M, less can deliver more, and in this case the piece, according to the program notes, was meant to convey the character's arc, not a specific scene. That's a difference that also applies to Lisa's examples, and I don't think it's an insignificant one.

Perhaps the character creates a heightened level of dramatic expectation?

Lisa Hirsch said...

If you're trying to convey an arc, you have to differentiate the points on the arc, and the Horowitz piece completely failed to do this.

I'll note that Lady M.'s letter scene in the Verdi would work just fine with piano only.

Dr.B said...

There was no sense in the Horowitz piece of any kind of dramatic pacing.