Pasa Reviews Susan Graham in concert and the Santa Fe Symphony in an all-Beethoven program
Susan Graham Lensic Performing Arts Center, March 12 Santa Fe Symphony Lensic Performing Arts Center, March 15
Santa Fe part-time resident Susan Graham touched down in town on March 12 following a whirlwind concert tour in California, where she picked up a cold as a souvenir. This tough and classy ranch gal was not about to disappoint her locals, and she forged on to the end of a full-sized song recital that led listeners through 29 pieces by 17 composers in eight languages, even saving enough voice to deliver her signature encore, Reynaldo Hahn’s “À Cloris,” as a parting reward. One did hear a few frayed note releases and occasionally a tightened tone, but there were far less of either than one might have expected under the circumstances. I might prefer to hear Graham on her worst day to quite a few other singers on their best, and this cannot have been anything approaching her worst. It was a tribute to the mezzo-soprano’s willpower, to be sure, but it also underscored how a rock-solid technique can help a singer through tough times. It can’t have hurt that she was assisted by Malcolm Martineau, long acclaimed as one of the world’s finest collaborative pianists. His playing was an object lesson in ensemble sensitivity and tonal balance. One was especially struck by his care to never allow the bass line to overwhelm the texture. That can often lead down the primrose path in the dense voicings of Robert Schumann, the composer who stood at the heart of this recital. The program was built around Schumann’s song cycle
Frauenliebe und -leben , which tracks the evolution of a love affair from a woman’s point of view, from “love at first sight” through courtship, marriage, family-making, and, finally, widowhood. On this evening, however, one never heard the cycle as the composer envisioned it. Instead, the musicians separated its eight constituent songs from one another and used each as a “topic sentence” around which was assembled a small set of pieces loosely connecting to each of those subjects. In the first half of the concert, the Schumann song launched each set; in the second half, structured as a kind of mirror, the Schumann pieces brought each group to an end. It added up to quite a barrage of material, and the connection within groups sometimes grew a bit vague. The concept was quite literary, and working through the song texts at leisure after the concert may have rendered the idea more convincingly than experiencing it in real time did.
Still, it was an honest effort to approach the art-song recital from an unaccustomed angle. Graham always brings special insight to French mélodies , and several of these — especially by Fauré and Duparc — qualified as high points of the recital. She has an uncanny affinity for the music of Berlioz, and his “Absence” (from his own cycle Les nuits d’été ) received a stunning rendition. An engaging surprise in the lineup was Shakespeare’s sonnet “Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day,” in a lyrical setting by the late British jazz composer John Dankworth, who wrote it for and often performed it with his wife, Cleo Laine — an enriching allusion to a real-life musical-romantic partnership in the framework of this program. On the whole, I prefer Frauenliebe und
-leben in its original form, but deconstructing it and recontextualizing its songs was a clever idea and it did alleviate some of the unrelenting “Oh, you big, handsome, manly man” flavor of the poems, which are more attuned to Schumann’s time than they are to our own.
On March 15, the Santa Fe Symphony played an all-Beethoven program under the direction of Michael Butterman. One might almost say there were two programs, so greatly did the quality of the two halves differ. In the first half, Beethoven’s Second Symphony was not an altogether happy affair, with the violins seeming to hold on for dear life, stretched some distance beyond their capabilities. I did not find Butterman’s beat always consistent or easy to follow, and the musicians’ response suggested that they experienced it the same way, repeatedly yielding ostensibly unison attacks with abundant splatter rather than pointillist precision. Butterman is a tall fellow, and this can pose special issues for a conductor. He did not display a graceful hand technique, and that, combined with a tendency to “act out” the players’ phrases, gave rise to much flapping about on the podium, often to no discernible musical effect.
Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 2 followed, with Sean Chen as soloist. It was an efficient, capable performance, rather enervated in the first movement but wrapping up with a punchier take on the finale. The highlight was Chen’s first-movement cadenza, which he had composed himself in advance. It was quite long, which allowed him to develop his ideas to a considerable extent, and it was not constrained by any effort to match the style of the concerto that surrounded it. Instead, it grew into a rowdy rhapsody that had more in common with unbuttoned pages of Beethoven’s sonatas, or even his improvisational Fantasia, than with anything that lurks within this early piano concerto. Again, the orchestra’s playing could prove scattershot. Chen gave an encore that seemed not really merited or required: Leopold Godowsky’s free transcription of Schubert’s song “Die Forelle.” It seemed a pity to break the afternoon’s Beethoven theme, but at least the work’s virtuosity did reflect something of what had gone on a while earlier in Chen’s cadenza.
One was therefore not prepared for the excellent performance of Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony (the Pastoral) that followed intermission. Perhaps it was given an inordinate proportion of rehearsal time, or perhaps the instrumentalists were simply more familiar with the score to begin with. The “storm” section again might have benefited from stronger leadership from the podium, but apart from that the interpretation and performance hewed to a high level. The lower strings exuded richness, the violins sounded far more in control of their parts than they had in the earlier symphony, and the woodwinds added some beautifully turned solo phrases, with special finesse coming from first clarinet and first bassoon.