Pasa Re­views Su­san Gra­ham in con­cert and the Santa Fe Sym­phony in an all-Beethoven pro­gram

Pasatiempo - - NEWS - — James M. Keller

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.

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