Among the starriest hires Peabody Conservatory made in the past decade or so was that of mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves.
With a long list of credits that seems to include every major opera house in the world, the D.C.-born singer brought quite a valuable perspective to the school when she joined the faculty last year. On Saturday night in Peabody's Friedberg Concert Hall, Graves reminded everyone that she brought a still-potent artistry to the job, too.
The mezzo was the telling soloist with the Peabody Symphony Orchestra in Mahler's sobering "Kindertotenlieder" ("Songs on the Death of Children"), conducted by Hajime Teri Murai.
It's never easy to experience this song cycle. The poems by Friedrich Ruckert are painful enough just to read -- parents trying to understand their loss, recalling some wondrous little face that used to light up a room, used to make everything so much richer. What Mahler's music adds to the texts is deeply poignant; each word seems to become more evocative, more real.
Graves, who stepped onstage after having been apparently poured into a vivid gown (she remains one of the opera world's most glamorous inhabitants), offered a warmly expressive account of the songs.
A couple of grainy tones aside, the mezzo's voice sounded in terrific shape. The lush low register proved especially effective, nowhere more so than in "Nun seh' ich wohl, warum so dunkle Flammen," which Graves phrased with exceptional emotional power.
Throughout the cycle, she maintained a classic singer's stationary stance, keeping the focus on the music. But, here and there, the mezzo added subtle physical gestures that spoke with simple eloquence, as when, during "Wenn dein Mutterlein," she slowly raised her arms, as if cradling a child.
Murai, who has a particular affinity for Mahler, proved to be a sensitive partner on the podium. The orchestra encountered occasional discrepancies of pitch or articulation (as happened among the cellos at the start of "Nun seh' ich wohl"), but responded with admirable clarity and warmth overall.
The orchestra also impressed at the start of the program when Murai shaped a crackling account of the Overture to Verdi's "I vespri siciliani" (the cellos sounded firm and vibrant here). I was unable to stay for the rest of the concert, but look forward to hearing the Peabody Symphony again as the season continues.