Susan Graham's long, eventful career -- almost 30 years of valued performances in opera houses and concert halls around the world -- finally included a visit to Baltimore on Sunday evening. Her recital for the Shriver Hall Concert Series wasn't just well worth the wait. It was sensational.
The mezzo-soprano's local debut featured the ingenious, revelatory "Frauenliebe und -leben: Variations" program that she and first-rate pianist Malcolm Martineau put together a few years ago, a program that has understandably earned them plaudits.
Schumann's roughly 25-minute cycle of eight songs outlines stages in a woman's life -- falling in love with a man above her station; discovering that he has fallen for her, too; getting married; having a child; trying to cope with her husband's unexpected death.
Instead of singing the cycle straight through, the Graham/Martineau version expands on the themes of each Adelbert von Chamisso poem that Schumann set to music, inserting various other songs in between each of his. The result is a two-part concert filled with a wonderfully varied sampling of the art song repertoire spanning several languages and time periods.
It was fascinating to hear how all the diverse fare fit so neatly into the big picture.
The second Schumann song, for example, which recounts the woman's description of the "most wonderful" man, was amplified by several pieces.
One was John Dankworth's silky "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day" (one of two Shakespeare-based songs in the mix that proved extra-fitting on the Bard's actual birthday). Another was Ned Rorem's setting of Whitman's verse "O you whom I often and silently come" -- about 30 seconds in length, yet, like a really good Tweet, saying a great deal.
I'm not aware of anything else like this concept, which manages to freshen the recital format as it deepens an appreciation for the original Schumann work. All the while, the arc of "Frauenliebe" remains clear and strong so that cumulative emotional payoff is considerable.
Graham was in superb voice Sunday, the tone velvety even when going full-throttle, the articulation pristine, the phrasing deeply communicative -- whatever the text or language. Some low notes thinned out, but who cared? This was compelling vocalism from the get-go.
The mezzo didn't even have to sing to make some points -- the lovely little sigh she let out after delivering the last love-at-first-sight lines of the opening Schumann song hit home perfectly.
Just a few of the continual highlights:
The caressing pianissimo singing in the second verse of Grieg's "I Love You"; the sexy subtlety Graham achieved in Debussy's "La chevelure"; the golden tonal thread she spun out at the end of Tchaikovsky's "Lullaby"; the increasingly mesmerizing way she sculpted the recurring line "Reviens, reviens, ma bien aimee" in Berlioz's eloquent "Absence"; the earthy, naked expression Graham unleashed in "O muerte cruel" by Granados.
Throughout, Martineau provided invaluable partnering. He produced an orchestra's worth of tonal textures, a poet's range of temperament and nuance.
The several keyboard codas along the way gave him an extra opportunity to reveal his artistic sensibilities, as in the tolling bell-like conclusion of that Granados lament.
The extended piano solo that ends Schumann's cycle -- repeating the music from the beginning, as if to say this woman's life might have another chapter -- was phrased by Martineau with particular incisiveness.
There shouldn't have been an empty seat in the hall (Baltimore remains a sadly unreceptive place for vocal recitals), but those that were there were rewarded with two encores.
Reynaldo Hayn's exquisite, almost Bach-ian love song "A Chloris" inspired an extra creamy tone from Graham, extra refinement from Martineau.
Even though many folks headed for the exits afterward, the mezzo came back for more. As she explained, she had to.
One of her colleagues, gifted mezzo Kristine Jepson, died a couple days earlier of cancer at 54, and this encore was for her. (Jepson headed the second San Francisco Opera cast as Sister Helen Prejean, the role Graham created in the premiere production of Jake Heggie's "Dead Man Walking.")
In her honor, Graham sang, a cappella and with startling intensity, the hymn tune from that work, "He Will Gather Us Around." She managed to keep her composure (I didn't) as she provided this remarkable capstone to one of the most rewarding recitals I've been lucky enough to hear.
One more thing: You've heard me preach this gospel before, but I have to mention yet again the need for concert halls to pay more attention to lighting for vocal performances. Being able to follow the texts is crucial to an audience's appreciation, especially for anyone not new to the repertoire (or the experience itself).
From what I could tell, lighting provided on the main floor of Shriver Hall seemed adequate. But, other than a bright spot in the middle of the first row, those of us in the balcony were left in varying degrees of darkness.
That said, I would much rather see an investment in surtitles for voice recitals, just as they are used all the time now in opera houses. Some folks maintain that the operatic art form gained fresh life precisely because of this innovation.
I have encountered surtitles for recitals in a few places, including the Baltimore area, always to valuable effect. It should be standard practice. Yes, I know it's an added expense (for equipment and an operator), but surely worth it, especially at a time when everyone is so worried about attracting more audiences to classical music.