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San Francisco Symphony

Susan Graham

Michael Tilson Thomas

February 7, 2007

Susan Graham

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Mezzo Near-Perfection

By Lisa Hirsch

Michael Tilson Thomas' affinity for Stravinsky and other Russian composers is legendary. It's no surprise, then, that he should prove to have a similar affinity for those 19th-century French composers whose sound-world contributed so much to that of Stravinsky. Put him together with mezzo-soprano Susan Graham, a famed singer of mélodie, and magic ensues.

The performers, heard at last Wednesday's concert of the San Francisco Symphony, must have known this would be the case. In a brief word to the audience before Berlioz' song cycle Les Nuits d'été (Summer nights), MTT asked for silence between songs, "so that we may all enjoy the full summer night." And a good thing he did, because Graham would have brought the house down more than once before the end.

While "Villanelle," the opening song, needed more of a spring-welcoming smile in the voice than Graham gave it, what followed was near-perfection. There were no missteps — just a magnificent lesson in diction and word coloring, which are, of course, what French song is all about.

Not that there was any lack of line or vocal beauty. Graham is blessed with a creamy, clear high mezzo whose color and volume she can vary at will. To each song in the cycle, she brought an operatic sense of drama as well as gorgeous, idiomatic French. She earned, and received, a standing ovation at the close. MTT and the orchestra played with almost self-effacing discretion, always present, but as transparent as the moonlight that suffuses so much of the cycle.

Michael Tilson Thomas

For all the insouciant good cheer with which the cycle opens, what follows has less of spring's rebirth to it than the sadness of decay, absence, and death. As the ghostly bloom in "Le Spectre de la rose" (The specter of a rose), Graham held the audience spellbound, alternating hushed and floated tone (at "This delicate perfume is my soul" and "On the alabaster where I rest") with a sound of the richest burgundy ("... and I come from Paradise").

As the sailor bereft of his love in "Sur les lagunes: Lamento" (On the lagoons: Lament), Graham brought effortless power to the grief-stricken outburst that ends each verse. She understated that phrase in its third iteration, dying away to a matte-gray, concluding "Ah!", her tone itself bitter.

In "Absence," her opening calls of "Reviens, reviens" echoed both each other and the orchestra, rising naturally from the string sound and then fading out to leave the strings shimmering underneath. She sang the closing lines of the song with enormous longing, as if to herself. The last song, "L'Île inconnue," danced like a boat over waves, especially when the unknown narrator lists the far-off places to which he'd take the young girl to whom he sings.

Harbinger of Stravinsky

The program opened with a cheery, bustling account of Berlioz' Roman Carnival Overture, a work that provided a nice connection to the song cycle and to the other big piece on the program, Debussy's Nocturnes. The second movement of the latter work, "F’tes" (Celebration), begins with a jaunty running theme that soon dies off as a parade appears in the distance and makes a swift and noisy approach before departing with equal speed. The climax of this section may be the loudest thing in French music before Messiaen — and who needs Bolero's slow simmer when you've got "F’tes"?

The Nocturnes predate Le Sacre du printemps by more than a decade, and yet, listening to the opening "Nuages" (Clouds), with its plaintive English horn and layered strings, Stravinsky's masterpiece sounds just around the corner. It's easy to imagine a segue from the clouds directly into the abrupt, primeval rhythms of Le Sacre. The women of the Symphony Chorus made a wordless appearance for "Sirènes," becoming one instrument among many in the movement's misty washes of sound and ungrounded, shifting harmonies.

At the end of the concert came an entrancing account of Paul Dukas' The Sorcerer's Apprentice. Commenting on this piece without reference to That Cartoon is almost impossible for anyone who grew up with it — which means nearly all of us, some 65 years on. But The Sorcerer's Apprentice is just as charming without the visuals; presented that way, it's much easier to focus on the delightful scoring and inherent humor. The sorcerer's appearance on the scene couldn't be clearer, or the apprentice's blushing embarrassment.

All in all, it was a great night for MTT and his players. I've never heard better orchestral balance in Davies Symphony Hall, or more luminous sound, so full of character and so appropriate to the music at hand. Special kudos are due the bassoons for the Dukas and English horn player Adam Dinitz for his work in the Overture and "Nuages."

(Lisa Hirsch, a technical writer, studied music at Brandeis and SUNY/Stony Brook.)

©2007 Lisa Hirsch, all rights reserved