We have yet to experience the pleasure of observing Susan Graham in action on the operatic stage, but her solo recital at the Chandler Pavilion, from first note to last, was an event of high and delightful theater. “First note” consisted of her acting out simply, with her fingers slinking insinuatingly around the edge of Malcolm Martineau’s piano, tracing the insidious double meanings of delightful Apollinaire nonsense texts amplified to triple and quadruple meanings in a set of endearing Poulenc songs. “Last note” was the desperate high hilarity of her final encore, “Sexy Lady,” an autobiographical lament created for her by Ben Moore, detailing the sad fate of a 6-foot-2 mezzo-soprano of irresistible stature and honeyed voice, condemned by these physical magnificences to a lifetime of roles as trousered, oversexed, male warriors. (Sad, but boy-oh-boy fabulous . . . or did you miss her Octavian in the Met broadcast of Der Rosenkavalier a couple of weeks before?)
She is a treasure, this Graham, a matter happily known to opera audiences everywhere but here. The breadth of her program was astonishing in itself: not just the usual recital routine with the solid stuff at first and then the Twinkies. This time an adoring near-capacity house was better rewarded, with an elegantly planned range of entertainments to engage both the intelligence and the delight of its hearers, starting with the insidious wit of Poulenc and Ravel balanced against the radiant lyricism of Berlioz from a century earlier. Following intermission there was a momentary slump via some vapid note-spinning by the opportunistic yet woefully talentless Jake Heggie, but that emptiness was soon redeemed with a cheering gathering of Ives, unfamiliar and extraordinarily beautiful. At the end, where the lightweight novelty numbers go on most recital programs, there came instead a set of Mahler, haunting and powerful. A singer who trusts her audience with this kind of programming deserves a return visit. Is it ungallant to suggest that the title role in Offenbach’s Grand Duchess of Gerolstein, on the books for the Los Angeles Opera’s next season, has been allotted to only the second-best choice?
THE RIGHT “TOUCH”
Alone of the hell-raising artists who made up the so-called New York School in the 1950s — among them the composers John Cage and Morton Feldman and the painter Philip Guston — Christian Wolff survives; he has always been the least-known. Until his recent retirement he taught classics at Dartmouth. His 2002 piano piece called Touch, written for the Stanford pianist and teacher Thomas Schultz, was the major work on Schultz’s Piano Spheres recital at Zipper Hall last week, the season’s final concert in this nicely planned series.
Like much of the work of his New York Schoolmates, Wolff’s 20-minute piece is a neat mix of options and strictures. Dynamics are left to the performer’s choice, and there are times when the manuscript even leaves unspecified whether a passage belongs in treble or bass clef. But, as Schultz pointed out in well-written program notes, and did again in congenial talk before his performance, such matters are of less importance than matters of texture, drive and actual sound. In these regards I found Touch an exceptionally attractive new work for piano. I would also urge on the enlightened Piano Spheres management, whose series has become one of this city’s major assets (although you wouldn’t know this from the paltry size of last week’s crowd), to consider ways of enhancing the value of premieres such as this by scheduling second, third and fourth hearings in the not-too-distant future. Premieres are all very well; however, I left Thomas Schultz’s concert with a lot of other good music in my head, but an immediate desire to hear that one piece again.
The “other good music” included one of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s killer Klavierstücke and a big, dramatic work by Frederic Rzewski, one of his marvelous “Four Pieces” from 1977. There was also considerable time wasted, alas, with a pair of wispy, cruelly overextended pieces by the Bay Area Korean composer Hyo-Shin Na, where a repeat of the Christian Wolff would have been a more imaginative choice. But I dream.
SOME OF MY BEST FRIENDS . . .
On a summer evening some 30 years ago, a friend and I arrived at Troisgros, the legendary three-star multifork restaurant in the south of France, aglow with anticipation for a dinner we had reserved many months before. Upon being seated, we noted with horror the adjoining table, where sat a company of well-fed executive types heavily wreathed in cigar smoke. Mustering my rudimentary French, I cast my culinary hopes upon their mercies — to no avail. Fortunately, Monsieur Troisgros allowed us to postpone dinner until the air had cleared. His explanation came with a resigned shrug: “Ce sont des Belges.”
Memories of that dinner — not the masterworks from the Troisgros kitchen but the atrocities that preceded — returned loud and clear at Disney Hall last weekend as the Philharmonic, organ and all, took on Joseph Jongen’s Symphonie Concertante, music as painful to the senses as anything I can remember being imposed upon me in my long years on the local scene: music, indeed, of a terribleness so wretched as to stir up memories of those clouds of cigar smoke in Roanne that night of contrasting fragrances so long ago. Monsieur Jongen, perhaps I neglected to inform you, was also a Belgian.
The music dates from 1926, composed originally for the monster pipe organ at the Wanamaker department store in Philadelphia (where I once participated in a St. Matthew Passion sing-along, standing next to the necktie counter). Imagine the loudest, most chromatically convoluted, defiantly non-ending piece of César Franck’s organ music, and paste onto that an orchestral counterpart equally loud and long, but also grindingly out of tune with the organ (as orchestras-versus-organs inevitably are). Thirty-five minutes pass. The ears ache, the teeth rattle, you wish for a lungful of Belgian cigar smoke as blessed relief. Before that, on this disastrously downhill program, had come the wonderfully smart, insinuating Piano Concerto of Maurice Ravel; before that, the clear-headed, ballsy First Symphony of Beethoven.
Edo de Waart conducted; apparently he likes the thing, and has even recorded it.
Jean-Yves Thibaudet was soloist in the Ravel, mucho zippy. Cherry Rhodes, dressed
in Dracula colors, was seated that day at the organ. At the end, where even a
loud C-major chord usually draws a standing ovation from the Disney crowd, there
was next to none. There is hope for us yet.