Susan Graham Masterful in Engaging Local Debut


Subtle and thoughtful, musically astute and dramatically engaging, Susan Graham’s local debut recital Thursday night at the Alex Theatre in Glendale proved admirable in every way.

The tall mezzo-soprano from Roswell, N.M., acclaimed by some as the definitive Octavian (“Rosenkavalier”) of the younger generation, and a ubiquitous singing actress in new operas by John Harbison (“The Great Gatsby,” last December) and Jake Heggie (“Dead Man Walking,” this October), arrived in reams of accolades. She did not disappoint.

Her program, limited but satisfying, offered only two languages, French and English, and specialized in Debussy, Hahn and five American composers, three of them living. It was a crowded canvas, but not confused.


With great intelligence, resourceful tone-coloration, attention to detail and a broad technique, Graham mounted a masterly recital, assisted by the accomplished Malcolm Martineau, a pianist of sensitivity and grace.

Debussy’s setting of three Verlaine poems, the “Trois melodies” of 1891, began the proceedings intriguingly, followed cannily by Samuel Barber’s strikingly Debussyan Rilke settings, “Melodies passageres” of 60 years later. Barber’s French inclination has never seemed stronger or more persuasive. Both sets confirmed Graham’s superiority in the Gallic repertory.

Even more compelling was her singing of six songs by Reynaldo Hahn, music characterized by delicacy, humor and gentle sentiment. Particularly convincing were the opening “A Chloris”--an homage to Bach--and the two items that closed the series, “Fe^tes galantes” and “Le Printemps.”

Despite some admirable passagework in the complicated “Dove Sta Amore,” four songs by John Musto--highly regarded in some circles--proved unimpressive and second-level as music. One feels the same way about Graham’s choice of two show-offy-but-empty excerpts from Leonard Bernstein’s “Songfest” (1977): less than his best.

Lowell Liebermann’s “The Farewell Symphony” and “A Variation on ‘To Say to Go to Sleep,’ ” on the other hand, evidently represent high hopes for substance and sensitive word-setting (the poet here is Randall Jarrell) from a composer born in the same year as Jake Heggie. Graham/Martineau performed them both effectively and pungently.

The closing group, eight songs by Ned Rorem, indicated the breadth of that writer’s poetic leanings and tight composition; they spanned some of his work from 1946 to 1982, and bracingly.


Three encores--there could have been more--were more Rorem, “Early in the Morning” and “The Serpent,” and Debussy’s “Beau soir,” sung and played exquisitely.

The single blemish on an otherwise felicitous evening occurred before the singer came onto the Alex Theatre stage. That was the crass and commercial greeting offered by an Alex spokesman, who hawked coming concert attractions standing in front of the piano. Want to dampen a happy event before it starts? Try the Alex’s way.