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From Baroque to Broadway- A Hot Night “Chez Lilas Pastia”

Los Angeles
Royce Hall, UCLA
03/08/2007 -  
John Dowland: “Come Again: Sweet Love Doth Now Invite”
Henry Purcell: Music for Awhile, Z. 583 no. 2
Georg Friedrich Händel: “Iris Hence Away” (from “Semele”)
Franz Schubert: Heimliches Lieben, Op, 106 no. 1, D. 922, Lied der Mignon (Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt), Op. 62 no. 4, D. 877 no. 4, Der Tod und das Mädchen, Op. 7 no. 3, D. 531, Gretchen am Spinnrade, Op. 2, D. 118
George Bizet: "Seguidille” (from Carmen)
Francesco Cilea: “Acerba Voluttà” (from “Adriana Lecouvreur”)
Manuel de Falla: “¡Allí está! Riyendo” (from “La Vida Breve”), “Seguidilla Murciana” (from “Seven Spanish Folksongs”), “Jota” (from “Seven Spanish Folksongs”)
Robert Saari: “When the Forsythia Bloom,” “Faceless,” “From a Dream”
Harry Burleigh: “Among the Fuschias,” “Til I Wake,” “Worthwhile”
Spiritual Selections: “Scandalize My Name,” “Prayer,” “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” “Git on Board”

Denyce Graves (mezzo-soprano)
Warren Jones (piano)

Royce Hall at UCLA was only about three-fifths full for Denyce Graves’ recital with the pianist Warren Jones last Thursday night. That same night there was a lot going on: Pianist Andreas Haefliger was performing at the Getty Center, Yundi Li was with LA Philharmonic at Disney Hall, and Tannhäuser was at the LA Opera. But even though the house was far from packed, the crowd coughed up an appalling storm throughout the opening of the recital. Royce Hall, built in 1929 and among the oldest buildings on the UCLA campus, is one of the most beautiful places to hear a concert on the west coast. Modeled on the 12th century Romanesque Basilica di San Ambrogio in Milan by architect Daniel Allison, the exterior is both stately and ornate, elegantly proportioned and in harmony with the landscape. The 1800 seat interior, with its magnificent coffered ceiling, is also exquisite and well maintained. Royce continues to set a standard for public buildings of this style and period throughout California, including the Biltmore Hotel and UC Berkley campus.

But the space was not quite intimate enough for this particular performance. At times, the charismatic mezzo was straining to fill the space in her upper register, with a tone that was a little raw and metallic. The first selection, John Dowland’s “Come Again: Sweet Love Doth Now Invite,” felt distant and inaccessible, both physically and in terms of its period style. Henry Purcell’s darker voiced “Music for Awhile” also seemed remote. The coughing disturbed both pieces severely, and gave the recital a rocky start. Luckily, Händel’s aria “Iris Hence Away” (from “Semele) burst out impressively, with fireworks and drama.

The unique timbre and character of Ms. Graves’ voice finally came to the fore in the three Schubert songs that have been performed and recorded by so many singers of such diverse qualities and styles. Her rendition of the “Lied der Mignon,” was lovely but distant. In the much-loved Der Tod und das Mädchen, her voice still seemed somewhat covered, but it was clear that in a more operatic setting she would be a powerhouse. There was more coughing, and the audience was not catching fire. But in a long black satin gown embroidered with red and gold, she certainly looked stunning. In the exquisitely passionate “Gretchen am Spinnrade,” she fashioned an almost pure lament, offering an unusual approach to the phrasing and emphasis.

When they returned to the stage, they seemed to have taken the temperature of the hall. The audience had not been able to settle down. The coughing and extraneous noise was terrible. Warren Jones announced a change in the program, saying, “I think you’ll recognize the tune.” They took out Donizetti’s “Fia dunque vero, oh ciel! —O mio Fernando” (aria from “La Favorita”), which had been prominently advertised. “Carmen” suddenly materialized on the stage, in the house of Lilas Pastia. Ms. Graves leaped into character. Her thrillingly powerful “Seguedilla” and intensely sexy laugh drew the entire hall right down onto the stage with her. Her incredible evocation of Carmen was exactly what the evening needed. Now she had them in the palm of her hand. Francesco Cilea’s “Acerba Voluttà” (from “Adriana Lecouvreur”) closed out the first half of the concert with a tour de force.

After the intermission, Ms. Graves came out in a different black sleeveless number with silver sparkles. She introduced an aria from Falla’s “La Vida Breve,” entitled “There he is! Laughing…” by telling the song’s story- the tragic love tale of Salud and Paco. It ends with Salud wanting to die, as she witnesses Paco getting married to another. In the singing, the tempest, tumult and drama were splendid. Manuel de Falla’s popular songs, inspired by the folk traditions of Spain’s diverse regions, were ideal for her. In “Jota,” the Spanish dance rhythms and trills made an interesting foil to Carmen, a more authentic Spanish idiom versus Bizet’s charming and exotic French vision of Spain.

The modern selections on the program by composer Robert Saari were also accessible and attractive. The bright, open expression felt like an American Ralph Vaughn Williams, in a romantic popular mode leaning toward Broadway but heartfelt, often in a minor key. Next, Ms. Graves described three songs that she also added to the published program, by the little know early 20th century African-American composer Harry Burleigh. As an African-American, he had great difficulty finding a publisher for the songs, which ironically were based on poems written by Laurence Hope, an English woman who wrote under a man's name. Eventually, Burleigh’s employer Casa Ricordi, published the songs in Italy. Sounding like intimate spirituals, the songs were poetic and beautifully written. Unfortunately, her tone still suffered from rawness at high pitch and volume. But in the spiritual, “Scandalize My Name,” her voice was all power, nuance and charm, the lower register better suited to her range.

Her version of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” one of the best known of all these songs, was unique, slow, gentle and lyrical. “Git on Board” was marvellously entertaining, with Warren Jones joining in at a highpoint, shouting out from the keyboard. By the end of the concert, they had most of the audience on its feet.

The first encore, the “Habanera” from Carmen, truly smouldered with sensuality. She must be one of the greatest of all Carmens. The last encore, “At Times Like This”, from the musical “Lucky Stiff,” had a great refrain: “At times like this, a girl could use… a dog.” Everyone left smiling, with tunes ringing in their ears.

Thomas Aujero Small



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