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Saturday, April 9, 2016

Concert Review: She Wore Blue Velvet

Susan Graham returns to Carnegie Hall with the Orchestra of St. Luke's.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The utterly compelling Susan Graham.
Photo by Benjamin Eolavega, provided by IMG Artists.
The Orchestra of St. Luke's remains one of New York's most versatile ensembles, equally at home in the stately language of the high Baroque and the more astringent, experimental sounds of the 20th century. A Thursday night concert under the baton of period performance specialist Nicholas McGegan put that versatility to the test. The performance featured the artistry of mezzo-soprano Susan Graham, framed with a pair of symphonies by the first great master of that form: Franz Josef Haydn.

The concert opened with Haydn's Symphony No. 75. Haydn started work on this symphony in the same year that he renegotiated his contract as kapellmeister to the Prince Nikolaus Esterházy, a move  that served to expand the publication of his music and further his development as a statesman of the Classical style. It is loaded with Haydn's trademark mixture of compelling melody and rich musical humor. The bold opening sounded with astonishing force in the bright, dry acoustic of Stern Auditorium showing the power of this composer's music to still grip the listener to thrilling effect.

A lovely slow movement consisting of a set of variations that nest within each other like a set of Chinese boxes drew a wave of appreciative applause from the audience, reminding one of the less rigid concert etiquette of Haydn's own period. The OSL strings were shown here in their very best light, with each repetition building upon the previous one in an elaborate latticework of sound. The following two were just as praise-worthy, which Mr. McGegan and the players reminding the assembled that Haydn's music is more than just ear candy. His symphonies are powerful, dramatic works in their own right whose blessing is that they are occasionally leavened with wit.

Then Ms. Graham made her entrance, regal and ramrod-straight in a blue velvet sheath that was in itself a bold and uncompromising statement. From this scabbard, the Texan singer drew forth her plush and yet silver-tinged mezzo to sing three pieces by Henry Purcell, the 17th century composer who spearheaded the rise of the British baroque. Accompanied by a sparse continuo, (Mr. McGegan at the harpsichord and principal cellist Myron Lutzke) she sang Bess of Bedlam, a song in name that approaches monodrama. This is the story of a woman trapped in that infamous London hospital, raving and wrestling with her own inner torment. The struggle within was made all the more compelling by Ms. Graham, who probed this troubled state of mind with a surgeon's care.

At first glance, the lovely, lilting "Music a while" might count as a mere ode to the power of that art form. Closer examination reveals its origins in a setting of the Greek tragedy of Oedipus, which pushed the listener and the singer squarely into the red-blooded world of classical mythology. Mr. McGegan then returned to the podium to conduct the strings and harpsichord in "When I am Laid in Earth," the lament of Queen Dido from Purcell's Dido and Aeneas. Ms. Graham is no stranger to the plight of the Queen of Carthage, capturing the grief and terror of the abandoned ruler in a performance that was both gripping and terrifying, underlaid with a feeling of hollow resignation to her fate.

The second half of the evening opened with Ms. Graham as another troubled classical queen: Phaedra. Benjamin Britten's cantata is his final vocal work, a 15-minute cantata that pushes the singer to the edge of their ability, accompanied by sparse orchestration and stark, ritualistic percussion that recalls the later Greek tragedies of Carl Orff. It is the story of the unhappy wife of Theseus, who seduces her son Hyppolitus under compulsion from the goddess Aphrodite and then takes poison.

The suspended heavy orchestral chime and cymbals on stage right evoked the sound of a temple, and the spare strings underpinned a performance that found meaning in every word of the text. The great moment came at "Medea’s poison; chills already dart along my boiling veins and squeeze my heart." On those last three words, Ms. Graham dropped her voice a whole pitch and then raised it up again as if feeling the effect of the venom in her blood. Fists clenched, she stood stock still as the strings played their last, regal in death.

In 1790, Haydn was finally allowed by the Esterházy family to travel Europe, writing symphonies for eager audiences in Paris and later ,London. Haydn was in the latter city in 1792  when he heard that his friend Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart had died. This work is Haydn at his most somber. The stern opening chords predict the work of Beethoven, and the opening of the slow movement is a direct quote of "Dove sono," the Countess' Act III aria from Le Nozze di Figaro. This performance conveyed the work's utterly serious intent and yet by the time of the final movement, the shadows had passed. Haydn's sense of grace and humor had returned, accentuated in an unusual coda with passages for the solo violin.

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.