In an awesome, soul-stirring, enchanting Legion d'honneur-class performance
of "Les Nuits d'ete," Susan Graham and Michael Tilson Thomas created
memories of a lifetime tonight.
Most of the audience - myself included - felt overcome by each of the
six songs, but perhaps not everyone shared in this sixfold peak experience.
Those who do not allow to be touched by unbridled, unguarded,
bleeding-heart-on-the-sleeve sentimentality perhaps considered the program
"well-played" or even "nice." From those more open (or foolish), the
response was a combination of tears and smiles.
Having been an avid fan of Graham since her Merola days 20 years ago,
and of MTT for much longer than that, I might have expected this superb
performance, but there was still an element of surprise.
Davies Hall is OK acoustically (not more than that), but it's not
particularly friendly to the unamplified voice. Not since Montserrat
Caballe's witchcraft in this hall have I heard projection overcoming
distance and echoes like tonight. As heard from all the way in Row T,
Graham's voice caressed, enveloped as if she were standing next to me -
and consider that almost all of "Nuits" is "quiet music."
>From MTT and a gloriously present and involved San Francisco Symphony,
there was a rich, soft velvet carpet for Graham, in perfect balance,
both in the background and in an enchanting duet. The unexpected:
Mahlerite, echt-American MTT leading this quintessentially French romantic
music better than any native - at least, the natives I have heard.
Bless his heart, MTT asked, demanded, and got silence between the songs,
enhancing the experience so much. Even without the intrusion of applause,
it's hard to let go of the mood, the magic of each song, before the other
begins, but it would have been nothing short of tragic if loud noise
interfered this time. If only conductors (MTT included) *always* made
an effort to create the right atmosphere. Laudable also was leaving the
lights on to allow reading the text; sure, many listeners prefer to focus
on the music - and they may just close their eyes - but Gautier's text
is such an essential part of this work that the option to refer to it
"Villanelle" often gets the short shrift as a kind of warmup or entree
to the cycle. Not with Graham. She started singing it as if already
in the middle of the work, and her quartet with violas, cellos, and the
bassoon immediately established a warm cocoon shutting out the world.
"The Specter of the Rose" - all quicksilver and burnished gold - was
a highlight, of course, a single instance of Graham's voice breaking
unimportant, but *not* the usual end-all. If anything, the following
"On the Lagoons" was an even more intense experience, with its enormous
and yet restrained grief, Graham producing an almost unbearable crescendo
of pain with repetitions of "Sans amour s'en aller sur la mer," singing
the final "Ah!" with great impact and yet almost imperceptibly. If that
doesn't make sense, listen to the broadcast, which may or may be on
KDFC-FM in a couple of weeks.
At the beginning of "Absence," Graham followed "reviens, reviens" with
a tiny, heartbreaking mesa di voce, the orchestra embracing her voice
here as all through the performance. "In the Cemetery" came as a
culmination of the four quiet songs preceding it, before the almost
unwelcome forte of "The Unknown Isle." My own pensee fantastique was an
encore of the first three songs, several times, perhaps all the way to
the coming of summer.
[log in to unmask]