Review: The Symphony Goes To France With Susan Graham
On Friday, May 12 at the Tobin Center, Sebastian Lang-Lessing and the San Antonio Symphony held an exciting soirée de musique française with the famed mezzo-soprano Susan Graham as their honored guest.
Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) began composing "Le Tombeau de Couperin" for piano just before entering France’s 13th Artillery Regiment in WWI, completing his orchestrated version in 1919. He was considered the preeminent composer of France at the time of its premiere, conservative critics having taken some time to embrace his style of breaking rules while simultaneously celebrating them. The meticulous musical language that is so definitive of Ravel is exemplified in "Le Tombeau," a homage to dance suites of 18th century France. Principal oboist Paul Lueders was a true standout, performing the treasure trove of oboe solos in "Le Tombeau" with agility, candor, and beautiful shifts of tone color. The orchestra, taking some time to settle into a group pulse, played with a palette fit for Monet.
"La Mort de Cléopâtre," composed by Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) in his third (failed) attempt to win the Prix de Rome, is a cantata better understood as a Romantic literary shape than an aria-recitative design. Its continuous monologue, unusual harmonies, rhythms, form, and unexpected effects--today perceived as typical of the Romantic Era--simply proved too avant garde for the panel of judges in 1829. Opera News once described a past rendition of Cleopatra by Susan Graham as “rather polite for the Serpent of the Nile,” but her Friday evening performance with the San Antonio Symphony was anything but. Her execution of melody was beautiful, her use of vibrato evocative, her portrayal of Cleopatra’s mental state mesmerizing. She issued forth a death rattle that rang palpably in the shadows as the orchestra’s heartbeat disintegrated, and the audience lingered in their seats a bit longer than usual at the start of intermission to process the experience.
A typically light Offenbach arrangement opened up the second half of the program, Lang-Lessing having fun on the podium and the orchestra selling the show. Susan Graham lightheartedly fanned out her hot-pink gown as she returned to the stage for several popular French songs, emanating joy as she humorously introduced the pieces. Her juxtaposition of classic diction with ooey-gooey swoops was the definition of femme fatale, and the audience was eating out of the palm of her hand by the time “La Vie en Rose” ended with an unfortunately out-of-tune chord.
George Gershwin’s (1898-1937) "An American in Paris" (1928) is more than a depiction of his trip to France in the 1920s, as it also alludes to the impact that Ravel, Debussy and Les Six had on his compositional style. Gershwin began his career on Tin Pan Alley as a self-taught Broadway tunesmith, but "An American in Paris" is an evolved orchestral scene. Mixing European style writing with American blues, it’s unrestrained episodic skeleton charts the path of a homesick Yankee experiencing Parisian life. The San Antonio Symphony rose to the occasion in their rendition, the wind players on point, the strings and percussion (especially timpani) coming together to bring the audience to its feet.
As if that weren’t enough, the program continued on with the return of Susan Graham for two songs by Gershwin, “Fascinating Rhythm” and “Someone to Watch Over Me.” Describing the former as “rambunctious and crazy” and the latter as her mother’s favorite song, Graham’s purity of tone and dazzling stage presence drew the audience in yet again. She and the orchestra were mostly great, but due to the excitement of "An American in Paris", the two songs ended the concert to wilting effect. However, her encore from Franz Lehár’s "The Merry Widow" helped to round out the evening with audience participation.
In form, the concert was a confused multi-course meal at a Michelin star restaurant: the fish skipped over the salad going straight to a main course, which was followed by the soup, hors d’oeuvres, and then another entrée before the dessert. And even though each and every dish was enjoyable, the strange order of the courses left me feeling a bit comatose by the time I partook in a standing ovation.
It was lamentably unsurprising to see a large amount of empty seats at the Tobin Center. With the presence of Susan Graham and all of the recent press coverage on the San Antonio Symphony’s financial situation, I was wholeheartedly hoping to see a sold-out hall. At the expense of overstepping my bounds, I will say this: we are beyond lucky to have such exceptional musicians willing to dedicate their lives to our community for the small salary they earn. In light of their upcoming contract negotiations, time is of the essence for us to show support for our orchestra.