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Mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves presented a long and very satisfying program on Saturday evening at the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium as part of the Asheville Bravo Concerts. Recovered from the medical and attendant spiritual difficulties that almost ended her career early this decade, Graves is still singing near the height of her abilities, appearing in the world’s leading opera houses and filling the interstices of her busy schedule with concert appearances such as this one.
Piano accompanist Brian Zeger is himself a superstar who specializes in vocal accompaniment, appearing with Frederica von Stade, Bryn Terfel and others in addition to Graves. Zeger, the Artistic Director of the Vocal Arts Department at The Juilliard School, showed great sensitivity to vocal line throughout this concert.
The program contained more than twenty songs and arias, but this was not a pot-pourri. There was unity and coherence. The languages were Spanish, French and English. An underlying theme was “regular people” whose tribulations and successes are presented in serious musical compositions or traditional folk music. This vocal recital was constructed with intelligence and taste, displaying subtlety as well as power, humanity as well as beauty.
Ms. Graves opened with subdued Spanish language songs by the Argentine composer Astor Piazzolla and the Catalan composer Xavier Montsalvatge. The quiet Piazzolla work exposed a brief roughness in Ms. Graves’ lower register, a defect that was only transitory.
The second group consisted of four French art songs, three by Bizet and Saint-Saëns and the other a stunning work “Je t’aimerai” by Vincent Thomas, announced by Ms. Graves only as having been written for her. The work was tailored to this mezzo-soprano and admirably showcased the color of her voice. Along with others who found this to be the first high point of the concert, I wanted to find out “who is Vincent Thomas?” He is a French clarinetist, composer and conductor, now working primarily in the popular music field. He is married to Ms. Graves and the father of their four-year-old daughter. The charming text of this art song (in English “I will love you always”) includes references to the frequent separations that two busy professional careers enforce on the couple (“I will love you when we are on other continents, at other times, anywhere in the universe”).
A third group consisted of arias representing her major operatic roles: Samuel Barber’s Vanessa, Jules Massenet’s Werther, Georges Bizet’s Carmen and Camille Saint-Saëns’ Samson et Dalila. During “Mon coeur s'ouvre a ta voix,” there was no tenor on stage to sing “Dalila, Dalila, je t’aime” where Saint-Saëns’ score calls for it. (I recall that Marilyn Horne used to sing “Samson, Samson, je t’aime” to fill in that gap.) But other than the lack of a tenor, this was a convincing performance that explains why Samson got into so much trouble.
A group of Christmas songs, mostly spirituals, came next, followed by folk song arrangements including two by Aaron Copland and another gem written especially for Ms. Graves, Gene Scheer’s “Lean Away.” Encores concluded the concert.
I suspect that most of the audience had trouble appreciating the unity of the concert. Asheville Bravo Concerts provided no program notes, other than biographies taken straight from the artists’ websites. The listing of songs and arias were on a program insert with a confusing layout that did not indicate Ms. Graves’ groupings. The arias from Carmen and Samson et Dalila had to be announced from the stage. Perhaps the most serious deficiency was that no texts or translations were included. In compensation for the inadequate program material, Ms. Graves gave insightful summaries before almost every work, and described the context of the operatic arias.