Denyce Graves pays an uneven tribute to Grace Bumbry and JFK

Denyce Graves was a familiar if not trailblazing choice in her tribute to Grace Bumbry and the concert Bumbry gave for President John F. Kennedy in 1962.
Denyce Graves was a familiar if not trailblazing choice in her tribute to Grace Bumbry and the concert Bumbry gave for President John F. Kennedy in 1962.
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 3, 2011; 1:09 AM

The Kennedy Center is paying tribute to John F. Kennedy this month, saluting his role as a trailblazer in the arts and in social issues. When the mezzo-soprano Grace Bumbry sang at his White House in 1962, she was just at the start of her career, having seen some huge successes in Europe, but had yet to make her debut in the United States (much less dream of the Kennedy Center Honors she was awarded in 2009).

So how did the Kennedy Center choose to commemorate that concert? By presenting Washington's best-known and most over-exposed mezzo-soprano, whose career peaked some years ago: Denyce Graves.

Graves's homage, or whatever it was, to Bumbry took place at the Terrace Theater on Tuesday night. She sang many things Bumbry sang in 1962 - a set of Duparc songs - and some things that Bumbry did not, like a set of American standards ("The Man I Love") that were on the program she gave at Strathmore last June. She did not attempt "O don fatale," an aria from "Don Carlo" that was on Bumbry's program and may require more vocal oomph than Graves has at her command these days. But she was generous with her offerings, adding several songs to the printed program (including the Italian chestnut "Danza, danza" and the Strauss song "Von Morgen bis Nacht") and doing a number of opera arias (including her standbys "Mon Coeur s'ouvre a ta voix" from "Samson et Dalila" and the "Habanera" from "Carmen").

Graves's voice sounded much the same as it did seven months ago: patchy, with the vocal line choppy, some striking lapses of intonation, and some moments of blowout but unfocused power. She really worked to connect with the audience, chatting with them between numbers; and for her fans, it was probably a wonderful experience. (Indeed, the lobby was filled with autograph seekers after the show.)

But even if Graves's singing had been better, nobody can pretend that this recital offered anything new or even particularly relevant.

If the Kennedy Center had really wanted to commemorate the original spirit of Bumbry's command performance for Kennedy, it could have presented any of half a dozen exciting young artists whom Washington hasn't heard yet instead of offering an exceedingly familiar face in exceedingly familiar repertory. Since the Kennedy Center went to the trouble of invoking the idea of vision or leadership in the arts in this festival, it is shameful that it didn't bother to follow up with the actual programming.

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