By this point, praise for Denyce Graves runs the risk of becoming redundant. She is almost too good to be true -- a vital artist, a beautiful woman, a regal presence. Moreover, she is ours: a born and bred Washingtonian who has won acclaim throughout the world but continues to live in the capital area.
As one who had heard Graves only in opera houses, I approached her sold-out Friday night recital at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall with a certain trepidation. Singing opera is radically different from singing in concert, and I wondered how much Graves's fierce and sinuous acting ability counted for the overwhelming impression she makes on an audience. After all, an artist is much more exposed in recital; there are usually no fellow singers, no scene changes, no dramatic narrative, no chances to hide within the stage action. On Friday night -- with the exception of the symbiotically sensitive pianist Warren Jones and a brief appearance by the Duke Ellington Show Choir -- Denyce Graves was out there all alone.
And she was terrific -- deeply musical throughout the evening, elegant and idiomatic in a wide range of material, singing with freedom and passion in a voice that seems to get only richer and more lustrous as the years go by. (The vocal crisis she suffered last year, which necessitated a brief postponement of a Washington Concert Opera performance of "Samson et Dalila," seems to have been surmounted handily.)
The program began with Xavier Montsalvatge's "Cinco Canciones Negras," music of little consequence but a superb "vehicle" for a singing actress capable of taking the listener into five related but very different moods. Graves's way with four songs by Ernest Chausson was admirable; she paid close attention not only to melody and meaning but also to that rapt, elusive intersection where sound and phonemes meet and the pronunciation of words becomes part of the music.
Harry T. Burleigh (1866-1949) is best known for his many deft arrangements of spirituals; on the evidence of the four songs Graves sang at the Kennedy Center, we ought to hear Burleigh's works more often. The songs are lovely, linear and persuasive miniatures, gently chromatic settings of some poems by the all-but-forgotten Laurence Hope (whose wildly over-the-top romantic excursions into Orientalia were beloved by our great-grandparents).
Four lieder by Johannes Brahms were probably the high point of the program; Graves brought a heavy, sultry languor to the music that I suspect will prove unforgettable. The Duke Ellington Show Choir, conducted by Samuel Bonds, then joined Graves for three spirituals (sparsely but effectively arranged by pianist Marvin Mills) after which she took the stage with Jones again to sing another five.
The spirituals were exemplary; soulful and hearty, yet precise and immaculate (too many artists abandon themselves to pure enthusiasm in this material). Still, to this taste, there were a few too many of them in a row. I might have done some rearranging so that Graves's exhilarating saunter offstage with the Ellington Show Choir closed the show.
One complaint: Although Graves assembled tidy, unified groups of songs for her program -- groups that were clearly meant to add up to more than the sum of their parts -- the audience generously applauded every single song, which handily diminished their collective spell. It is not sheer snobbery that suggests observance of traditional concert etiquette (e.g., no clapping between symphony or sonata movements, or in the midst of song cycles) but, rather, respect for fellow audience members, for the artist and for a deeper listening experience. Many listeners don't know the routine -- and it was good to see such unfettered affection in the hall -- but there is a time and a place for instruction, and this was it. A gentle, gracious word from the stage, early in the program, would have sufficed.
Critics rarely review encores. After the formal program is over, any encores are gifts to the audience and should be accepted gratefully as such, rather than as more evidence to be sifted and analyzed with judicial dispassion. Still, just for the record, those who stayed to shout and stamp and cheer were rewarded by selections from Graves's most popular operatic roles -- Carmen and Dalila.