Gerald Perman founded the Vocal Arts Society in 1990, and it is still going strong under the name Vocal Arts D.C. American mezzo-soprano Susan Graham, who gave her first Vocal Arts recital in the organization’s first decade, was back Saturday night to celebrate the start of its 25th-anniversary season. Her sold-out recital in the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater featured a world premiere, by American composer Jake Heggie, and some of Graham’s signature French repertoire.
A switch of the program put the French half first. Graham sings French with elegant pronunciation, and her voice has that graceful charm that heightens the subtle appeal of French songs, or what specialist Pierre Bernac called the “art of suggestion.” Her interpretation of Hector Berlioz’s “Les nuits d’été,” captured in a gorgeous recording almost 20 years old, remains superlative. Graham’s voice sounded fine in the smaller space, a richness of tone and clarity of declamation opened up by a broader power that made this performance, if anything, less constrained. Some large sounds from Graham shook the rafters in the second song, “Le spectre de la rose,” set to Théophile Gautier’s poem from the perspective of a flower worn on a young woman’s dress, a story choreographed as a ballet by Michel Fokine and presented at the Kennedy Center in January by the Mariinsky Ballet.
At the same time, Graham’s covered softness allowed her to float tender or bleak moments, such as the end of “Sur les lagunes,” just as her gift for story-telling did not allow “L’absence,” essentially a long recitative, to stall the musical movement. With a coy wink, she grafted the comic turn of the final song, “L’île inconnue,” onto the rest of the cycle with effortless continuity. Three songs by American composer Ned Rorem, more French than the French in many ways, served as an introduction to the Berlioz. A memory slip or something unexpected marred the central song, “For Poulenc,” but Graham, a consummate professional, recovered quickly, giving sentimental luster to both “Early in the Morning” and “O you whom I often and silently come” before and after it.
The world premiere was a new song cycle by Heggie, commissioned by Vocal Arts for its 25th anniversary. In the four poems of “Iconic Legacies: First Ladies at the Smithsonian,” lyricist Gene Scheer was inspired by the collection of the Smithsonian Institution, imagining the effect of four famous objects on American First Ladies. Heggie’s writing emphasized the wistful, even saccharine nature of the texts, using some motifs, a whirling eighth-note figure and booming pedal points in the piano, in all four of the songs, linking them together. To the elegiac tone used in tribute to Marian Anderson’s fur coat, Heggie and Scheer added lachrymose evocations of Mary Todd Lincoln and Jacqueline Kennedy’s grief, followed by a much-needed moment of comedy, remembering Barbara Bush’s devotion to the cause of literacy through her appearance on “Sesame Street.”
Schumann’s “Frauenliebe und lieben,” that rare 19th-century song cycle in a woman’s voice, was a good companion piece. Graham’s German is not as natural as her French, but she gave this narrator, whose devotion and self-effacement can strike today’s women as too subservient, a quiet heroism. Heggie, who also served as accompanist, had a few minor finger slips here, after having been perhaps a little overbearing in volume in his attempt to back up Graham’s more-expansive moments, and the Schumann had some vocal roughness, too. The reversal of the program order meant that Heggie’s announcement that Graham recently became engaged, connected humorously to the song “Du ring an meinem Finger” in the Schumann set, was even more climactic. Graham then offered two brilliant encores: Reynaldo Hahn’s pleasing “À Chloris,” also the encore at her last Kennedy Center recital, in 2007, and a gutsy bilingual performance of “La vie en rose.”
Downey is a freelance writer.