Sarah Graham outshines her gowns

Sonia Emmons

Tuesday, Jan. 16 the Lawrence Memorial Chapel was filled by the dazzling voice and captivating charm of mezzo-soprano Susan Graham.
This concert, part of the 2006-07 Artist Series, was the fourth of Graham’s eight stops on a U.S. recital tour with pianist Malcolm Martineau that will culminate at Carnegie Hall.
The concert program consisted entirely of French song, which Graham holds dear to her heart. In the first half were songs from the 19th century, and the second half featured songs from the 20th century.
With the exception of Gabriel Faur and Claude Debussy, who composed songs in both centuries, each composer was seen only once on the program.
From Georges Bizet to Francis Poulenc, the selections highlighted the evolution of French song as well as Graham’s vocal and theatrical versatility.
A mezzo prized for her expressive voice and natural acting skills, Graham immediately established herself as a friendly and graceful performer.
After remarking on Appleton’s shockingly cold temperature, she introduced the program as a “French tasting menu,” designed to display the numerous colors and flavors of French music.
Indeed, the listener’s musical palate was abundantly satisfied.
The diverse program included an animated song chronicling the fateful journey of an English mouse, a sinister description of Death’s gigue, and two solemn songs that referenced the classical characters Psyche and Tyndaris.
Throughout the recital, Graham’s voice sparkled as brightly as her diamond brooch, thanks to her impeccable diction and impressive control in the high register.
Lawrence student vocalist Alice Dryden remarked, “She has a strong command of the French language, and her phrases keep spinning out until the end.
“Listeners also noticed her poise and engaging character onstage. Fellow vocal student Sirgourney Tanner praised her “commanding stage presence.”
Graham’s rich voice was complemented by Martineau’s delicate, sensitive piano accompaniment. However, Martineau did more than simply accompany the singer.
As Lawrence Professor of Music and voice teacher Ken Bozeman explained, “Musicians traditionally known as ‘accompanists’ are now being called ‘collaborative pianists.’ The pianist plays continuously and, in a sense, plays the emotion of the song.”
In this spirit, the musicians took each bow together, and Graham directed much of the final applause toward Martineau.
Both singer and pianist delivered stirring performances. Lawrence Instructor of Music Joanne Bozeman admired Graham’s command of dynamics.
“She risks the soft sounds to achieve a variety of colors and shades of sound.” Indeed, the fluttering pianos seemed to disappear into the air above the stage and beyond.
Bozeman also complimented the singer’s adjustments to the increased exposure of the chapel, following performances at larger venues such as the Metropolitan Opera or the Lyric Opera of Chicago.
“The chapel has nice acoustics, and she certainly enjoys the room,” Bozeman said.
Much to the audience’s delight, Graham and Martineau came back for a brilliant encore and an entertaining address by the singer.
She thanked the audience for indulging her in a dress change at the intermission and explained the reason: In the gown she had originally intended to wear, she resembled “Queen Victoria’s six-foot uncle in drag.”
Though both gowns were elegant, Susan Graham surely would have dazzled even in drag.