Classical review: Denyce Graves hits all the right notes at Belmont

Denyce3Denyce Graves knows how to work a room. On Friday night, the world-renowned mezzo soprano walked with patrician grace onstage at McAfee Concert Hall, bowed elegantly and then addressed the audience.

Graves was introducing her first selection, “Mon cœur s’ouvre à ta voix” from Saint-Saëns’ Samson et Delilah. In this famed aria, which Graves described as a kind of “mezzo-soprano anthem,” Delilah swears that she will finally discover the secret of Samson’s strength.

“You probably know the melody, because it’s on the Ragu spaghetti commercial,” Graves said with a look of mischief in her eyes. “Feel free to sing along.” Graves had awed the audience when she first appeared onstage. Now, the crowd simply adored her.

Graves was in town this weekend to participate in the Belmont University School of Music’s “A Celebration of Unity” concert. The famed mezzo soprano performed opera arias and spirituals with her collaborative pianist, Warren Jones. She also joined the University Symphony Orchestra and Belmont Chorale for a luminous rendition of Caccini’s “Ave Maria.”

denyce2One of the Metropolitan Opera’s most celebrated stars, Graves is famous not just for singing roles but inhabiting them. Something like that happened in her opening aria. She sang this melody with urgency and determination, as if her life depended on it. Graves had seemingly become Delilah.

Her sound was unforgettable. She opened with dusky notes that emanated from somewhere deep in her chest. As the aria progressed, she seamlessly shifted registers, singing top notes that were pure and creamy. She was just as seamless in switching styles as she effortlessly navigated the Antillean rhythms in her next song, “Canto negro” from Xavier Montsalvatge’s Cinco canciones negras.

Graves had planned to close the opera section of her program with an aria from Francesco Cilèa’s Adriana Lecouvreur. But she sensed that this audience, which rarely hears Metropolitan Opera stars perform in their backyard, wanted something else. So Graves obliged with a rendition of her signature aria – the ever-popular “Habanera” from Bizet’s Carmen. Right on cue, she became the fiery Gypsy girl, delivering a performance that was at once sensuous, flirtatious and seductive.

Jones, arguably the greatest collaborative pianist since Gerald Moore, was equally successful. He played all three selections with sensitivity, nuance and an orchestra’s worth of sonic color. Simply put, with Jones at the Steinway, Graves didn’t need an orchestra.

Arguably, Graves’ most memorable moment came when she sang Caccini’s “Ave Maria” with the Belmont Chorale and University Symphony Orchestra under the direction of conductor Jeffery Ames. In this number, Graves showcased her entire vocal range – from a burnished contralto to glistening soprano notes. When her voice finally joined in with the full chorale, the resulting sound was translucent.

Graves and Jones finished their portion of the program with three spirituals. She made the first number, “Every Time I Feel the Spirit,” sound as if it had been an outtake from Porgy and Bess. She transformed “Give Me Jesus” into a heart-rending prayer. Jones and Graves had fun with “Git On Board,” performing it with a mix of gospel energy and vaudeville humor.

Friday’s concert – a celebration of peace, tolerance and diversity – opened with conductor Christopher Norton leading Belmont’s Unity Brass Ensemble in Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man. Suffice it to say that it was an uncommon performance played with stentorian power and dignity.

There seemed to be two purposes behind the next piece – Ginastera’s “Final Dance: Malambo” from Estancia, Op. 8. The first was to celebrate the trademark harmonies and rhythms of Ginastera’s Argentina; the other was to show off the virtuosity of the University Symphony Orchestra, which gave an exhilarating performance under the direction of conductor Robert Gregg.

choraleSome of the most unusual sounds of the evening came in a rendition of Glenn McClure’s Kyrie. Members of the World Percussion Ensemble made their tuned instruments sound almost like they were being strummed. The Belmont Chorale, led by Ames, sang with power and sensitivity to the meaning of the words.

Alex Rader gave a beautifully authentic rendition of the “The Islamic Call to Prayer;” dancer  Carrie Gerow moved with elegant, flowing lines as the Belmont Chorale, violinist Maggie Estes and pianist Stephen Aber performed the “Ani Ma’amin.”

Surely one of the orchestra highlights of the evening came with Belmont Strings’ interpretation of George Walker’s Lyric for Strings. Walker was the first African-American composer to win the Pulitzer Prize for Music. The Belmont Strings made this serene music seem transparent. Ames, the conductor, was visibly moved after the rendition.

Ames conducted one of his own pieces, “For the Sake of the Children,” for viola, mixed chorus, piano and percussion. The piece, which seemed especially timely after last December’s mass shooting in Connecticut, was lovingly played by violist Sarah Cote, pianist Stephen Aber and percussionists Jesse Strauss and Ashley Zapar. The Chorale sang with intimacy, ending with a sound that called to mind the flickering light of a candle.

Strauss, Zapar and the Chorale also shined in James Whitbourn’s “Prayer of Desmond Tutu.” The concert concluded with Ames leading the Chorale and University Symphony Orchestra in “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands,” a song that both summed up the concert and kept us warm as we exited the hall into the evening chill.

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About John Pitcher

John Pitcher is the chief classical music, jazz and dance critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He has been a classical music critic for the Washington Post, the Rochester (NY) Democrat and Chronicle, National Public Radio’s Performance Today (NPR), and the Nashville Scene. His writings about music and the arts have also appeared in Symphony Magazine, American Record Guide and Stagebill Magazine, among other publications. Pitcher earned his master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, where he studied arts writing with Judith Crist and Phyllis Garland. His work has received the New York State Associated Press award for outstanding classical music criticism.