Posts for:  June 2010

Diva Power-A Recital by Denyce Graves

Denyce Graves, John Conahan, and Laura Ward

If the devil knocked on my door and said, “I’ll turn you into a great singer, Deb, but you have to give me your little finger – on both hands,” I’d say “yes!” Nothing moves me more than great singing, maybe because my father has a beautiful tenor voice. Growing up, I often accompanied him at church. Despite the fact that his sense of rhythm is quite, shall we say, creative, accompanying singers remains one of my favorite things to do.

Two weeks ago, I had the unbelievable good fortune to fall under the spell of one of the truly great voices of this century, when I was invited by a friend to hear a private dress rehearsal given by the mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves. Ms. Graves was preparing for a lieder recital at the Strathmore Festival near Washington, D.C., and her Philadelphia-based pianist, Laura Ward, arranged a run-through at her church in center city Philadelphia.

It was a cool and drizzly day for June, and the massive doors of the church were locked. Laura herself answered the buzzer and let me into the building through a side entrance. I was uncharacteristically early, and took a front pew seat in the silent church. With all the exits shut, the air inside the sanctuary felt close and dusty. The light filtering through the stained glass windows was dim.

All dusty dimness vanished, however, when Denyce Graves stepped to the front of the church to sing. Though wearing a knee-length dress, she looked every bit the glamorous diva, and I was touched that even for this tiny, impromptu audience, she cared enough to create an imposing stage presence.

That care translated beautifully into her stunning recital, which began with songs by Purcell and Handel and continued with a remarkable interpretation of the Robert Schumann masterpiece, Frauenliebe und Leben. The burnished yet pure timbre of Ms. Graves’ voice soaring above Schumann’s singular, lush harmonies, transported me, and I couldn’t help but weep.

As mezzo-soprano Suzanne duPlantis, who was in the audience, told me later, “That was probably the best interpretation of that song cycle I’ve ever heard.”

On the second half of the program, Ms. Graves again created magic in her set of four standards from the American songbook, which were arranged in anything but a standard way by young Philadelphia-based singer, composer, and arranger John Conahan. Ms. Graves delivered Gershwin’s “The Man I Love” and Grand and Boyd’s “Guess Who I Saw Today,” with piercing intelligence, perfect narrative timing, and devastating emotion. Again my tears flowed.

Of course, her great liberty to express was made possible by Laura Ward’s superb intuitive accompaniment. The women generously gave two encores, “Mon coeur s’ouvre a ta voix,” from Samson et Delila by St. Saens, and a spiritual that Ms. Graves grew up hearing her mother sing, “Give Me Jesus.”

Gracious in person, Ms. Graves told me afterward she had been a little nervous because all these pieces were “new material.”

“Don’t change a thing,” I said.

Denyce Graves, through the hard work of honing an incredible gift of voice, embodies the power of woman. I’d wish for any group of oppressed women, anywhere in the world, to be able to hear her sing. They would understand immediately that within them, too, lies power.

Conversations with Paul, Part One

In the words of the late Karl Haas:
“Hello Everyone!”
To celebrate the re-instatement of my website, I’d like to introduce you to one of my favorite people, pianist and composer Paul Romero. Enjoy, and let’s hope that the oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico will also soon be fixed.
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Paul Romero

Last month, my talented student Susan (a rising sophomore at Bryn Mawr College) said she wanted to learn the rest of the Grieg Concerto, but she was going home to L.A. for the summer, and she didn’t know whom to study with.

“I know just the right person,” I said.

That person is a marvelous pianist who befriended me when my husband and I moved from Ohio to Los Angeles over a decade ago. I didn’t know a musical soul when we arrived. One afternoon, as I pushed my little girl in a stroller along the dusty road of my sister’s mountainous, bohemian neighborhood, I heard the thunderous sounds of a Fledermaus transcription shake the walls of a ranch house we were passing.

“A concert pianist lives in that house,” I told my sister, and I went to investigate.

That’s how I met Paul Romero and his partner, psychiatrist and saxophonist Brock Summers. Paul was immediately impressed that I had studied with Earl Wild for many years and made me sit down to play. Shortly thereafter, he invited me to perform at one of his and Brock’s extravagant musicales. Imagine a hundred or so people crowded into a small but elegant living room with a Steinway grand, and people precariously packed onto a balcony that looks out onto the San Gabriel mountains. Imagine a wide array of performers, from cellists to pianists to singers, performing classical to jazz to Tom Lehrer witticisms, with Paul enthusiastically em-ceeing from the microphone. A happier scene could not be produced by Hollywood.

Paul’s own playing impressed me as well, because of his warmth of tone and expressive lyricism. His singing lines linger in the ear long after the last note dies away.

I knew he would be a perfect teacher for Susan, and I am happy to report that they have hit it off marvelously.

Catching up with Paul over the phone, I’ve learned that he is performing concerts in venues that interest him, and that he’s devoting much of his time to his composing career. He is completing the scoring for the 130th soundtrack of his “Heroes of Might and Magic” series, and has been commissioned to write a symphony based on the motifs he’s composed for this wildly successful video game.

Paul has no doubt carved out one of the more interesting careers of a Curtis Institute of Music alumnus.

Writing this now, I remember his reassurances when I was about to move from L.A. to the Main Line of Philadelphia.

“When I was at Curtis, I had a part-time job working for a florist,” he said. “We used to deliver to the Main Line. It was unbelievably green there with a canopy of thick, old trees. You’ll like it.”

He was right; it turned out to be a good move for us. But I’m glad to re-connect with a great talent from my California past, and I promise more “Conversations with Paul” in weeks to come.