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.

There are 2 responses to “Diva Power-A Recital by Denyce Graves”

  1. Hi DEB! You’ve done it again! I love this post… made me sad (again!) that I missed the concert. xx.

  2. I was fortunate enough to hear Denyce Graves sing at a child’s “look-in” concert for the Opera Carmen at the Kennedy Center a year or so ago with my daughter. I knew it was a a real treat then, and you brought it all back to me just now. Thank you.