Susan Graham

Susan Graham performing the world premiere of Richard Danielpour’s “A Standing Witness” at Mandel Hall.

One of the world’s most talented and celebrated mezzo-sopranos sang a world premiere in Hyde Park last Friday night and only a tiny audience was there to hear it. Susan Graham was the headliner for the University of Chicago Presents concert at Mandel Hall where the main work was a stirring new composition by the Grammy Award–winning American composer Richard Danielpour with a fascinating text written by Pulitzer Prize recipient and former U.S. Poet Laureate Rita Dove.

The program was a small collection of works written by living American composers, with the first half featuring two instrumental pieces performed by members of Music from Copland House, an ensemble based at Aaron Copland’s National Historic Landmark home near New York City.

Carol Wincenc (flute), Benjamin Fingland (clarinet), Suliman Tekalli (violin), Alexis Pia Gerlach (cello) and Michael Boriskin (piano) kicked off the evening with “Crossings” by Pierre Jalbert. The program notes report that the inspiration for the work was “the idea of wandering peoples crossing into new territories and strange lands” and particularly the migration of Jalbert’s own family from France to Quebec and later to the U.S.

The journeys depicted in the work twist and turn, with bold declarations followed by muted responses, with elegant long-held notes followed by short lyrical expressions. Folk song quotations are mixed with provocative modern elements to create a tapestry of change, wonder, danger, and satisfaction. The playing was crisp and committed.

This was followed by selections from John Harbison’s “Songs America Loves to Sing”, a collection of modern arrangements of well-known songs such as “Amazing Grace”. The Copland House ensemble performed faultlessly and with vigor and enthusiasm, yet the music itself was often hard to enjoy, with familiar tunes rejigged in surprising and often incomprehensible ways. Even with the program in front of me, I was unable to recognize such familiar tunes as “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” and “We Shall Overcome.”

During the intermission a house two-thirds or perhaps nearly three-quarters empty thinned even further, so that only the first 15 rows or so of Mandel Hall’s main floor was used at all, with nearly all of them sparsely populated.

This was a shame, because Richard Danielpour’s new work, “A Standing Witness” is riveting and was given a luminous performance by soloist Susan Graham. Music from Copland House added violist Melissa Reardon to the ensemble, which had agreed to premiere the work “before one note of the score was written,” according to Danielpour himself.

“A Standing Witness” has 15 short movements: 13 “testimonies” with bookending Prologue and Epilogue. The collection of 15 poems, according to Danielpour’s account of how he envisioned the piece from the outset, would involve “a woman who stands witnessing, giving testimony to the events of the last fifty years.”

The First Testimony concerns the roiling events of 1968 and the last comments on the COVID-19 pandemic and Black Lives Matter. Between these, Vietnam, Watergate, Roe v. Wade, AIDS, 9/11 and much more are explored.

Dove’s text is inventive, often biting. She gives each testimony its own character and rhythm, its own mood and sway. There is sarcasm, rage, and despair, as well as hope and a tiny hint of laughter.

Danielpour’s music envelops the text, heightening the emotion and power, lacing it with delicacy, and ennobling it with both musical grit and dignity. The wide sweep of the score is astonishing and mesmerizing.

This work is able to surprise and delight us in unexpected ways. The testimony on Woodstock is entirely about Jimi Hendrix. There were many political songs and speeches at Woodstock, but Hendrix gave the greatest protest performance without using words at all: his masterful, sly, outrageous version of the national anthem on electric guitar. And it was interesting that Danielpour’s music for the Hendrix poem was reverent and rather quiet and only when the next testimony begins do you realize this composer was doing something sly too: he used a repeated short-short-long metrical phrase (with the long note heavily accented) to be what could be seen as a homage to a Hendrix riff, but in a section about something else, telling us that the force of history is all about remembering the past as it influences the future.

Not only was the music written specifically with the Copland House ensemble in mind, but Danielpour also wrote the vocal part especially for Susan Graham. No composer could have hoped for a better interpreter.

Graham sang from a slightly elevated platform between the strings and winds and slightly behind them and directly in front of the piano. While she used a score sparingly, her music stand was placed to her left side so that her entire body was always clearly visible. She even dressed the part: the Epilogue includes the phrase, “the umbered blue edge of sky as it fades into evening” and there was Graham in a gorgeous, full-length darkish blue dress with hints of umber.

When she sang of the assassinations of Dr. King and Bobby Kennedy, she employed anger and aggression mixed with lyrical pleading. There was bawdy electricity in her voice as she spat out the insults used against women who wanted abortions and a sweet, floating gentleness when she sang of the success of a woman’s right to choose. She infused the AIDS section with exhausted grief, and the poem on the excesses of the 1990s found her voice full of knowing laughter concerning fads.

In a piece which featured mostly historical events involving pain, Graham was soaringly joyous in the poem about Barack Obama. And I wondered: will there ever be another public audience to this work which will include such a high percentage of folks who actually met the man? With his years representing Hyde Park in the Illinois capitol and his then-connection to Hyde Park (including numerous articles for the Herald about his work in Springfield), undoubtedly many in the audience had met him and probably more than once.

“A Standing Witness” is a moving new work which will spawn many a conversation. This world premiere was a remarkable musical experience, led by a remarkable American woman at the top of her game. What a pity so few people were there to share this glorious first performance.

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