Review: Mezzo-soprano Susan Graham sings spellbinding “A Standing Witness”

Susan Graham

Graham’s performance opened the 20th anniversary season of the Schwartz Center for Performing Arts.

Peruse the catalogue of composer Richard Danielpour and one may deduce that he has a predilection for the mezzo-soprano voice. He’s written music for Jessye Norman (Sweet Talk), Denyce Graves (Margaret Garner) and Isabel Leonard (Of Love and Longing). He also has a penchant for collaborating with contemporary poets who know how to write elegantly about inelegant truths.  

On Friday night, Emory University’s Schwartz Center for Performing Arts launched its 20th anniversary season with the powerful song cycle for chamber orchestra and mezzo-soprano, A Standing Witness. It’s a spellbinding musical journey birthed by a powerhouse triumvirate — composer Danielpour, U.S. Poet Laureate Rita Dove and Grammy-winning opera singer Susan Graham — that was performed at both Tanglewood and the Kennedy Center earlier this year and will make its way to select cities around the country over the next several months.

Danielpour initially pitched the idea to both Graham and Michael Boriskin, artistic and executive director of Copland House, an American Repertory ensemble based in New York City. He envisioned an evening-length song cycle in which a woman would tell the story of America. A Standing Witness consists of 12 testimonies, bookended by a prologue and epilogue, which contain reactions to watershed moments in American history throughout the last 50 years.  

Richard Danielpour
Danielpour collaborated with U.S. Poet Laureate Rita Dove for “A Standing Witness.”

Through the personification of an iconic monument, the Statue of Liberty, Dove speaks about tragedy — the assassinations of President Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the Vietnam War, Watergate, and the AIDS epidemic. She also reflects on cultural, political and judicial milestones of the ’90s tech boom, the election of Barack Obama and Roe v. Wade. Dove’s words are politically charged and imposing, an uncommon feature within the genre of art song.  

Copland House — comprised of vastly skilled musicians Carol Wincenc, Benjamin Fingland, Siwoo Kim, Melissa Reardon, Alexis Pia Gerlach, and Michael Boriskin — understood well the theatrical demands of the piece and provided it while seamlessly playing a polyrhythmic, polytonal monolithic score that spanned cacophony, ragtime and meandering hymn-like moments. Notably, the “Ninth Testimony” was an instrumental elegy about 9/11 and the war in Iraq. It was captivating as the players passed around a descending motive that conveyed the weight of despair.  

Graham, who began her operatic career singing lovesick boys the likes of Cherubino and Octavian, is now a mature artist with one of the most gorgeous voices one could be lucky enough to hear in concert. In her latest role as Lady Liberty, Graham sang Dove’s poetry with gravitas and despondence, executing Danielpour’s considerable requirements — intervallic leaps to unexpected places, crooning and scooping, irate and animated declamatory passages.  

Lyrical moments such as the “Sixth Testimony” were pure luxury — just one example of the impressive musico-poetic synthesis accomplished by Danielpour — and offered Graham an opportunity to show off the opulent timbre of her voice amidst a more subdued orchestration.

Sardonic and reflective, A Standing Witness is a work for the present era. While simultaneously a musical experience and a quasi-biographical commentary, it makes one requirement: One must have lived through many of the events that the iconic woman recounts in order to fully appreciate the piece. Within the final line of the epilogue, Graham sang the words, “Who among you is ready to listen?” Case in point: Will this work endure or will its relevance dissipate with the passage of time?

Stephanie Adrian

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