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MSO: Denyse Graves, Mezzo-Soprano

Schumann: Overture to Manfred, Op. 115
Bizet: Carmen
Chabrier: España, Rhapsody for Orchestra
St.-Saëns: Samson et Dalila
   Amour! Veins aider ma faiblesse!
   Mon coeur s'ouvre à ta voix
Michael Torke: Jasper
[Medley]: Songs
Can't Help Lovin' That Man
The Joint is Really Jumpin' in Carnegie Hall
Just You
Blues in the Night
American Anthem

Madison Symphony Orchestra
Denyce Graves, mezzo-soprano
John DeMain, conductor


Mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves is a skyrocket on the way up. Her performances on this season's opening concerts of the Madison Symphony Orchestra glowed very brightly, greatly warming smaller than expected but highly appreciative audiences. There was marvelous rapport with MSO music director John DeMain, who skillfully supported Graves' dramatic fire in the "Habanera" and "Sequedilla" from Bizet's Carmen and her melting passion in "Amour, viens aider" and "Mon coeur s'ouvre à ta voix" from St.-Saëns' Samson et Dalila. She was equally convincing in an aria from Verdi's Il Trovatore, offered as an encore.

The voice is impressively large, by turns smooth and shimmering then deep and vibrant. Already the world's reigning Carmen, and probably set to capture similar acclaim at next month's performances of Samson at the Met, Graves is headed, I'm sure, for opera superstardom. Revealing a completely different part of her vocal and interpretive range, Graves also put it away in a group of American songs, especially in three songs by Gene Scheer. There were standing ovations, whoops and "Bravas!", and prolonged applause, all of it richly deserved, I thought.

As though that were not excitement enough, there was also the world premiere of Michael Torke's Jasper, a highly energetic, glittering tour de force of orchestration and motivic development. The central section of the 12-minute piece seemed a bit adrift Saturday evening, but on Sunday the musical materials had excellent clarity and direction.

The program opened with the Overture to "Manfred," Op. 115 by Schumann. Its romanticism requires great flexibility superimposed on a need for precision in articulation. Both performances were very good. Far more demanding technically was Chabrier's España, which is rhythmically very tricky. Here, despite highly audible trumpet and trombone gaffes, the Sunday reading was notably more secure, especially in ensemble. Something of a sure-fire orchestral showpiece, the MSO played St.-Saëns' "Bacchanale," the ballet music from Samson et Dalila, between the two arias. It is fast, flashy, rhythmically complex and very hard to play. It went well both times.

These concerts were also the debut for about 15 new players in the orchestra. Given the high level of difficulty in this program, I think it's fair to say they passed the test pretty well. I'm hoping the less than sellout houses were the result of competing sports events in the town, because there was nothing amiss here in either the programming or the playing. This will be tested again soon, for the next MSO concert, which will face DeMain and the orchestra with the major challenge of Mahler's 5th Symphony, comes on Homecoming weekend.

Isthmus, September, 1998
Copyright 1998 Jess Anderson

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