John Frayne | Susan Graham, Argus Quartet entertain crowds

John Frayne | Susan Graham, Argus Quartet entertain crowds

One of the most accomplished singers of our time, Susan Graham, offered one of the finest song recitals I have ever heard on Feb. 2 in Foellinger Great Hall at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts in Urbana.

Her highly accomplished collaborator at the piano was Bradley Moore.

The most striking aspect of the recital was its organization. The basic framework was the song cycle by Robert Schumann, "Frauenliebe und Leben" ("Woman's Love and Life"), in which a young woman falls in love, enjoys the rapture of being bride and mother and endures the final sorrow of widowhood.

Each of the eight songs of the cycle served as landmarks for a variety of songs by other composers, in various languages, songs which expressed something like the same emotive stages of love.

Graham cast her net wide, even including two Schumann songs from "Myrten," another of his cycles.

The scope and variety of the songs were amazing. A total of 27 songs in seven languages were performed. Inevitably, since Schumann's song cycle is in German, the largest number, 11, of the songs were in that language. But the second largest number, seven, were in French, and in that language, Graham has been famous for her singing in the operas of Hector Berlioz.

Three of the songs were in English, and to no one's surprise, two of these songs were settings of William Shakespeare's verse. The remaining six songs were either in Norwegian, Swedish, Spanish or Russian.

The resounding success of the recital rested not only on the ingenuity of its makeup, and the excellent taste showm in the selection, but also in Graham's vocal skills in projecting such a wide range of emotions. Her singing of the Schumann cycle conveyed rapture, and a pair of Edvard Grieg songs elicited the most heroic singing of the evening.

Lighter songs by Maurice and Francis Poulenc were delivered with vivacity and wit. But it was the song that followed intermission, Henri Duparc's "Phidylé," that was unforgettable. Graham's intoning of the refrain line, "Repose ô Phidylé," was nothing short of majestic.

In contrast to the first part, in which Schumann's songs began the groups, in the second half, the Schumann songs were at the end of the groups. I do not quite agree with this reversal, but I can see that the last song of the Schumann cycle, expressing grief at the death of the beloved, had to be the last on the program. And it was sung by Graham with overwhelming compassion, and the long solemn postlude was masterfully played by Moore at the piano.

At this point, the audience stood and cheered. Graham then offered the audience a plum. As encore, she sang with calm rapture, "Hello, Young Lovers" from the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical "The King and I." During the ovation that followed, Graham gestured toward Moore, and a strong swell of applause broke out for Moore's multifaceted playing at the keyboard.

Let it be noted that the lights in the FGH were left bright enough that the 17 pages of song texts could be followed. By the way, in Graham's introduction, she said that the Foellinger Great Hall was the best in the world.

On the previous Sunday afternoon, Jan. 27, I attended a fine chamber music recital by the Argus Quartet, winner of the Concert Arts Guild and M-Prize competitions.

The members of the quartet are Jason Issokson and Clara Kim, violins; Dana Kelley, viola; and Joann Whang, cello. This group has been in residence at Yale University, and in 2017, they began a residence as Graduate Quartet at the Juilliard School, where they are mentored by the famous Juilliard String Quartet.

They opened this program with a finely balanced reading of Felix Mendelssohn's String Quartet No. 1, in which they brought out not only the sprightliness of the composer's "Canzonetta" movement but a wide range of moods in the other movements, leading up to an unexpectedly quiet ending.

The center of the program was devoted to two somewhat challenging contemporary works, and this choice followed the tradition of the Juilliard Quartet's emphasis on the trailblazing music of our time.

Christopher Theofanidis' 1997 work, "Visions and Miracles," was inspired by Spanish medieval music "which has melodies which shift between fast rhythmic groupings of two and three in artful ways." Composer's note: Theofanidis' music projected a variety of strains and conflicts, but at the end of the third section entitled "I Add Brilliance to the Sun," the music strives and succeeds in reaching for final ecstasy.

The description by the composer Christopher Cerrone of his 2017 piece "Can't and Won't" suggests that this work had a complicated gestation. Beginning as a song cycle on texts by Lydia Davis, it morphed into a string quartet that, in his words, was an attempt "... to find some sense of repose in a deeply chaotic time amid constant and often terrifying distractions."

Much of this work had the players repeating short phrases over and over, with slight expressive changes, with a wide variety of pitch levels that one might interpret as strongly conflicting forces. Both of these contemporary works were played with admirable energy and conviction by the Argus group. The concert ended with a soothing traversal of Claude Debussy's lovely String Quartet.

This quartet showed a high level of discipline and a courageous choice in repertory. I wish that the program notes would tell us something about the background of the players and the reason for the choice of Argus, he of the 100 eyes, as the name for their quartet.

Actually, an internet interview reveals that violinists Issokson and Kim got the idea for a string quartet on Argus Drive in Los Angeles one fine day, and the result is a promising future for Argus.

John Frayne hosts "Classics of the Phonograph" on Saturdays at WILL-FM and, in retirement, teaches at the UI. Reach him at frayne@illinois.edu.

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