Susan Graham at Ravinia / by Doyle Armbrust

Head over to the Harris Theater entrance on Randolph. Observe any instrument-lugging musician’s reaction to the Lang Lang promo on the Harris’s video screens. If it’s anything other than eye rolling, chances are that musician is busy texting. Attempting to channel his inner Run-DMC with a pair of glistening black Adidas, the Chinese pianist’s head is thrown back in a moment of perfectly staged, grotesquely self-involved ecstasy. It’s not that classical music couldn’t benefit from some image upgrades, but it’s hard to see this as anything other than a product.

Fortunately, most classical superstars are more focused on the quality of their technique than on casting their eyes downward and mussing their hair. Susan Graham is one such artist. Honored by the French government as a Commandeur dans l’ordre des Arts et des Lettres (a highest-ordre medal, reserved for no more than 20 recipients each year) for her expertise in French song and opera, the mezzo-soprano is widely regarded as one of the finest singers on stage today. Plus, at worst, her publicity shots resemble your eccentric aunt from Santa Barbara.

The New Yorker’s highly anticipated Ravinia recital reprises of her wonderful 2008 recording, Un Frisson Français: A Century of French Song, featuring composers Fauré, Satie, Ravel, Messiaen and Honegger, among many others. The 24 pieces cover a wide spectrum of emotion, from the love-versus-marital-obligation regret of Roussel’s Chinese-music-inspired “Réponse d’une épouse sage,” to the whimsy of a whiskey-and-bacon-feasting mouse in Rosenthal’s bilingual “La Souris d’Angleterre.”

In the press, the word that seems most frequently attributed to the 48-year-old’s voice is creamy, and there are no arguments here. With her uninhibited navigation of the French texts and effortless movement among the cabaret, the salon and the grave top in these songs, the profundity is reserved for the concert, rather than the photo session.

- Doyle Armbrust

published in Time Out Chicago on July 6th, 2009