For Susan Graham, today’s leading American mezzo-soprano, and Ben Heppner, the reigning lyric heldentenor, the usual performance stops include Vienna, Salzburg, Berlin, Paris, London, New York, Chicago, San Francisco and the few other international cities prestigious enough to warrant their lighting down for a day or two. Within the past couple of weeks, however, I heard them sing not in Covent Garden or on West 57th Street, but in the upstate hamlet of New Lebanon, in a 290-seat barn that until recently was home to a colony of bats. The concert hall was an old post-and-beam tannery, built by the Shakers in the 1830′s on what are now the grounds of the Darrow School. The audience consisted mostly of Columbia and Berkshire county residents and a few weekend renegades from the city. In two weekend concerts, two world-class artists gave unstintingly of themselves in an unexpected, bucolic setting. I count these among the most rewarding musical encounters of my life.
I had heard Ms. Graham perform the same program-Brahms’ Gypsy Songs , Debussy’s Proses Lyriques , Berg’s Seven Early Songs and an assortment of French songs by Poulenc, Messager and Moïses Simons-at Carnegie Hall several weeks earlier and had come away feeling that this tall, open-faced 42-year-old beauty from Midland, Tex., may be the most personable performer on the recital stage today. Like Christa Ludwig, one of her mentors, Ms. Graham has the ability to turn every hall into her living room. She is the most approachable of singers, inviting her listeners to enjoy the searchlight directness of her voice as if she were opening a screen door and asking you to sit down in the kitchen over a cup of coffee. She is better at taking the artiness out of art songs than anyone I know, and at Carnegie she had the sold-out audience roaring for more.
In New Lebanon, the old tannery, which rises above a pond and looks as though it might have once been the set for Seven Brides for Seven Brothers , brought her almost into the audience’s laps-a proximity that many more regal singers would find daunting. But for Ms. Graham’s brand of down-home magic, the soaring, piney room was ideal: natural, bright acoustics and views of the sun setting over distant hills. She and her superlative accompanist, Brian Zeger, slipped into the distinctive atmosphere of each set of songs-Brahms’ Magyar jocosity, Debussy’s silky somnolence, Berg’s angular rapture, Poulenc’s jaunty impishness-with complete ease. I have never heard Ms. Graham use her voice with so much ranginess of expression-I had the sense that she was trying out new colors for the first time-and afterward, when I asked her how she liked singing in the tannery, she said: “Like Wigmore Hall in London, it meets you more than halfway. I hardly had to do any work at all!”
The prospect of hearing the heroic Mr. Heppner in such a setting seemed more problematic. It was raining with persistence when the newly slimmed-down Canadian tenor came out on the little stage followed by his pianist, Craig Rutenberg, and glanced around the audience with his unusually blue eyes. But with the first golden shaft of sound from his throat, the rain was banished. Mr. Heppner’s opening set was Schumann’s Liederkreis ( Song Garland ), and it took him a few minutes to scale his huge, meaty sound to a level that didn’t drill his listeners to the back of their seats. I could have wished for more shadings and less sheer thrust in some of the songs-more terror in the hunter’s encounter with the sorceress in “Waldesgesprach,” more lost dreaminess in the poet’s vision of his dead beloved in “In der Fremde.” But by the final song, “Frühlingsnacht,” Mr. Heppner was in jubilant form, holding us with the conviction of his beautifully enunciated German and the ardor of that clarion sonic heft. Mr. Heppner’s power to raise the hair on the back of the neck is familiar; less so, at least to me, is the warmth and openness of his personality. The songs in the program’s second half-five by the French composer Henri Duparc and five by the Italian composer Paolo Tosti-revealed that behind Mr. Heppner’s intensely driven Tristans, Lohengrins and Florestans is a man of considerable charm.
In the Duparc songs, he beautifully employed the attractive nasality of his voice and capacity for the long, flowing line, which make him perhaps the peerless French tenor of our day. For the Tosti songs, he donned a bow tie and a vest suitable to the composer who had been Queen Victoria’s voice teacher, and showed a side of himself that I have not heard before-an utterly idiomatic command of the Italian sentimental style. As happened to his great countryman and predecessor in many of the same roles, Jon Vickers, Mr. Heppner’s supremacy as a heldentenor will probably prevent us from ever hearing him in Puccini or Verdi (other than in Otello ).Which is a great shame, because his thrilling heart-on-the-sleeve ardor in “Io ti sento!” and “Ideale” had me saying to myself, “Stop wondering about the next Pavarotti-he’s here.” And when he brought the audience to its feet with a molten rendition of Giordano’s “Amor ti vieta,” he summoned the ghost of the greatest Nordic Italian tenor of them all, Jussi Bjéerling.
At one point toward the end of the recital, Mr. Heppner glanced around the tannery and remarked on the joy of performing music in such an intimate setting. It was his way of thanking the man who had put these remarkable evenings together, Christian Steiner. A tall, white-haired man with the face and bearing of a German aristocrat, Mr. Steiner is better known as the photographer of choice for the world’s top classical artists, the Annie Liebovitz for their CD jackets and posters. Mr. Steiner grew up in Berlin, where his father was the principal violist in the Deutsche Opera Orchestra and where his studies to become a concert pianist made him sufficiently accomplished to have been accepted as a pupil by the great Claudio Arrau. (The lessons, as it happened, never materialized.) Mr. Steiner has a weekend house in nearby Spencertown, N.Y., and 15 years ago he launched himself as a summer-concert presenter in that town’s old Spencertown Academy, calling on the services of some of his most famous clients. When the academy’s board bridled at his choice of so many outside big names, he moved his operation to the old tannery.
During the past 12 years, the Tannery Pond Concerts, which are organized by Mr. Steiner and Brenda Archer Adams, has presented pianists like Richard Goode, Alicia de Larrocha, Stephen Hough and Jean-Yves Thibaudet; chamber groups like the Emerson String Quartet, the St. Lawrence Quartet, the Beaux-Arts Trio and the Berlin Philharmonic Octet; singers like Carol Vaness, Haken Hagegard and Maureen O’Flynn, as well as numerous up-and-coming musicians of budding renown. “They are all,” Mr. Steiner told me, “happy to play here for a pittance.
“We really should name the place the Jessye Norman Hall,” he added. “She’s an old friend, and because she agreed to sing at the first benefit here, we were able to raise enough money to pay for proper stagelights and put in a stage and a backstage toilet. We were also able to get rid of the bats. There were 3,000 of them, but now”-he glanced at this summer’s program, which lists five more concerts, ending on Oct. 11-”we have this.”