Denyce Graves, a native of Washington, DC returned here last month for a recital to support her alma mater, DC’s Duke Ellington School for the Arts. The Kennedy Center was crowded for the recital, which featured a nice mixture of classical, jazz, gospel, and contemporary selections as well as the talents of the Ellington School Show Choir.
Miss Graves, ably accompanied by pianist Joseph Thalken, started the evening with a selection from the opera Adrianna Lecouvreur that highlighted her dexterity as a singer. From loud to soft, intense to whimsical, and low to high, she gave a glimpse of what the rest of the night had in store.
Unamplified through the operatic first half of the program, Graves paused between numbers to enlighten the audience about the pieces she was performing, and relayed a few thoughts about her time at the Ellington School, where she was a student in the 1980s.
After she sang Habanera from Carmen, Graves joked that the crowd enjoyed it because they recognized the tune. But the applause wasn’t just because it was familiar. Her lyrical phrasing contrasted with the staccato beat of the piano, and Graves mastered it and made it her own.
She closed out the first half of the program with two African-American Spirituals and a piece by Gene Scheer, American Anthem, which seemed appropriate for a concert in her hometown of Washington, DC.
The Duke Ellington School Ellington Show Choir under the direction of Samuel L. Bonds gave Graves a brief respite as they performed two energetic selections. Dancing around the stage, the black-tie and black gown clad high schoolers put on an impressive energetic show.
Graves returned to the stage with the haunting Milonga sin Palabras, a piece whose lyrics consist entirely of “oohs” and “ahhs.” Sung by Graves, it inspires similar reactions from the audience, along with enthusiastic applause. She finished the concert with more recent material, borrowing from jazz, blues, and even the Beatles to round out the very varied recital.