Arthur Honegger’s Pastorale d’été set the perfect soundtrack for dusk in the sanctuary of Boston’s First Church on Saturday evening. Designed by Paul Rudolph shortly after a 1968 fire burned the original 1867 building, the beautiful sanctuary of First Church offers high ceilings and plentiful natural sunlight — a particularly good space in which to perform and attend live music. Honegger’s work seemed at home here, its trance-like opening resounding fully in the space in deeply satisfying ripples, while maintaining a clean presence in the work’s more animated moments. It is difficult to believe that the volume and pathos was produced by a small ensemble consisting of roughly 10 performers. All this, of course, goes to credit the hard work of the Chamber Orchestra of Boston, completing its 11th Season under the leadership of David Feltner, which led the ensemble in a whirlwind tour of the sound of 20th-century France.
Feltner’s ambitious programming certainly raised some eyebrows by programming Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune or Fauré’s Op. 50 Pavane for such a small ensemble. Certainly, the works were different from the recordings we hold near and dear, yet both flourished in the hands of the ensemble. Debussy’s work, in particular, seemed well suited. The smaller numbers allowed for a more flexible and fleet reading in addition to the already sensitive attention to the detail of Debussy’s score. Although Fauré’s Pavane took a more measured tempo, the work thrived in the sanctuary of First Church that not only seemed to magnify the grand, broad moments of the dance but brought the audience the jeweled intricacies of the more subdued details.
But perhaps more impressive were the lesser-known works of the evening. Although not the most challenging work on the program, Robert Edward Smith’s Barcarolle interlude from his 2010 opera, A Place of Beauty (performed last year by COB and Intermezzo: The New England Chamber Orchestra Series and reviewed here) evoked a sound and feel of fin de siècle Paris.
Particularly interesting were performances of songs by Hubert Giraud, Louiguy and Francis Poulenc. Baritone Paul Soper joined the ensemble for the extensive collection of pieces incorporating voice. Paired with COB, Soper presented a technically proficient read of Saturday’s works. Although tenuous in its upper ranges, his baritone is rich and resonant, with a consistent vibrato that betrays excellent training and control of his instrument — a true presence in First Church. Giraud’s Sous le ciel de Paris, a languid, cabaret-style depiction of daily life in Paris, Poulenc’s Dadaist Rapsodie nègre, and Louiguy’s La vie en rose (which certainly needs no introduction here) were particularly effective.
What seemed particularly lacking, however, was Soper’s read of Poulenc’s more humorous works. Barbara Lieurance, at the piano, presented Le Bestiaire, ou le Cortège d’Orphée, a setting of works by Guillaume Apollinaire, in a delightful array of bright colors we remember from our childhood, ranging from the mock-serious to the frankly slapstick. Yet Soper’s singing tended towards the reserved, somehow missing the very serious humor in describing the backwards-moving crayfish, or the clumsy tongue-in-cheek of Don Pedro de Alfaroubeira’s camels. The same can be said about Poulenc’s Voyage à Paris and Hôtel, yet another languid look at a Paris evening, in which the speaker is steeped in a profound mock-melancholy. Again, Soper managed to produce a rich tone that is nothing short of beautiful. Yet, after an entire two minutes of over-wrought imagery and description, he missed Poulenc’s wry self-effacing musical smirk at the speaker. Nevertheless, Soper’s collaboration with COB provided a well-rounded performance of the pieces that added a welcome dimension to the evening’s performance.
Indeed, although a fanciful conceit, Paris worked particularly well for COB’s Saturday evening, tending to stretch the limits of “effectiveness” of its truly bittersweet ideal of evocative nostalgia. The hard work of the ensemble was richly rewarded by a standing ovation from the members of the audience; a reception afterwards featured French wines and cuisine.
Sudeep Agarwala is a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He performs with various choral groups throughout Boston and Cambridge.