in: Reviews

September 2, 2012

Attractive, Rare French Songs at Maverick

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Maverick Concerts often has indifferent audience response to vocal music. I remember, only a few seasons ago, hearing a splendid all-Wolf program on a Saturday night with a very small attendance. Perhaps it was the chance to hear Maverick’s Music Director Alexander Platt conduct (his regular on-season job), or maybe it was the familiar names on the program (Debussy, Ravel, Fauré). But Saturday evening, September 1, a sizeable audience showed up for the annual Chamber Orchestra Concert, all vocal music. We got to hear a stimulating and satisfying concert, made accessible by the inclusion of texts and translations for everything with the printed program.

The concert opened with Fauré’s song Lydia, included according to Platt because he feels the song cycle La Bonne Chanson draws from it. We learned this as part of Platt’s over-long introduction to the concert, which was supposed to give composer Harold Meltzer a chance to talk about his Variations on a Summer Day but didn’t. The music continued with La Bonne Chanson in the composer’s own scoring for voice, piano, and string quintet. I’m not certain that this performance needed a conductor, but the members of the ensemble Sequitur who played were very well coordinated, and they never competed with the excellent baritone Andrew Garland. Garland sang very expressively, kept his climaxes under control, and gave us a thoroughly convincing French style. The cycle is a masterpiece and it was very gratifying to hear. I was particularly amused by Fauré’s bird sounds in Before You Disappear.

Meltzer’s Variations on a Summer’s Day is a setting of a group of miniature Wallace Stevens poems (nos. 12-19 from a cycle of 20), lasting about 10 minutes. Stevens’s poems are intellectual and enigmatic and wouldn’t seem to me prime material for song settings. Meltzer’s style, though, suited the texts very well; he writes a kind of dissonant lyricism that seems a fine musical complement to Stevens. Meltzer’s scoring, using the same ensemble called on later in the program for a Ravel cycle, was very imaginative. Mezzo-soprano Mary Nessinger didn’t always make the music sound easy (I’m sure it’s not), but she sang with obvious intelligence and good sound. The cycle, commissioned by the Fromm Music Foundation specifically for this performance, may never become classical Top 40, but the audience liked it and so did I, and I’d be interested in hearing it again. Despite the small size of the ensemble (a nonet), it definitely did seem to call for a conductor, and Platt drew a very well coordinated and balanced performance.

After intermission, Garland returned with pianist Alan Murchie for a group of almost all French songs by Duparc, Rorem (the ringer, but the text was about Paris), Debussy, Poulenc, Ravel, and Franck. The performances were just splendid. Garland is an adept and expressive singer, and Murchie played assertive, colorful accompaniments without overbalancing the singer.

While listening through this group, I had a realization: Ravel’s songs suit my taste more than those of any of these other composers. Most of them, like most song composers, write pieces of music that use and generally suit the texts. Ravel, whom I will now think of as the French Hugo Wolf, writes songs that are close settings of the texts, responsive to the content of each phrase and sometimes each word. Also, some of the other songs were settings of pretty junky poetry, but Ravel used marvelous poems of Paul Morand in his Don Quichotte à Dulcinée that wonderfully conveyed their moods.

I had the same impression in the concluding item, which brought the members of Sequitur back for Ravel’s Trois Poèmes de Stéphane Mallarmé. These poems are attractively mysterious, and Ravel’s settings of them are masterful, musically adventurous, brilliantly scored, consistently fascinating. Given a chance to sing longer, more lyrical phrases, Nessinger shone, and the ensemble’s playing under Platt also sparkled. Platt had given this music a big buildup in his introduction but it justified all his enthusiasm.

Maverick’s faithful annotator Miriam Villchur Berg deserves a medal for her work in compiling all the texts for the program. Apparently nobody told her that Meltzer’s Stevens setting used only part of the cycle, so we got all of it, but better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it.

Leslie Gerber, who lives in Woodstock, New York, has been reviewing professionally since 1966 for such venues as Performance Today, Fanfare, and Amazon.com. He also publishes the Parnassus Records label.

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