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Brookline Forces Remember France


Andrew Altenbach (file photo)

The large crowd at All Saints Church for the Brookline Symphony on Saturday night (and Sunday afternoon), having come mostly, I imagine, to hear Fauré’s beloved Requiem, also enjoyed assorted French music for choir and orchestra, including several jewels I had not heard before by Lili Boulanger and Maurice Ravel. The Metropolitan Chorale, sensitively prepared by Lisa Graham, added its 100 voices to “Une Vague du Souvenir (Wave of Remembrance).

In its eight season since re-organizing, the Brookline Symphony sounded markedly better than I had remembered it. Clearly, its excellent new conductor Andrew Altenbach has worked wonders. An all French program is a tricky venture for a community orchestra, yet instrumental, chorus and soloists all made fine impressions. (Truth be told, most of us harpists love and appreciate French music, with it scintillating, well-written orchestral parts, solo and chamber music). 

Ravel wrote his beguiling “Trois Chansons” (Nicolette, Trois beaux oiseaux du Paradis, and Ronde), his only mature work for unaccompanied chamber choir, to his own texts between December 1914 and February 1915, when, despite poor health, he was waiting eagerly to enlist in World War. This undertaking provided a fine first hearing.

Gabriel Fauré’s gorgeous Cantique de Jean Racine (1865) was Fauré’s first significant composition, written while he was in his final year at the École Niedermeyer, the ‘École de musique religieuse et classique’. He submitted the piece for the composition prize, and won, though it was only published 11 years later, with a full orchestral version following in 1906. It currently exists in several versions including one with punishing harp pedals (it is extremely chromatic). At this satisfying performance, the harp appeared rather dramatically toward the end.

Seventeenth-century French dramatist Jean Racine translated the text “Verbe égal au Trés-Haut” from a medieval Latin hymn for Tuesday matins, “Consors paterni luminis.” Rather than using the title of the original hymn, Fauré paid tribute to the author of the translation. 

Nadia Boulanger’s (1893-1918) younger, far less famous sister Marie-Juliette Olga (Lili) Boulanger, was represented by her moving “Psalm 129, “ls m’int assez opprimé,” composed two years before her death at age 24. During her all-too-brief life, she studied with Fauré, and at 19, was the first woman to win the Paris Conservatoire’s Prix de Rome (Ravel was denied this honor). The men’s chorus under Graham impressed in this rarity. 

Lisa Graham (file photo)

The ambitious orchestra and women’s chorus ended the first half with a colorful account of Claude Debussy’s (1862-1918) Nocturnes (Nuages, Fetes, Sirèns). The acoustics of Brookline’s All Saints Parish seemed to favor the brass, who played impressively all evening, as did harpist Sofija Sibinović.

In the ever popular Fauré Requiem, baritone David McFerrin, whom I have admired in Blue Heron, gave a heartfelt account of the “Libera Me” section and the Hostias in the Offertoire. Blue Heron’s and Lorelei’s soprano, Sonja Dutoit Tengblad, seems to appear as soloist weekly with one distinguished group after another. Her sublimity in “Pie Jesu,” left this reviewer in tears.

I’ve heard, and played, the Requiem numerous times, but never with two such awe-inspiring soloists. It was a memorable evening indeed.

Susan Miron is a book critic, essayist, and harpist. She writes about classical music and books for The Arts Fuse. Her last two CDs featured her transcriptions of keyboard music of Domenico Scarlatti.

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