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Rechargeable Songs: Narucki-Berman


Donald Berman (file photo)

Appraising gender-specific songs from another time, Susan Narucki and Donald Berman joined in a Faculty Artist Recital at Longy School of Music at Bard College Friday evening with this proposition:

“This Island is a program of little-known music from the first half of the 20th century, written almost exclusively by female composers…Celebrated in their day, they have been largely forgotten; yet their music is evocative, lyrical and exquisitely crafted, wholly representative of major compositional trends of their time.”

An on-screen projection of snow falling in the woods accompanied the opener,  A Solemn Silence (2021) by Eve Beglarian (b. 1958). With its spare, quiet upper register piano tones, Berman developed a mesmerizing accompaniment.

In the hands of Susan Narucki and Donald Berman, this song-filled evening affirmed the capability of repeated charging, especially of the closer, three songs from Les Heures Claires (1908) and, in particular, Ta bonté, of Nadia Boulanger (1887-1979) and her teacher Raoul Pugno, the indisputable standout. Soprano and pianist chimed eloquent French sentiment.

Both critically acclaimed soprano and pianist, dedicated to music of our time, stepped a little further back to embrace Marion Bauer, Henrietta Bosmans, Elisabeth Claisse, and Irène Fuerison. Certainly not names found in today’s canon. Perhaps this will change with time and with the help of a recording of these female composers that is to be released sometime in February by Narucki and Berman. While live performances may be preferred over recordings, that may not always be the case.

Some may recall a time when a surprising number of critics tried coming to grips with gender in the field of musical composition. Nearly a century ago, one of them wrote of the difficulties listening to a work by Marion Bauer. “It is anything but a ladylike composition. This does not mean that is rude, impolite or vulgar, but merely that has a masculine stride and the sort of stride and the sort of confidence which is associated in one’s mind with the adventurous youth in trousers.”

Questions: were the surprisingly few yet eager listeners at Pickman Hall conscious of gender in some way or another? Two songs from Opus 16 (1924) by Marion Bauer met with distraction beyond that. Would those seated closer to the stage have missed the ubiquitous 60-cycle hum seeming to emanate from—where? Additionally, large-screen projections of the song texts were menacingly asynchronous with the performance until somewhat later in the program. The complement of Narucki’s voice and Berman’s piano encountered challenges with Bauer’s full-sized writing for the grand instrument.

Susan Narucki (file photo)

But why only the English translations of the German and French texts? Could they not have been shown side by side, a sure enhancement such as in the three songs from Les Heures Claires, Opus 50 (1918) by Irène Fuerison? The long-time partnership of Narucki and Berman, settling in with the 1922-1923 songs of Elisabeth Claisse (dates unknown), evinced an “evocative, lyrical and exquisitely crafted” Philosophie, a setting of a Chinese text by Kheng-Tsin where “a flock of birds swooped down on my peach tree.”

Midway through the concert Berman introduced “prayer for a wounded king,” which Amy Beth Kirsten (b. 1972) wrote for him. Centered on a single bell-like note, it evokes those who have injuries and those who take care of them. This repeated note informed, in its relentless weight, that burden experienced by both patient and care-giver. The length played to the wearing down experienced by both. Berman devoutly rendered the prayer, but could this exhaustion have been conveyed in a compacted timeframe?

The musical language of Dutch composer Henriette Bosmans (1895-1952) might only partially support the program’s premise that her music that is “wholly representative of major compositional trends of their time.” Here and elsewhere, Narucki needed to modulate the extremes of dynamics and melodrama more carefully.

No doubt remained in any of the listeners’ minds at evening’s end as to the care and depth to which Susan Narucki and Donald Berman took in researching this singular, overdue project.

David Patterson, Professor of Music and former Chair of the Performing Arts Department at UMass Boston, was recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Award and the Chancellor’s Distinction in Teaching Award. He studied with Nadia Boulanger and Olivier Messiaen in Paris and holds a PhD from Harvard University. He is the author of 20 Little Piano Pieces from Around the World (G. Schirmer).

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