“Clear Voices in the Dark” fascinatingly combined of Poulenc’s Figure Humaine with songs from the American Civil War at Church of the Redeemer, Chestnut Hill on Sunday. Skylark’s artistic director Matthew Guard noted that his idea stemmed from a desire to make Poulenc’s masterpiece more accessible to an American audience. It came to him in 2014 around the conjunction of the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War and the 150th anniversary of the end of the American Civil War, and it has taken him nearly a decade of research, composition, and rehearsal to fully realize this vision. The odd pairing provokes more thought-filled questions than answers, but this is the nature of all great French art and literature. This method of interweaving the two collections extended the performance of Poulenc’s work from its usual 22 minutes (long enough for the back half of a program but not a standalone piece) to a more appropriate 55 minutes without the need to learn a second major piece.
The American songs, collectively referred to as ‘Civil War Soundscapes,’ range from ballads about the war sung on the battlefield to hymns of peace sung at home. These songs were interspersed between movements of Poulenc’s cantata, and the narratives of the two collections ran roughly in parallel through a call to war, its catastrophes, and conclusion. Poulenc considered his piece to be an act of resistance against the Nazi occupation. The libretto depicts war as violent and imbues guilt on all who engage in it, both aggressor and victim. Guard pairs these images with American songs that meditate on similar themes, but he went out of his way to subvert the typical romanticized portrayal of the American Civil War with its catastrophic truth. For example, instead of singing the popular song “When Johnny comes marching home” which celebrates the return of victors from war, they sang “Johnny, I hardly knew ye,” a lament for the ruined lives of soldiers that return forever scarred from war. All of the music looked at war through the devastating effect it has on the citizens and soldiers most directly harmed by it.
Matthew Guard wrote or edited most of the songs of the Civil War. Most of the arrangements use ubiquitous humming from the choir to contrast with solo passages from a soloist or small group, not a bad trick to adapt the harmonically stagnant music for choir. Frustrated leading tones and open harmonies reminded one of the austere style of the American shape-note tradition. Its text painting channeled war’s as brutality. The row of American songs ended with two well-known hymns which were written about the War: “Abide with me” and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Abide seemed to have been sung in its original arrangement out of a hymnal (with some humming to vary the texture between verses), but Guard infused his arrangement of the Battle Hymn with aural images of war and drums. In both, the choir sang the long melodic lines with seemingly inexhaustible air supply. The angelic melody of “Abide with me” moved several audience members around me to tears.
The choir filled the hall with plenteous bass and treble voices which balanced each other well. The groups coloratura sopranos, Sarah Moyer and Fotina Naumenko, addded the perfect amount of sparkle to their stratospheric notes perched gently high above the choir. The soloists sang in a sweet style reminiscent of tasteful musical theater, without the omnipresent operatic vibrato that would have destroyed the American soundscape. Guard built his arrangements around a thorough use of the women’s chorus. Several numbers, such as the prelude, “When this Cruel War is over,” and “Soldier’s Memorial Day” began with ethereal soprano voices later reinforced with the rest of the choir. Alice Parker’s arrangement of “Johnny, I hardly knew ye” and Ron Jeffers’s “Working for the dawn of peace” showcased the versatility of the men of the choir as both colorful sound makers, with the basses droning the word ‘drum’ beneath disembodied melodies, or as their own ensemble. Though they sang in a relaxed style, the disgusting word ‘barbershop’ never came to mind.
Where the American songs often divided the group into men’s and women’s choruses, Poulenc’s Figure Humaine is built on a division of two mixed voice choirs singing antiphonally. The two groups sang the fiercely difficult music very well, with the agility of a school of fish. At times, their entrances were at a distance of a mere eighth note, yet their perfectly intelligible French diction never suffered. While using minimal vibrato, the group energized their singing with flexible dynamics, exciting the audience with rapid swells and decrescendos. Guard’s conducting dramatically led the choir throughout the performance. Though he had his back to the audience throughout the concert, we could have inferred his facial expressions through his dynamic body language. Like ASL onomatopoeia, his gestures evoked the sounds of thunder and crashing drums at the most riveting moments of the music.
The most exhilarating movement, Poulenc’s finale LIBERTÉ, brought the audience to its feet. Distilling the adrenaline rush of Ravel’s 15-minute dirge Boléro into the only four minutes one wants to hear, brought a smirk or smile to many faces in the audience as the choir built-up momentum throughout the poem’s 21 stanzas. The sonoroties grew and shrank several times before reaching the highest peak. The choir sang those ‘lesser peaks’ with a full tone while building with measured intensity before reaching the end. The extreme Es of the last chord (E2 in the bass and E6 in the treble) rang in the high vaulted ceiling of the church for at most 2 seconds before clapping and hollering obliterated the echoes.