IN: Reviews

Belle Époque Sighting


The Hangover

It was in the Calderwood Courtyard where we were to catch just a few of Paris’s chefs-d’œuvres of the time, paintings during inspiring performances by musicians with Crescendo Productions at Harvard Museums. Gazing at Monet, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Gauguin before and after hearing Debussy and Ravel at Sunday afternoon’s rendezvous, what might have meant the most was an escape from our burgeoning globalization. Renne Hemsing, Renana Gutman, and Guy Fishman believably played a way back to Paris and that age. 

A Fishman-Gutman duo first called upon Claude Debussy with his 1915 Sonata for Cello and Piano in this collaboration of cultural site, music, and more. A white “light-filled Calderwood Courtyard” modeled after a 16th-century Italian façade suggested the international styles and borrowings of La Belle Époque. Debussy’s own proclamation to Paris’s elite poets and artists mirrored the vastness of the late 19th -to early 20th-century reach by singling out a chord, once destined to resolve to the home note, now free to go anywhere.

The cello-piano duo entranced—it was Paris like no other time in its history. This duo, this Debussy, together their vaporizing and solidifying the episodic often with winks, the surges often followed with a polite gesture, would re-find that nouvel esprit. The slow Prologue, the moderately animated Sérénade, and the nervous Finale with the duo’s always alert sensibility came to palatial life.

Calderwood Courtyard saw all its temporary seats and those at the tables further back taken, folks peering down from the surrounding balconies, others strolling about. Both an accompanying continuous dull murmur and occasional sharp noise from museum-goers, along with the acoustics somewhat interfered with the duo’s immaculate vision.

A Hemsing-Gutman duo next called upon Claude Debussy with his 1917 Sonata for Violin and Piano in G Minor. Unlike the lower sounds of the cello, the higher ones of the violin made much more of their way through to the ear and imagination. The violin-piano duo intimately breathed the sometimes-moody Debussy. Other times, Hemsing-Gutman affectionately motioned the fantastic, animated side of le musicien francais as Debussy became to be known.

Overcoming the museum’s slight background hubbub,  Hemsing, Fishman, and Gutman placed the museum’s crowd of Belle Époque seekers in the midst of Maurice Ravel’s Trio for Piano, Violin, and Cello in A Minor from 1914. These three rendered a vivid representation. Formalistically drawn lines, splendorously colored, all of Ravel’s oeuvre became lifelike with these three players so finely attuned to each other. The zortziko dance rhythm from the Basque region of France and Spain, a touch of Vienna-inspired La Valse, Pantoum, a Malaysian verse form and the title of the second movement, and other global traces of influence sent cues of our time and world widening reach. All this was magnified though the crystal-clear lens of Hemsing, Fishman, and Gutman. 

Such is the appeal of this music created at a time of contradictions and mysteries, no other time or music like it. All said and done, walking into the sunlight of Sunday afternoon felt much like being back in the City of Light (Ville Lumière).    

Trio members selected three paintings to reflect upon: Claude Monet’s Charing Cross Bridge: Fog on the Thames 1903, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s The Hangover [Suzanne Valadon] 1887-89, and Paul Gaugin’s Poèmes Barbares 1896. As to my own thinking, the musicians failed to make any real connections between the paintings and the music in their introductions.

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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