Songs of War & Peace


Cantabile Project presents Songs of Maurice Ravel
Pianist Susan Ha and Five Vocalists
Royster Memorial Presbyterian Church, July 22, 2016
Review by John Campbell

Songs of Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) closed the third season of Hampton Roads’ art song performance group Cantabile Project, headed by Karen Hoy, whose vision and hard work have built a sizable audience for this, the most delicate of musical forms.

Ravel was born in the Pyrenees Mountains on the French side of the border with Spain. His mother was Basque and his father was a Swiss engineer who moved the family to Paris when little Maurice was four months old. Alex Ross says, “In a sense, Ravel’s music split the difference between his parents’ world—his mother’s memories of a folkish past, his father’s dream of a mechanized future.” As it became clear that Maurice’s gifts were in music, they provided him with first class instruction from a distinguished piano teacher at age seven and studies in harmony five years later. At 14 he entered Paris Conservatory where his record was patchy—the establishment disapproved of his unconventional harmonies.

What excited him, as well as Debussy, was music he heard at the 1889 Paris World Exhibition: Javanese gamelan and Russian music, especially that given by Rimsky-Korsakov as did his friendship with his exact contemporary, the remarkable Spanish pianist Ricardo Viñes. Together they explored the contemporary arts of painting, poetry, literature and music. Later Viñes (1875-1943) would be one of the first pianists to play works by Ravel and Debussy and introduce Russian piano music into France.

Pianist Susan Ha, who is on the faculty at Norfolk State, was excellent in music that has been described as difficult and virtuosic. Often Ravel gives the main musical interest of his melodies to the pianist. Ravel had a lifetime interest in music from other parts of the world. We heard four cycles and a set of three songs grouped together and sung by Shelly Milam-Ratliff. Sainte (1896) is Ravel’s earliest published song, a nostalgic view of a stained-glass window from a poem by Stéphane Mallarmé. “Saint Cecilia Playing on the Wings of a Cherub” was the translation of the poem’s original title. The image is of St. Cecilia, the patron saint of musicians, viol in hand, looking down on the viewer. The music is impressionistic in style with a slow-moving liturgical mood.

Sur l’herbe (On the grass, 1907) is Ravel’s only setting of a poem by Paul Verlaine. The triple meter of the music suggests a minuet, creating an 18th century atmosphere for a whimsical text about a marquis with his wig askew and a rambling abbot drinking wine and reflecting on the beauty of ladies nearby. Set with piquancy, it was delivered with perfect style. Ms. Milam-Ratliff closed with Vocalise-étude en form de habanera (1907). It is an example of Ravel’s Spanish obsession, a display piece offering a slow and sensuous habanera (a Cuban dance, possibly of African origin that became popular in Spain). Lovely!

The program opened with soprano Ann Scott Davis singing the five song Cinq Mélodies populaires greques (1904-06) bringing her powerful instrument to folksongs collected by a Greek friend of Ravel's from Paris who was traveling in Greece. Upon his return he translated them into French. Ravel harmonized the tunes, keeping their folk-like qualities intact. In Chansons de la mariée (The Awakening of the Bride), a Greek peasant is calling to his beloved to give her a golden ribbon for her hair. Ms. Scott-Davis captured the buoyant happiness of the scene. Là-bas, vers l’eglise (Yonder, near the church) pictures a procession walking to the church and the piano mirrors the stately tread of the procession—hypnotic in its unvarying rhythm. Quel galant m’est comparable (A virile young man) is eagerly impressing his lady-love. Chanson des cueilleuses de lentisques (Song of the lentil gatherers) has a beautifully sung legato line reminiscent of an ancient chant. Tout gai! (All gay!) offers a folk quality vivacious dance—a short burst of energy.

From the five songs of Histoires Naturelles (1906), Kathryn Kelly sang the first three vignettes written in prose about the peacock, the cricket and the swan by Jules Renard. In perfect keeping with the prose texts, Ravel sets them as melodic recitatives and Ms. Kelly delivered them with precision and clarity. The piano figures always underlined the visual images. Renard pokes gentle fun at birds and insects and their human counterparts. Ravel set the French words in a conversational style that captures the natural, light character of Renard’s poetry, causing a scandal by departing from the traditional way of setting texts. He highlighted the humor in the puffed-up strutting Le Paon (The Peacock) and the soft singing of the tiny Le grillon (The Cricket) as he scratches out a safe hideaway in the sand. His bustling activity in the piano gives way to the solemn quiet of a country evening. Le cygne (The Swan) offers the perfect image of the gliding swan in the beautiful, sung, lyrical mélodie, only to have the unhurried calm broken by the swan’s head disappearing underwater, coming up with a fat worm, leaving us with an ironic and humorous thought.

To my ear, Chanson Madecasses (Madagascar Songs, 1925-26) are the most exotic of all Ravel’s songs. Originally written for voice, flute, violoncello and piano, we heard it with piano alone. The luscious soprano voice of Erin Hannon created the excitement of waiting for the arrival of his beloved Nahandov, delivered in an unbroken flow of beautiful sound.

Ravel was introduced to the poetry of Évariste-Désiré de Forges, Vicomte de Parny (1753-1814) for Chanson Madecasses by his friend Ricardo Viñes. Parny was a widely traveled French poet of Creole ancestry who was known for his exotic, voluptuous poetry. These settings came from a commission in 1925 from the American benefactress of music, Mrs. Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge. Ravel was busy completing his opera L’Enfant et les Sortilèges and only finished Aoua! Mefiez-vous des blancs (Awa! Do not trust the white men) that speaks of treacheries committed upon the natives by the white men that brought a near-hysterical response by the abused. Only nature provided a huge storm to protect the natives.

Eight months later the entire cycle was performed in Paris, showcasing Ravel’s daring modernism: the music is more linear and contrapuntal with thinner textures, making the voice the principal instrument. The New York debut came in 1928 and four years later a recording was made by Madeleine Gray with Ravel at the piano. It can be heard on Youtube.

The third song is Il est doux de se coucher (It is sweet to lie down [in the heat of the day under a leafy tree]). Though the text is not deeply sensual it is given an even more voluptuous setting than he gave to Nahandov. The piano offers dreamy music in this vocal snapshot of a moment in time—the joys of watching young girls dance while resting quietly, fanned by evening breezes and lighted by the moon. The cool, restrained instrumental setting and the languid movements of the vocal line, superbly performed by Ms. Hannon and Dr. Ha, is one of Ravel’s most evocative and haunting creations!

The program concluded with another example of Ravel’s fascination with Spanish culture—his songs Don Quichotte à Dulcinée (1932-33) with baritone Gregory Gardner, a seasoned performer who who teaches at Norfolk State University, who delivered the text clearly in his rich, deep-well of sound.

The texts for Chanson romanesque, Chanson épique and Chanson à boire are the French translations from Miguel de Cervantes' epic tale from his novel Don Quixote (1605-1615) that presents the conflict between reality and idealism. These were Ravel’s last songs and they were written for a film version of Don Quixote. Though not used for the film, the three melodies are based on Spanish dance rhythms. Remember, Don Quixote tilted with windmills. The first, Romanesque Song, introduces the cultivated, intellectual Don who offers his beloved (a prostitute) anything she desires in the physical universe. The second, Epic Song, is a prayer to bless his sword and his Lady. The vocal line is a sustained legato passage of noble character over a simple accompaniment. The third, Drinking Song, has the Don overly boisterous but still restrained by his noble bearing. Mr. Gardner was superb in conveying the feeling of each vocal gem.

Cantabile Project: Art Songs of War and Peace
Vocalists Chris Mooney, Monique Amit, Brigid Eversole, Marshall Severin; Pianist Oksana Lutsyshyn
Chandler Hall, October 21, 2016
Review by John Campbell

The Cantabile Project's second program of it's fourth season offered a unique selection of songs both old and new on the theme of “War and Peace.” In her retirement years, soprano Karen Hoy and her devoted husband, Dr. Gilbert Hoy, have devoted tireless support to keeping art song alive in Hampton Roads.

Composer Tom Cipullo (b. 1956) wrote music for a prose poem by Robert Hayden titled Monet's Waterlilies. It is deeply nostalgic for the lost joy of the simplicity of Monet's paintings of waterlilies. Turning from the chaotic world of war, politics and racial strife it focuses where “space and time exist in light” unchanging. Each time we focus our minds there we can partake of peace. The piano music was tentative, unsettled and baritone Chris Mooney delivered the text clearly and with passion. The long-held notes of the word “joy” gave us time to recover from the emotional distress of exploring loss.

Next Monique Amit sang Maurice Ravel's (1885-1916) Trois beaux oiseaux du Paradis (Three beautiful birds of paradise) which tells the story of the girl left behind when her love goes to war. The birds are deep sky-blue, then vermilion and later the azure blue of eternity, symbolic of the unstated loss— “And I must leave on a snow white brow a kiss even purer.” Ms. Amit sang the French closing “plus pur” with a lovely consoling sound. Là-bas vers l'église (Yonder by the church) offers raw sound in the piano and the heavy weight of sorrow in the voice for there are infinite numbers of the world's most brave assembled in the cemetery.

The mourning for those who died in battle continues with Mr. Mooney singing three selections from A Shropshire Lad (poetry by A.E. Housman) set by George Butterworth (1885-1916) who in life was often beset by a sense of purposelessness, enlisted in the army at the outbreak of World War I and was killed in France in 1916 at age 31. It is as if he wrote his own obituary in these songs from 1911. The first, Think No More, Lad and The Lads in Their Hundreds suggest that by dying young and in your glory you never grow old. The tune here is upbeat and sung matter-of-factly.

The high baritone range in Is My Team Still Ploughing? is the voice of the deceased questioning his now-adult best friend who answers in the lower, fuller baritone. The continuity of life is confirmed for the deceased—his concern for ploughing, football, and his girl's happiness— “Be still my lad and sleep.” The last verse asks after his friend's life who answers: “I cheer a dead man's sweetheart, never ask me whose.” Through each shift in mood and character Mr. Mooney performed superbly.

Ms. Amit returned with a Ned Rorem (b. 1923) setting of Look Down, Fair Moon (Walt Whitman). The song captures the pity of it all in a brief song—"the swollen, purple dead gently bathed in moonlight." Then Mr. Mooney sang Rorem's setting of Whitman's Incident from War Scenes. It tells the story of a wounded soldier who digs a hole with his heel as he lies dying. The piano offers the repetitive digging sound as the voice tells the tale.

His next song was a recent masterpiece of art song literature by Lee Hoiby (1926-2011). Private First Class Jesse Givens wrote his Last Letter Home and then died in a muddy river in Iraq, May 1, 2003. The letter speaks to his much-loved wife and to their unborn son and of their un-lived life together. The pain in just reading the letter is greatly amplified when sung. It is the best argument for peace imaginable.

Brigid Eversole, soprano, sang Cantos de amor y guerra (text, anonymous), a set of five songs by Spanish composer Joaquín Rodrigo (1901-1999). Literally songs of love and war, they combine Rodrigo's love of history and ancient poetry. The first, Paseábase el rey moro (The King of the Moors passed by) had the singer standing, stern-faced while the pianist played the two-minute Arab-influenced introduction. This ballad imitates Arabic poetry and may refer to a battle in June, 886 when Omar defeated his enemies in battle, extending his domain to become, in effect, the king of southern Spain. ¡A las armas, moriscotes! (To arms, moriscotes!) has a four-line text repeated three times. Mostly sung unaccompanied, it is punctuated by piano chords and sometimes a drum roll.

¡Ay, luna bue reluces! (Oh, moon that gleams) is a delicate and simple setting. Here a soldier focuses on the pretty moon even though he is part of a war. The principal character in Sobre Baza estaba el Rey (The King was outside Baza) is King Fernando who ruled c. 1050. Baza is a city near Granada. The king is looking over the city, contemplating conquest when a Moor behind the parapet encourages the king to go away because of their strength and leave the city unconquered. Musically it is the strongest of the cycle, offering melodic and rhythmic variety, rich with Spanish atmosphere. Speaking as the king, Ms. Ebersole's voice cut through the accompaniment, declaring he will stay. It was both energetic and eloquent.

In Pastorcico, tú que has vuelto (Little shepherd, you have returned), she asks “Have you found my beloved?” in this lament with its pounding ostinato piano accompaniment. A recording of the cycle seems only to be found on Youtube. The material here was gleaned form Art Song Composers of Spain: An Encyclopedia by Suzanne Rhodes Draayer.

Bass Marshall Severin wrapped-up the recital offering four contemporary pieces: The Old Red Hills of Home by Jason Robert Brown (b. 1970) from the musical Parade about the Civil War. The soldier has left his sweetheart and his home in Marietta, Georgia. Writing home, he longs for peace with honor in their future. The music has a country western sound and was delivered in a natural style. From the musical 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue by Leonard Bernstein we heard Take Care of this House, urging us to guard the American dream, certainly a current challenge since the election!

The roiling sound up-and-down the keyboard in Whatever Happens from The Space Between (Wendell Berry, poet) was composed by Scott Gendel (b. 1977). It urges us to love one another. There is pathos in his voice with each line enunciated as he accompanies himself in John Lennon's (1949-1980) Imagine: “peace . . . no possessions . . . the brotherhood of man . . .” all so gently and naturally articulated.

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