Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Nicholas Phan Surveys Nadia and Lili Boulanger

courtesy of Naxos of America

A little over a month ago, Avie Records released its latest album of tenor Nicholas Phan, entitled Clairières. That title comes from the major composition to be performed, the cycle of thirteen songs, entitled Clairières dans le ciel (clearings in the sky), for voice and piano setting poems by Francis Jammes and composed in 1914 by Lili Boulanger. In fact the entire album is devoted to the songs of both Lili and her older sister Nadia. As in his previous album Illuminations, Phan's accompanist at the piano is Myra Hunag.

Both of these composers tend to be better known by reputation than by the music they composed. Nadia is best remembered as a teacher, although she was also a conductor as well as a composer. Some might go as far as to call her the music teacher of the twentieth century. She was a faculty member at the Fontainebleau Schools, founded by Walter Damrosch in 1921 with the involvement of the United States following World War I. One of those schools, the American Conservatory, used the space in the Louis XV wing of the Palace of Fontainebleau. Boulanger began there teaching harmony and then extended her portfolio into composition. One of her first students was Aaron Copland; and the list of her students can almost be taken as a survey of American composers born before 1950, extending all the way to Philip Glass. One could almost call her the master pedagogue of American music. For those inclined to raise a skeptical eyebrow, Boulanger did spend time in the United States, where she performed as guest conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic, and the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Lili was the prodigy of the family. Nadia began taking lessons at the Conservatoire de Paris at the age of ten. Lili would tag along with her before she was five years old. Shortly thereafter she would sit in on classes in music theory and study organ with Louis Vierne. Sadly, her prodigious efforts were short-lived. She died of what was called “intestinal tuberculosis” at the age of 24. As far as I can tell, Clairières dans le ciel was her most extended single composition.

It should not surprise any of my readers that Phan’s album provided “first contact” experiences of the compositions of both Boulanger sisters. As a result, I am just beginning to get my head around the “linguistic infrastructure” of this music. Lili’s Wikipedia page cites the influences of both Gabriel Fauré and Claude Debussy. However, it is almost impossible to listen to the sixth song of the cycle, “Si tout ceci n’est qu’un pauvre rêve” (if all were naught by a poor dream), and the final song, “Demain fera un an” (tomorrow it will be a year), without detecting at least a bit of influence from Richard Wagner. The settings by Nadia, on the other hand, turn to some of the “usual suspects” poets, such as Maurice Maeterlinck and Paul Verlaine; but it is worth nothing that Phan’s final selection for this album is one in which Nadia sets her own poem, “Soir d’hiver” (winter evening).

I hope to spend much more time with this album getting better acquainted with both of these composers in the hope that I shall not have to wait long before encountering them in the recitals that I attend.

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