Myrna and I heard a Poulenc concert by the choir and orchestra of St. Ignatius Loyola 5/23/18. They opened with the a capella *Mass in G major,* conducted by Robert Reuter. The choir had the perfect style for Poulenc: the sound was sensuous but never schlocky, and the often fragmented nature of the music was fluid and seamless. Sarah Griffiths had a reverent solo - - I've heard Sarah many times with Voices of Ascension, and always love hearing her lustrous voice and thoughtful musicianship.
The next piece was the organ concerto, played by Renée Ann Louprette and conducted by K. Scott Warren. I first heard this piece in Madison back in the 90s at a Unitarian Society summer concert, played by the one and only Clara Fountain. Many of my readers will smile warmly at the memory of Clara. The orchestra was fantastic, the strings in particular - - they had that silky sound that I love so much (hence my unbridled love for Percy Faith). It's always a treat hearing unfamiliar pieces by a composer you love, right? This piece was a great example of what Poulenc does: the final chord of a phrase is usually an ordinary major or minor chord, but the chords he uses getting there often have extra pitches (why have just three pitches in a chord, when it doesn't cost any extra to have four or five?) and their route is often surprising and circuitous. It sounded a bit like movie music. First class movie music! I've always felt that Bernard Herrmann's lyrical string music after the opening credits of *Psycho* was a rip-off of Poulenc. Hitchcock used a Poulenc piano piece in *Rope,* so clearly he was a fan. Too bad he didn't go straight to the source! My brother Howard was an Ayn Rand fan back in the day and encouraged me to read *Atlas Shrugged.* Brilliantly crafted fiction, but oh Lord, what a horrific world view. Anyway, I always thought that *Atlas Shrugged* was the greatest movie that Hitchcock never made. Poulenc would have done a great job with music for that movie.
The acoustics were a problem - - they didn't bother me at all in the first half, when it was the chorus alone in the front followed by the orchestra and organ in the loft in the back, but it became a problem when the chorus and orchestra performed together, in the front. The sound got tubby and murky. This is a shame, because the *Gloria* is such a masterpiece. I'm not sure if the problem was with the acoustics, the choir, the orchestra, or the conductor, but there were quite a few moments in this piece where things weren't aligned, it was a little ragged, especially in the "Laudamus te." This movement has my favorite moment in the piece, a hushed a capella solo by the alto section followed by a ravishing phrase by the orchestra. I could have SWORN that I heard a celesta in that phrase, but there was no celesta in the program. Am I hearing things?
Wendy Baker was the soprano soloist. She was perfect in her first solo, the "Domine Deus." Her singing was warm, clear, and elegant. Her second solo, the "Domine Deus, Agnus Dei," was less successful. It was just one note that was a problem, but since that note was repeated a few times, it wasn't exactly a small problem. Her opening phrase is angular - - the note on the "-ne" of "Domine" is an unexpected note, not one that's part of the scale one would expect. Baker sort of pointed at that note with her voice, as a way of showing us that she was singing it right. The artistry of singing this phrase is singing it in a smooth, lyrical way so that the entire phrase holds together, and not just makes sense, it sounds gorgeous and inevitable. Here's a recording with Kathleen Battle and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Seiji Ozawa. Her entrance is at 1:09, and of course Miss Battle's singing is smooth, lush, and dreamy:
But Baker redeemed herself in her last solo. Ravishing, but with taste and restraint. I want to include a video that captures the cool, luscious, gin gimlet sound that Poulenc gave us, and in every recording I've listened to on youtube (Battle, Barbara Hendricks, Patricia Petibon, others) the soprano gilds the freaking lily, adds these little oo la la curlicues that give HER pleasure but mar the austerity of the line. Here's a recording of the world premiere, with Charles Munch conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. The soprano is Adele Addison, and while she adds marabou feathers to Poulenc's silk satin gown, at least it's vintage. The magic phrase starts at 24:22, with the soprano coming in at 24:57.