New York Festival of Song
The Banquet Years
Marie Lenormand, mezzo-soprano
Hugh Russell, baritone
Steven Blier, piano
At Merkin Concert Hall
Press: Cohn Dutcher Associates
Dr. Roberta E. Zlokower
March 8, 2006
“The Banquet Years”
Works by: Emmanuel Chabrier, Camille Saint-Säens, Georges Auric, Francis Poulenc, Henri Koechlin, Reynaldo Hahn, Igor Stravinsky, Manuel de Falla, Erik Satie, Maurice Ravel, Marcel Bloch/Louis Maubon/Jean Lenoir, Vincent Scotto, Léon Xanrof, André Messager.
A cast of three, a mezzo-soprano, Marie Lenormand, a baritone, Hugh Russell, and a piano accompanist/raconteur, Steven Blier, entertained a full house at Merkin Hall tonight in this very French and very eclectic program that unfolded with romance, poetry, surprise, wit, and sport. Four composers: Chabrier, Satie, Ravel, and Poulenc (to Apollinaire’s poetry), were featured in a focus on Roger Shattuck’s 1956 book, The Banquet Years, about the glorious Parisian café life at the turn of the 20th century, and the beginnings of modernism in music, literature, and art. The romantic spirit of the Belle Époque (“The thirty years that straddle 1900”) evokes the memory of Aristide Bruant and Yvette Guilbert. (Program Notes).
Steven Blier is a wealth of imagination and information, and his introductory and intermittent comments were rich with history and humor. Mr. Blier re-united Ms. Lenormand and Mr. Russell, who had studied music together, for tonight’s event. Chabrier was represented in compositions to the poetry of Ephraim Mikhael (L’ile heureuse), Rosemonde Gérard (Villanelle des petits canards and Les cigales), and Eugène Adenis (España). L’ile heureuse was performed by both singers with clarity and charisma. The first Gérard poem is about little ducks walking in lines in cheerful fashion. The second is about cicadas, “more soul than the viols…sing better than the violins”. The Adenis poem is about Seville, sung by both Ms. Lenormand and Mr. Russell. It’s flirtatious with mood contrasts, from distraction to drama.
Saint-Säens was represented in a poem by Victor Hugo, (If you have nothing to say to me), sung by Mr. Russell. It’s a querulous romantic solo, wondering at the seeming ambivalence of his lover. Mr. Russell has a deep, dramatic voice, which changes with the mood and moment. Auric was represented in a poem by Jean Cocteau (Portrait of Henri Rousseau), sung by Ms. Lenormand and accompanied by two pianists. This playful, staccato work, about no less than angels, the Eiffel Tower, and the jungle, was a pleasant interlude. Poulenc was represented in poems by Apollinaire, all sung by Mr. Russell. He used body language to take on the shadowy caricature of Toulouse-Lautrec paintings, as he sang of The Crayfish and The Carp.
Koechlin was represented in a poem by M. de Marsan, (Si tu le veux). Sung by Ms. Lenormand with spiritual sensuality, this was one of my favorites, a serious, rapturous piece, “We two lovers shall set off together, Into the darkening night…”. Hahn was represented in a poem by Pietro Buratti (La barcheta), about “a little boat”. Ms. Lenormand added gesture and gentleness to lyrics, such as “Alone on the lagoon, And by the light of the moon…”. She followed with a Stravinsky scored, one-sound, wordless song, (Pastorale), very novel and natural. Manuel de Falla was represented in a poem by Théophile Gautier, (Seguidilla). Mr. Russell poignantly presented these lyrics, “dancing to castanets…puffs on a cigarette”.
A rare and exotic work, Satie’s Sport et Divertissements, with lyrics by the composer, is divided into 15 short songs, such as “The Hunt”, “Le Yachting”, “Golfing”, “The Races”, and “The Tango”. Both Ms. Lenormand and Mr. Russell excelled in this impish collection of attitude affectations, in lyrics like, “The wild pig is going to get married”, The yacht is dancing”, “…sure of his shot: His club flies into smithereens”, “The losers (pointy noses and floppy ears)”, and “The tango is the devil’s dance”. This is one of Satie’s most difficult pieces to play and sing, and this duo was frolicking, smart, and stylish. Stéphane Mallarmé’s Trois poèmes, scored to Ravel and sung by Ms. Lenormand, had jazzy intonations and keyboard waterfalls. Of special note: Mr. Blier is a talented pianist who never overpowers his vocalists, but assuredly showcases the scores. He is quite a charismatic performer and host.
Bloch and Maubon scored lyrics by Jean Lenoir (You took me by surprise). This rollicking tale of an active five-horse carriage ride, up to ten drinks, and two “lapses of judgment”, with Ms. Lenormand’s theatricality, worked well as fluffy frivolity. Mr. Russell followed with Scotto’s music to lyrics by J. Rodor and J. Bertet (The girl I love is among you), “…she intoxicates me, And drives me crazy”. This piece had a Broadway mood and a pre-Broadway melody. Both music and lyrics to Xanrof’s Le Fiacre, performed by Ms. Lenormand to Mr. Blier’s fancy piano flourishes, were energetic and engaging. This song, of a cheating wife, a deft lover, and a clumsy husband, is devilish and delightful. Finally, Messager’s Donkey Duet to a libretto by Albert Vanloo and Georges Duval, was rapidly performed by both singers with flirtatiousness and feeling. An encore ensued.
Kudos to New York Festival of Song, kudos to tonight’s performers, Mr. Blier, Ms. Lenormand, and Mr. Russell, and kudos to “The Banquet Years” of La Belle Époque.