The Ensemble review: Cooking up a French feast for the ears

Vocal group serves up tasty courses of French music from the Renaissance and 20th century.

by JEFF WINSLOW 

Once at the Paris Conservatoire when a professor was late, a young Claude Debussy filled the time by sitting down at the piano in front of class and improvising all manner of colorful music including a generous helping of “forbidden” sounds. His fellow students were afraid of what would happen when the professor walked in, but Debussy was unperturbed. With the proverbial French appreciation for pleasures both culinary and musical, he called it “a feast for the ear.”

French composers have put pleasure and clarity first from the earliest times, which explains why no one busted a gut at The Ensemble’s Columbus Day concert at Portland’s Reed College Chapel, even though it ran nearly 90 minutes with no breaks. If the music had been all German or Italian, we’d have never made it! But it was a multi-course all-French feast, faithfully served by five solo singers and a pianist, alternating the two eras when French music was most distinctive and influential: the late Middle Ages / early Renaissance and the late 19th / early 20th century.

Mel Downie Robinson and Catherine van der Salm sang French music with The Ensemble.

Mel Downie Robinson and Catherine van der Salm sang French music with The Ensemble.

The first course exemplified the thoughtful programming we are coming to expect from founding artistic director Patrick McDonough. First, soprano Catherine van der Salm from the back of the hall, then fellow soprano Mel Downie Robinson from the stage, beautifully sang two solo love songs from the 14th century by early master Guillaume de Machaut. There was no sense of competition or comparison, though the reverberation was different and voices are as different as personalities. Instead, each was delicious in its own way, complemented by the subtle contrast. Finally, the remaining three soloists, mezzo / alto Laura Thoreson, tenor Cahen Taylor, and McDonough himself as baritone, presented a wooing song by Josquin des Prez with equal panache. (Josquin, the most famous composer of the early Renaissance, was closely associated with the French even though he was technically Flemish.) The wooed shepherdess finally replied, “How do you mean that?” which left a tantalizing aftertaste.

Then we sampled the great flowering of French art song in the late 19th century, as all but McDonough divvied up the honors among Gabriel Fauré’s “After a Dream” and “Tears of Gold,” Henri Duparc’s “Sad Song” (Chanson Triste), and master chef Debussy’s early “Mandoline.” The piano in this era became an essential and evocative element, and pianist Chris Engbretson, a tenor himself, partnered sensitively with the vocalists here and throughout the concert. Coming after the relatively austere language from centuries earlier, the lush, yet still clear, Romantic sounds provided exquisite pleasures. The high point of the set was the ravishing duet “Tears of Gold,” featuring Thoreson and Taylor, who blended perfectly and with great warmth. The mercurial harmonic shifts of Fauré’s mature style, as piquant as they were, only hinted at the supercharged imagery of Albert Samain’s Symbolist poem, but it was enough – after all, there were seven more courses to go!

And so the feast went, alternating early sets with late, solo songs with those for all five voices, sad with humorous, frothy with bittersweet – too many to list in detail. The only items that fell flat were two solo piano works offered by Engbretson, Debussy’s first Arabesque and Maurice Ravel’s Jeux d’Eau (Water Games). He seemed to have the chops for them, but whether through nervousness or insufficient rehearsal, there were frequent missteps and the overall effect was somewhat awkward.

Not that the voices were always perfect. McDonough warned us that Francis Poulenc’s set of five a cappella songs, Small Voices, nominally for children’s choir, was much more difficult than that would suggest. But the crazy centerpiece, “Coming Home from School,” which seems to require three clones of the same coloratura voice, taxed even the experienced trio of van der Salm, Robinson and Thoreson to their utmost. Elsewhere, they seemed to be able to relax and enjoy difficulties such as kittenish leaps and word-painting with slippery harmonies. The last number, “The Hedgehog,” about dad bringing one home for a pet, was a complete hoot.

Humorous word-painting at high velocity was a stock-in-trade of Renaissance composer Clement Janequin, and we heard two examples, the second for the full quintet: “Au joli jeu…” (It’s lovely to play…), in the same vein as “What’s Love Got to Do With It,” and “The Song of the Birds,” so-called, though it’s really only about the cuckoo and the amorous transaction it symbolizes. Both call for the voices to act more like string players bouncing their bows through fast passages. The group reveled in the hyperactive machinery and the audience laughed at the punch lines. McDonough often directed and sang at the same time, and there were one or two hints just how challenging that is at this speed, but he can rightly pride himself on his simul-performing ability.

The three women finished off this course with a tight performance of “Sur le joli jonc” (In the lovely hay), which evokes a roll in the hay with seemingly endless rising scales – a light and surprisingly lewd setting from Adrian Willaert, who, after being schooled in the style of Josquin, eventually held the post of choir master at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Venice for 35 years.

The most scrumptious course was possibly Poulenc’s set of four songs on poems by Guillaume Apollinaire: airy tasters of remembered love, snarky cultural observations, and surrealistic pictures of seedy and elegant hotels. Thoreson’s rich mezzo slid easily into each mood and we happily followed, again with the invaluable partnership of Engbretson’s piano. The one completely serious moment was washed down with “In Front of the Cinema,” a rumination on art and actors that digresses into the terms different classes of people have for movie theaters. Thoreson’s delivery of the final line – “Dear me, we must have good taste”– got a good laugh.

One can’t have an all-French choral concert without including at least something from Debussy’s and Ravel’s well-known sets of three choral songs (Debussy’s on poems by early Renaissance poet Charles d’Orleans, and Ravel’s on his own texts). We got generous helpings, with Engbretson joining the rest of the group to give a fuller complement of six voices. Even though it was the last course, you couldn’t call it dessert; it was too substantial. Not that there was anything heavy about it: Ravel’s “Nicolette” and Debussy’s “When I hear the tambourine…” are witty musings which the group put across nimbly. And while “God! What a vision she is…” and Ravel’s “Three beautiful birds from Paradise” go straight to the core of love and bereavement respectively, they do so with simple eloquence. Not that they are simple to sing – Debussy in particular lavished harmonies on his love song that would later be admired and picked up by many a jazzer. But the group tuned it up beautifully and ended up strong, with little evidence of how hard they’d been working for so long to create nothing less than a feast for the ear.

Jeff Winslow is a Portland pianist and composer who has been strongly influenced by both French and German music.  He wishes his influences got along as well as present-day Europe does.

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