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French

The Good Song

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The Good Song

Gabriel Fauré: La lune blanche from La bonne chanson Nicholas Phan, tenor; Myra Huang, piano; Telegraph Quartet

LIVE full take from recording session at Skywalker Sound, September 27, 2017

The first time I performed Fauré’s cycle, La bonne chanson, was at the Ravinia Festival’s Steans Music Institute in 2005, as part of the now-defunct vocal chamber music program. It was a luxurious way to get to know the cycle in its complete form for the first time, as we spent two entire weeks rehearsing and coaching the piece before performing it. Despite having spent so much time with the piece over years and having had such an immersive experience when I learned it, revisiting it is always a fresh challenge, because of its quick and unexpected harmonic turns. The piece represents a new phase in Fauré’s writing, one in which he was beginning to explore new harmonic horizons. There is a funny anecdote that upon hearing Fauré’s fast and furious harmonic shifts and bold tonal choices at the cycle’s premiere, his former teacher, the composer Camille Saint-Saëns, was concerned that his dear friend had gone insane.

Much of the reason for these speedy and shocking shifts of harmony is the nature of the poetry itself. La bonne chanson is a selection of 9 poems from Paul Verlaine’s collection of the same name, which he wrote for his 16-year-old fiancée, Mathilde Mauté, in the months before their marriage in 1870. 

In his book Rimbaud: The Double Life of a Rebel, Edmund White describes Verlaine as: “…a homicidal alcoholic. He was also an extremely gentle, sensitive poet with a distinctive tone and a remarkable musicality. These two aspects of his character set up a pitched battle over his anguished destiny; he would always be susceptible to one impulse or another.” 

In the years before he met Mathilde, Verlaine was a familiar face in Paris’ bars and brothels, where he quickly developed an unquenchable thirst for absinthe. When he met Mathilde, he saw in her a ray of hope for his own salvation from his vices. He viewed her as the angel who would lift him from the gutters of his bohemian lifestyle, which he felt was debased and amoral.

Verlaine’s marriage to Mathilde proved to be a temporary bandage for his reprobate behavior: soon after their marriage, he began drinking again. His inability to hold a job and provide income meant that the newlywed couple needed to move in with Mathilde’s parents, in whose house he would drunkenly abuse their daughter. Shortly after the birth of their son, Verlaine would begin a tumultuous affair with the 17 year-old Arthur Rimbaud that would take them on a inebriated rampage all over Northern Europe. 

This pattern of vacillating between “good” behavior and absinthe and opium-fueled binges was one that would repeat throughout Verlaine’s life: he continued to waver between devout Catholicism and relapses into drunkenness and compulsive sexuality, eventually dying in abject poverty. I would imagine that if Verlaine were alive today, he might have been diagnosed with some sort of bi-polar disorder, which would perhaps explain the extremes of his blindingly bright highs and his dark lows.

In his biography of Verlaine, Stefan Zweig describes Verlaine’s state of mind around the time he wrote La bonne chanson: “For a moment it seemed as if everything were to come to a good end. He fell in love with the explosive vehemence and despairing persistence with which the weak are accustomed to cling to an idea.” Verlaine’s poetry reflects this “explosive vehemence” – it is overflowing with ideas and imagery. The joy he describes is almost maniacal. Reading the poems, it’s not hard to see why Fauré was similarly excitable in his composition. The poems ride a high that is completely ungrounded. His music reflects the extreme heights of Verlaine’s own frenzied high.

When learning the cycle at Ravinia, there was a lot of critical discussion about this poetry, focused largely on Verlaine’s story after he wrote La bonne chanson. Some of the coaches seemed quite hung up on Verlaine’s homosexual history, and as a result were quite critical of the poems. This was something that did not sit well with me at the time, and it continues to feel uncomfortable. It was almost as if Verlaine’s poems were being viewed through the lens of “he was gay”, and therefore his intentions were not earnest nor true. On the surface, as a performer, I found this perspective completely useless: as the person delivering the text, I have no choice but to lean into the verisimilitude of what the author is writing. It also raised an unsettling question for me: if Verlaine didn’t really mean any of this and was just a lost soul, why perform this music? Why not just let these poems linger in a purgatory of lesser works? 

On a personal level, I also found this focus borderline offensive: at the time I was in a long-term relationship with someone who identified as “historically bisexual”. He had come out of the closet late in his twenties, years after he had married a woman. He continued to have relationships with both men and women after coming out, eventually settling down in a long-term relationship with a man. It was difficult to watch him struggle with people’s constant perception that his exploration of bisexuality was just a denial of the fact that he was gay. The reductive stereotype that “bi’ really means “by the way, I’m gay” completely invalidated the emotional reality of the love he felt for his ex-wife and any other women he had been involved with.  

I was recently having a conversation with a couple of women who are currently in long term relationships with women and who bristle a bit when people refer to them as lesbians. Their own histories have involved relationships with trans men, and as I was listening to them describe how those experiences informed the evolution of their identities and the complexity of their paths, I was reminded of my ex and his own struggles with having the outside world recognize his experiences for what he felt they were. Thinking about all of this in the context of revisiting Fauré’s cycle in preparation for my performance of the piece with the Seattle Chamber Music Society this coming Monday, it reminds me how reductive it is to think of sexuality in binary terms.

Sexuality is a spectrum, and navigating it can be a messy thing, especially for those of us who do not reside on the heteronormative extremes. Yes, there is something deeply unsettled about Verlaine’s poetry that makes engaging with it slightly uncomfortable. But that is also the nature of what it is to navigate the spectrum of sexuality: replete with shame and self-hatred, as well as deep love for people who don’t end up being the right matches. I would argue that it’s this precise in-the-cracks-ness that makes the poetry so real, and why it can be so deeply uncomfortable to engage with it. It refuses to be put in a box, because that is just not how humans really are. It is that commitment to his own truth of that moment in his life which makes the poetry so compelling, and so moving. It’s no wonder it’s been set to music so many times by so many different composers, and that it inspired Fauré to write something so bizarrely beautiful.

 

I perform Fauré’s La bonne chanson on Monday evening with the Seattle Chamber Music Society at Nordstrom Recital Hall. Tickets and full info are HEREFor a $25 discount on tickets, enter the code TENOR at checkout.

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Resident

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Resident

Roughly four years ago, shortly after I had made the move West to San Francisco, I received a call from my manager with an inquiry from San Francisco Performances, who were wondering if I might be interested in taking over as their vocal artist-in-residence.  While SF Performances had no idea that I had just moved from Manhattan to the Castro, they had unwittingly given me what was part of the most wonderful welcome to my new home in the Bay.

One of the primary concerns I had about leaving New York City was my ability to work at home. One of the great joys of my musical life during the course of the 8-9 years that I lived in New York City was that I was able to work at home with a fair amount of frequency.  The invitation from SF Performances was a welcome sign that San Francisco would hold the same privilege.  Between my work with SF Performances, the San Francisco Symphony, Philharmonia Baroque and the many other institutions and musical colleagues with whom I collaborate here in the Bay, I must say that I have never felt more welcomed by a musical community.  My musical life and circle of musical friends and colleagues here is one of the primary reasons why I have fallen so madly in love with this city and am so proud to call it home. 

These past four years with SF Performances have been a fun adventure, and tonight's recital at the Herbst is a milestone of this residency.  As the vocal artist-in-residence, SF Performances tasked me with building awareness in the Bay Area of the relationship between music and text, and the art of the vocal recital.  Through this residency, we have organized classes and interactive sessions on exploring what art song is and discussing how composers reflect text in their music with all sorts of groups, including high school and middle school students, university and post-grad students, as well as the general adult audience through salon concerts and community events.  I've also had the chance to mentor young singing musicians throughout the Bay Area, in a variety of levels ranging from advanced students at SF State University to the bright young women of the San Francisco Girl's Chorus and the ambitious young singers of the Bay Area Vocal Academy, and many more Bay Area music education institutions.

Watching so many pairs of eyes light up upon realizing the connections between text and music and seeing the relevance of this timelessly important material to our lives today has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life in music. Cajoling listeners of all ages to give themselves permission to hear the words and music and have the courage to engage with an art form that has the illusion of being only for those who already know about it has taught me that this music really can be for everyone, and that it is up to us, the standard-bearers of this art form, to continue to ensure that people are exposed to it and encourage people to engage with it.  In a day in which generations of the general public have been deprived of basic music educations, due to these programs being cut in schools over the past decades, the work of the SF Performances Residency is all the more important to the art form's continued survival and growth.

Tonight, there will be so much to celebrate. There is the work of these French geniuses of 100 years ago, there is the joyous work of this residency, and there is (of course) also the release of Illuminations, which comes out next week. But beyond all of this, I'll also be celebrating the deeper reasons behind doing all of this: To continue to bring more and more people into the fold, encouraging people to keep loving music, words, and the places where they so beautifully intersect.

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Lili

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Lili

Before I get going with this post, just a quick note to say that I will be blogging here on this website from now on.  My previous entries over at Blogspot will remain up there as long as blogspot remains a thing. Perhaps, if I ever manage to find a free moment, I may at some point move some of that archive over here. Either way, as infrequent as I have been over the past few years, grecchinois lives on.  I simply have a new blog web address.  Now, on to the post:

Lili Boulanger

Lili Boulanger

Considering how much very loud opining there has been lately amongst the Classical music community about the dearth of diversity in programming, I must admit that I am extraordinarily surprised that so few people have mentioned Lili Boulanger.  March 15, 2018 was the 100th anniversary of her death, and I would have thought that more people would be writing about her in this age in which article after article is being published decrying how few female composers are being programmed enough by our leading classical music institutions. This article about the Cleveland Orchestra basically went the classical-music equivalent of viral a couple of weeks ago, just days after the anniversary of Lili's passing. I saw it posted on countless colleagues' social media accounts - yet I've seen little-to-no mention of Lili Boulanger. 

In an industry that is obsessed with celebrating anniversaries, it is shocking that the centenary of her death barely registers on the radar.  Leonard Bernstein's 100th birthday is all over the news, and I can't tell you how many times I've heard presenters already excitedly mention Beethoven's upcoming 250th birthday in 2020 in artistic planning discussions, yet a Google News search of Lili Boulanger's name reveals little more in the English-speaking musical press than a cursory post about the centenary of her death on Slipped Disc that doesn't elaborate much on its headline beyond a link to an older post about Lili and a youtube video of her Nocturne for violin and piano.

I don't compare press mentions to imply that composers like Bernstein and Beethoven shouldn't be fêted, because they are white, male composers or because they are so often performed as part of the standard repertoire.  On the contrary, I strongly believe that their work should be celebrated, and that there is every reason to take advantage of these anniversaries to do so.  Considering how many major symphony orchestras have 52-week seasons, there is more than enough opportunity to celebrate them as we are, and to celebrate the work and tragically short life of Lili, as well as the work of other under-performed female composers and composers of color. 

Looking forward to Tomorrow's recital at the Herbst Theater here in San Francisco, Lili's music takes the prime spot on our program. My recital partner, Myra, and I will perform 8 of the 13 songs from Lili's song cycle, Clairières dans le ciel. Since the cycle is so long in its complete form, it was only possible to perform parts of it for this program. As she herself excerpted 8 of the songs to be orchestrated, I took that as a clue that it would be appropriate to perform these 8 songs of the cycle on their own (Myra and I are planning on performing and recording the cycle in its entirety in a future season).  Despite the fact that we will perform only excerpts of the cycle tomorrow, it will be the longest set we perform that evening, as well as the most musically and vocally demanding. I previewed the final song of the cycle, Demain fera un an, at a Community Music Center concert this past Friday, and the audience was astonished at how forward-sounding and large-in-scale her one song was in comparison to the other songs written by her male colleagues and teachers that we performed that afternoon.

While there were other female composers during the time of Lili's life, Lili stands apart as a trailblazer, which is remarkable considering that she died at the young age of 24.  At just 19 years old, she was the first woman to win the prestigious Prix du Rome in 1913, ten years after the ban on female contestants was lifted. The Prix du Rome was an important competition that launched the careers of many a famous French composer, including those of Debussy, Massenet, Bizet and Gounod. During the years of the Belle époque, female composers were mostly only permitted to write simple parlor music and most often eventually assumed roles as music teachers (such as Lili's hugely influential sister, Nadia) or stopped composing altogether after marriage (like Alma Mahler, who's only surviving compositions are roughly 15 art songs which were composed before her marriage to Gustav). The lifting of the ban on female competitors opened the door for women to begin pursuing careers as serious composers who would write larger scale works. Lili did this upon her historic victory, and she did so with a compositional voice that was distinctive, sophisticated and boundary-pushing. Had she lived longer, one wonders where her pioneering vision might have taken music history over the course of last century.

Both Myra and I have fallen in love with Lili's songs as we have prepared this new program, and we can't wait to dive further into her music in the coming seasons. Lili's music is important, beautiful and transfixing - one doesn't need the excuse of an anniversary to program it.  It should be performed all the time and on any occasion - just like we perform Bernstein and Beethoven whenever we wish. Nonetheless, it is a wonderful thing that we will get to fête her tomorrow night at the Herbst during this centenary year of her death. If you're in the Bay Area, we hope to see you there. 

In the meantime, here is a youtube video of Lili's final composition: her Pie Jesu for voice, string quartet, harp and organ:

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