Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Ronen Chamber Ensemble: Recalling Mademoiselle, with the help of her IU-based "gift of my old age"

Nadia Boulanger, about the time when she wrote "Toward the New Life."
What Nadia Boulanger couldn't analyze in music, she ascribed to God, a rapt audience at the Ronen Chamber Ensemble concert learned Tuesday night in the Hilbert Circle Theatre's Wood Room.

To her pupils, it must have seemed that left very little to the credit of the Almighty, so all-embracing was Boulanger's knowledge.

The celebrated French pedagogue (1887-1979) could pinpoint the pluses and minuses in a piece of music like nobody else to generations of 20th-century musicians. The one under her tutelage for the longest time was Bulgarian-born pianist-composer Emile Naoumoff, the guest of honor at the Ronen's program honoring her.

But besides the grueling exercises in counterpoint and the intense focus on musical structure, "she was extremely mystical," Naoumoff told the audience in a preconcert interview conducted by Ronen co-artistic director Gregory Martin. " 'I accept grace and beauty,' she said. 'You don't even have to try to explain it.'" So there was plenty of room in music to honor God, after all, in her view.

Emile Naoumoff today
As a gifted child, Naoumoff was brought to Boulanger, who those in her circle referred to with special reverence simply as "Mademoiselle." The family had escaped from behind the Iron Curtain to Paris. When his parents asked  how long and when their son could study with her, Mademoiselle replied: "For 10 years, starting tomorrow." And so began almost a decade of incomparable tutelage, which carried with it introduction to Boulanger's star-studded musical world, including such 20th-century giants as Yehudi Menuhin and Sviatoslav Richter.

Boulanger and the Soviet pianist liked to talk about religion, Naoumoff reported. And Menuhin, a violin virtuoso turning to the podium in his later years,  after a rehearsal of Naoumoff's piano concerto paid the precocious composer a compliment he still treasures: "The musicians find it seriously well-written," Menuhin told him.

Two of Boulanger's greatest qualities, Naoumoff said, were humility and discernment. Her discernment was applied to pieces, not performances: "She never spoke of interpretation."  Nonetheless, she was enough aware of what contributed to acclaim in the musical universe that she gently advised Naoumoff after the well-received, Menuhin-conducted concert: "You are not responsible for the success of last night."

Music performed Tuesday ranged from Naoumoff's poignant "Romance," written in response to his long-delayed return to his childhood home and played feelingly by Martin, to Igor Stravinsky's lively but poker-faced Three Pieces for Clarinet Solo, to which Ronen co-founder David Bellman gave a colorful reading. Most affecting was the program finale, however, Nadia's "Toward the New Life," written in honor of her beloved sister, who died in her 20s in 1918.

Also shoring up the biographical and personal connections was a Nocturne (for violin and piano) by Lili. Austin Hartman joined Martin in this and two other pieces: Lili's perky "Cortege" and Ravel's "Berceuse on the Name Gabriel Fauré." Fauré was a perpetual icon in Boulanger's estimation.

Naoumoff's bracing, four-movement "Divertimento for Oboe and Piano" — a product of his mid-teens — was adroitly characterized by oboist Jennifer Christen, with Martin at the keyboard. If the composer's job is (Naoumoff paraphrasing Boulanger here) "to serve the performer; the public comes after," this piece seemed a good indication of how well Naoumoff absorbed that lesson.

Other Boulanger pupils represented on the program were Jean Francaix, who like Naoumoff was taken on by "Mademoiselle" in boyhood — decades earlier, however. The prolific Francaix once advised Naoumoff: "Never write anything boring." Martin and co-founder Ingrid Fischer-Bellman played three short pieces that indicated the older composer practiced what he preached.

Flutist Alistair Howlett was teamed with the hyperbusy Martin in Aaron Copland's Duo for Flute and Piano, its three movements full of characteristic Copland gestures, angular melodies, and harmonies familiar from his larger and more ambitious works, which made him the most-performed American composer of the 20th century. In "The New Music" (1969), Copland wrote such a complete encomium to the woman who taught him as a young man that it seems suitable as a conclusion for this account of an attractive evening of music and musical talk:

"Two qualities possessed  by Mlle. Boulanger make her unique: one is her consuming love for music, and the other is her ability to inspire a pupil with confidence in his own creative powers. Add to this an encyclopedic knowledge of every phase of music past and present, an amazing critical perspicacity, and a full measure of feminine charm and wit."

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