Yesterday’s recitalist in the Old First Concerts series at Old First Church was mezzo Kindra Scharich accompanied by pianist John Boyajy. The program turned out to be a departure from the list of composers initially announced. Instead, it bore the title Brava Boulanger! The Legacy of Nadia Boulanger. Composer David Conte, who was one of Boulanger’s last students, served as interlocutor; and the program concluded with one of his own pieces, preceded by three short piano pieces by another student from roughly the same time as Conte, George Peter Tingley. The remainder of the program proceeded in chronological order with five songs by Boulanger’s teacher, Gabriel Fauré, four by Boulanger herself, and six by her most famous pupil, Aaron Copland.
It is now over 90 years since the French Music School for Americans opened in Fontainebleau. Boulanger taught harmony there, and Copland was one of her first students. The number of those who studied with her is so extensive and impressive that there is a Wikipedia page for “List of students of Nadia Boulanger.” For all the bulk of that page, the list is still only a partial one.
This is the stuff from which legends are made. The problem is that documented sources are in short supply, meaning that most of what we know about Boulanger has been passed down through anecdote. (Ironically, the current issue of The New York Review has a piece by Anka Muhlstein reviewing Julie Kavanagh’s recent book about Marie Duplessis. This woman was the original “lady of the camellias,” the inspiration for the novel by Alexandre Dumas fils and later the opera La Traviata by Giuseppe Verdi. Muhlstein observes that we know more about Duplessis from Dumas’ novel than from “factual” documents.) Everyone has stories to tell about Boulanger, even if they are handed down from teacher to student through multiple degrees of separation.
This means that Boulanger’s legacy amounts to what a mathematician might call a “fuzzy category.” We know it’s there, even if it is only vaguely defined. In that respect it was probably wise of Scharich to focus on Copland, regardless of how strong Boulanger’s influence was. She sang six of his twelve settings of poems by Emily Dickinson (performing a seventh for her encore). These were composed in 1950, long after Copland’s three years of study of Boulanger in the early Twenties.
Nevertheless, these songs capture much of the impetuous vigor that breathes life into Dickinson’s words. One gets the impression that Copland scrupulously understood the function of every one of those words before undertaking the composition of a song to fit the poem. Scharich brought that same level of understanding to yesterday afternoon’s performance, creating the sense that, by channeling the spirit behind Copland’s music, she was also channeling the essence of Dickinson herself. In the presence of such an inspired interpretation, any question about Boulanger’s “legacy” becomes secondary, if not tertiary.
Thus, it is not that surprising that the selections leading up to Copland were far weaker in impact. This may well have been due to the fact that Scharich was less comfortable with French text than she was with settings in English. This was not just a matter of uncertainties of pronunciation, since it also involved a deeper understanding of the words themselves that frequently went beyond the translations provided with the program booklet. Indeed, if “legacy” was to be an issue, then the legacies of Maurice Maeterlinck (set by Boulanger) and Paul Verlaine (set by Fauré) were far more critical in informing the performance of their respective songs than the extent of Boulanger’s influence (or, for that matter, how she had been influenced by Fauré).
At the other end of the timeline, Conte’s selection was a setting of three poems by Christina Rossetti. In addition to studying with Boulanger, Conte did a major study of Copland’s sketches for his doctoral research at Cornell University. We can assume that Copland’s sensitivity to the details of literature was not lost on him. While there were many signs that Conte himself approached Rossetti’s texts in the same way, the printing of the program booklet impeded the listener’s appreciation of that sensitivity. Because of space limitations, the texts were not always laid out to reflect the line and stanza structures of the poet. This turned out to be crucial to the appreciation of Conte’s setting of “Echo,” a poem that is a model of the skilled matching of meaning to structural architecture. I came away with the impression that taking structure away from the experience of reading the poem had also detracted from the listening experience.
That left Tingley’s three short piano pieces that felt awkwardly out of place. “Kristi’s Theme” was apparently composed for one of Kristi Yamaguchi’s figure skating routines. This was an imaginative inspiration, but it did not make for much of a listening experience, let alone any basis for reflection on the legacy of Nadia Boulanger. Flanked by Copland and Conte, Tingley’s music sounded, at best, innocuous, although it may have well served Scharich to allow her frame of mind to shift from Dickinson to Rossetti.