Programming 20th Century Music for Strings & Women’s Voices

MixingBowl1:00 pm • Sunday, February 19th 2017
Jack Shainman Gallery – The School • Kinderhook, NY

Are you experiencing a bit of déjà vu as you look through the concert listings? Indeed. Last weekend’s snow storms brought about a number of postponements and rescheduled performances. One of which is the Concerts in the Village program of 20th century music for strings and women’s voices that is now taking place this Sunday. Note: it begins at 1:00 pm and not the original time of 2:00 pm.

Kinderhook’s Concerts in the Village, under the artistic direction of David Smith, has its core ensembles—the Broad Street Chorale and Broad Street Orchestra—performing with sopranos Amanda Boyd and Caroline Dunigan and flutist Elizabeth Chinery for what appears to be quite a pleasant program:

    • Ralph Vaughan WilliamsFantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis
    • Benjamin BrittenLes Illuminations
    • Camille Saint-SaënsLa Nuit, Op. 114
    • Francis PoulencLitanies à la Vierge Noire
    • Arthur FooteSuite for String Orchestra, Op. 63

The art of concert programming is a bit like walking into the pantry to see what’s available for you to play with in order to concoct a savory and fulfilling dish. One, of course, has to take stock of some of the more logistical items such as what is the available talent, financial resources to pay for that talent as well as the hall, which may actually be dictated by the appropriate acoustics for those compositions that have been swirling around your “do list.” And then balance that out with what are others are programming in the region. Then, bringing it back ‘round to your listeners … what are they interested in, and what have you already explored with them, and does there seem to be something that your audience has expressed an interest in hearing more of or no more of? Is there something new and fresh to add alongside something comfortably familiar? Phew! All this before a program is even really put into place.

David_Smith_Musicologiest_ConcertsInTheVillageIn asking David Smith about his approach to this particular program, he told me he is pleased to be able to feature some of the wonderful talent in our regional garden; not only sopranos Boyd and Dunigan and flutist Chinery, but also string players such as violinists Elizabeth Silver and Jessica Bellflower, violist Christine Orio, and ‘cellist Erica Pickhardt. While the latter are to be showcased in the ever familiar Vaughan Williams, Smith points to another British composer of the first part of the 20th century to highlight difference in styles by presenting Britten’s first song cycle to receive any real popularity, Les Illuminations. As Smith is a learned musicologist (Harvard, Yale), it is not surprising that he has chosen to have Les Illuminations sung by Amanda Boyd. Despite the fact that the work can be— as clearly indicated by Britten with his collaboration with Peter Pears and more often is—sung by a tenor, Britten originally conceived the piece for soprano. The song cycle is set to a collection of verse and prose entitled Les Illuminations by French poet Arthur Rimbaud.

As the program’s recipe begins to simmer, the French text of the Britten brings us across the channel to highlight French composers who are also writing for string orchestra and voice…Saint-Saëns and Poulenc. In e-mail correspondence, Smith writes “While the Britten, Saint-Saëns, and Poulenc all have French texts, Britten and Saint-Saëns are secular and Poulenc’s Litanies à la Vierge Noire is his first sacred work (1936) consisting of a series of prayers to Mary.” Smith continues, “Although all are string-based works, they could not be more different in texture. The Saint-Saëns is lush and mysterious, the Poulenc austere and mystical.” So, text and texture can be important in flavoring a program … contrasting as well as complementary.

Poulenc’s Litanies à la Vierge Noire was triggered by a traumatic and unexpected death of Poulenc’s composer-friend Pierre-Octave Ferroud. Litanies was a pivotal work in his career as the first of many religious choral works and mirrors the revival of his Catholic faith following Ferroud’s death. Given Smith’s move to stay true to the Britten “originally conceived” version of Les Illuminations, it is a little surprising he has chosen to present a 1947 version of Poulenc’s Litanies for which the organ is replaced by strings and timpani…although this performance is minus the timpani. Perhaps this is his way of balancing the programming equation in consideration of acoustics and resources.

And then there is Arthur Foote’s Suite for String Orchestra to provide further contrast as Smith says “it’s a vigorously American work—not always—but now neglected, like so much American writing from the first half of the 20th century.” This work programmed, no doubt, to provide listeners with deserved works “from the 85% of a composer’s output that is performed infrequently or not at all” as Smith likes to say. This is the repertoire he like to explore and bring forth.

Will the program be as delectable when it is served from the page and to our ears? Concerts in the Village Chef d’orchestre David Smith hopes so. And, of course, the only way we’ll find out is to go feast on the music ourselves. While there are many choices this weekend, perhaps this will be one to take in. Tickets are available at the door. Happy Musicking!

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