Boston Cecilia’s French program gracefully mixes music of the past with edgy contemporary works

March 17, 2024 at 2:30 pm

By Maya Shwayder

Michael Barrett conducted Boston Cecilia Saturday night at All Saints Parish in Brookline.

“The past is complex, and not always savory. But it left us beautiful art.”

This sentence, stated by Boston Cecilia music director Michael Barrett, was the theme of Boston Cecilia’s Saturday night concert at All Saints Parish in Brookline. 

The program, performed to a full house, was a charming packed program that walked the audience through the historical evolution and influences of French music from 19th century Paris to Quebec to Haiti today. Nor did it shy away from the tension and dissonance of colonialism.

Barrett, split the program into five sections, with Lionel Daunais’ “Le pont Mirabeau” setting the tone of wistful, nostalgia, the choir’s light, delicate sound underscored by reserves of power. Throughout the evening, Boston Cecilia packed a powerful punch that was wrapped in the finest silk.

Part two, “Les Sources,” included two pieces from Debussy and one from Lili Boulanger, all of which varied in tone from rich and powerful to lightly astringent. Two movements from Poulenc’s song cycle “Un soir de neige” showcased the sopranos and altos, effectively capturing the delicate serenity of a snowy night.  In Ravel’s “Troix beaux oiseaux de Paradis,” the solo quartet especially brought some charming warmth to this distinctive and layered piece.

Part three, “Des Amis Allemands” (German Friends) closed the first half with the happiest and most energetic piece on the program—surprisingly, the Six Chansons by Paul Hindemith, of which the ensemble performed three. After a delicate start in the first song, “La biche,” they sang with a strong dissonance that permeated the second piece, “En Hiver,” resolving and then unresolving throughout. In the final and most upbeat setting, “Puisque tout passe” the singers  attacked the happy and sprightly phrases with gusto.

The second half of the program proved more interesting and challenging, with Barrett and the choir taking the French elements already established and spinning them out into their contemporary manifestations.

Part four, “Nouvelle France,” opened with a compelling contemporary piece by Quebecois composer Louis Desjarlais — who was in attendance. Les Ballet des fantômes (The Ghost Ballet) begins with a deep warm opening and a ghostly, but not grisly, tone that dipped from harmony into dissonance and back again. The music culminated in a coda that didn’t quite resolve and wavered around the tonic, in an aptly haunting way.

Ave Verum by Rachel Laurin was the most explicit religious text of the night, yet ironically also offered the most dissonant music. More innovative was Marie-Claire Saindon’s Constellation, which wrapped whistles and whispers in between different parts of the choir phasing in and out, to create a full surround-sound effect that has a heavenly sheen as gracefully sung by the Boston Cecilia ensemble.

The evening finished on the hardest messages, with two pieces by Haitian composer Sydney Guillaume set to poems written by his father, Gabriel. Guillaume takesmany of the modalities and ideas of European composers and synthesizes them into something darker, expanding directly on themes of poverty, colonialism, and the brutality faced by people in Haiti today. 

The piece Anmwe, an untranslatable word from Haitian creole that vaguely means a deep enduring heartache, was not an easy listen lyrically or sonically, but was undoubtedly the most moving music. Anmwe began with whispers that tuned to chanting, overlaid by a soaring soprano soloist and layers of building tension from the choir.

The last piece, Dominus Vobiscum, also by Sydney Guillaume with lyrics by his father, was a hopeful, more harmonic palate cleanser to round out the evening.

Boston Cecilia is a nearly 150-year-old choir that has not only survived, but musically thrived in a time when self-sustaining solo choirs are few and far between. Saturday evening’s program showed their versatility in not only serving the music of the past but providing advocacy for innovative composers of the present.

Boston Cecilia will finish their season with Mozart’s Requiem May 4 and 11.

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