“La Voix Française”
Smith Opera House
Ticket may be used to attend concert in person or to livestream it from home.
Friday, June 3, 2022: “La Voix Française”
Smith Opera House, 7:30 pm
Eliot Heaton, Geoffrey Herd, violin; Eric Wong, viola; Clive Greensmith, Max Geissler, cello; Esther Park, piano
Say “bon voyage,” and join GMF artists for a trip to France as we explore the birth of a distinct French musical voice at the turn of the 20th century, with works by Ravel, Debussy, Boulanger and Fauré.
Piano Quartet No. 1 in C minor, Op.15 Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924)
Trio in A minor Maurice Ravel (1875-1937)
Three Pieces for cello and piano Nadia Boulanger (1887-1979)
String Quartet in G minor, Op. 10 Claude Debussy (1862-1918)
All programs subject to change.
Individual concert tickets: $30 adult; $10 college student with ID; FREE through Grade 12.
Season pass (8 concerts): $200 adult
Smith Opera House
About the Artists
From 1999 until its final season in 2013, Clive Greensmith was a member of the world-renowned Tokyo String Quartet, giving over one hundred performances each year in the most prestigious international venues, including New York’s Carnegie Hall, Sydney Opera House, London’s South Bank, Paris Chatelet, Berlin Philharmonie, Vienna Musikverein and Suntory Hall in Tokyo. Mr. Greensmith has given guest performances at prominent festivals worldwide. In North America, he has performed at the Aspen Music Festival,… Read more
Violinist Eliot Heaton is the Concertmaster of the Michigan Opera Theatre, Des Moines Metro Opera, and the Saginaw Bay Symphony. He previously served as Concertmaster of the Terre Haute Symphony and Oberlin Symphony orchestras, and has been guest Concertmaster with the Lansing Symphony, Fort Wayne Philharmonic, and the Columbus Indiana Philharmonic. He also plays as an extra musician in both the Detroit and Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestras. Eliot has appeared as soloist with a number of… Read more
Celebrated for a “tone like toasted caramel. Amazing.” (Musical Toronto), Eric Wong is the violist of the Cavani Quartet, ensemble-in-residence at the Cleveland Institute of Music (CIM). He was also a member of the JUNO-nominated Afiara Quartet and the Linden String Quartet, first prize winners of the Fischoff, Coleman, and Concert Artist Guild competitions. Mr. Wong is a frequent guest educator and has given masterclasses and lectures in many institutions of higher learning in North… Read more
Violinist Geoffrey Herd leads a varied and impactful career as a soloist and chamber musician, innovative artistic director and dedicated pedagogue. He has performed throughout the United States, Latin America, and Asia at venues such as the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum of Art in Boston and Carnegie Hall’s Weill Recital Hall as well as at universities and conservatories globally. An avid chamber musician, Dr. Herd has collaborated with leading musicians including Ettore Causa, Jinjoo Cho,… Read more
Praised for his “superb artistry and beautiful sound,” cellist Max Geissler is currently a Doctoral Candidate at Rice University under the tutelage of Desmond Hoebig. Max serves as the cellist and Co-Artistic Director of the mixed instrumentation new music ensemble Latitude 49, and is a highly sought-after chamber collaborator and educator. Before his studies at Rice, he earned his undergraduate degree from the University of Michigan working with Richard Aaron. As an enthusiastic educator, Max… Read more
“It has been many times written and said that Fauré’s art is so extremely Gallic in its very essence that it is hardly possible for anyone without the French temperament and mind to understand and appreciate it,” wrote Aaron Copland in 1924, prefacing a gallant defense of Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924) and a plea for American music-lovers to give the Frenchman’s music a chance. If Fauré’s style was recognized as the quintessential French sound, however, there was good reason: not only did his subtly luminous works garner great popularity within his home country, but his musical sensibility (the harmonic coloring, the melodic shaping, and nuanced textures) was passed on to his numerous illustrious pupils, including Maurice Ravel and Nadia Boulanger.
The Piano Quartet No. 1 in C Minor was one of Fauré’s early compositions, and bristles (to Copland, at least) with the conviction of youth: “It is young, fresh—one cannot help but listen to the confidences of so modest and sympathetic a young man,” he wrote in the same article. Indeed, the first theme of the Allegro molto moderato is brash and robust in character, forcefully declaimed by the unison strings. Transposed into new harmonic and textural environments in the development, though, it loses some of its self-assuredness; here, it is gentle and dreamy, delicately floating through modulations before reasserting itself in the recapitulation. The scherzo that follows is lively, pitting melody against accompaniment (first the piano versus pizzicato strings, then the bowed strings versus the piano), shifting between 68 and 24 in a metric game, and playing with the contrasts between major and minor. An elegiac Adagio follows; its solemn theme slowly expands as each string instrument joins in unison, creating a solitary, plaintive cry. Though this cedes to a more lyrical, languorous theme with Fauré’s more characteristic rich harmonic treatment, the melancholia ultimately returns; the movement concludes in the depth of the string registers as the second theme futilely floats above. The animated fourth movement (Allegro molto) sneaks up on us; its irrepressible ascending themes surprise and delight the listener with their ebullient verve and bubbling energy.
Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) began studying with Fauré at the Conservatoire de Paris in 1897, and continued under his tutelage for six years. During this period, Fauré consistently remarked on Ravel’s intelligence, diligence, and creativity. Fauré’s reports chart Ravel’s compositional growth: in 1899, Fauré describes him as a composer “of rare gifts, but still unsettled in his aspirations which are, for the moment, in something of a muddle.” Only the following year, however, he reported that Ravel has “a very artistic temperament, less exclusively attracted by the extreme. Distinctly settling down.”
Despite this latter comment, Ravel’s music continued to be inspired by a wide array of influences. His Trio in A minor, for instance, was influenced by both traditional and nonconventional sources and ideas. In its large-scale, four-movement structure as well as in the movements’ individual forms, Ravel remained conservative. As for the delicate balance of voices within the ensemble (a challenge for all composers in the genre), the composer attributed his success to the example set by a predecessor: “C’est du Saint-Saëns.” Other aesthetic stimuli were more far-flung. The rhythm of the first movement (Modéré), for instance bears the impact of Ravel’s Basque heritage. Each eight-beat bar (the time signature itself unusual) is divided into a 3+2+3 pattern reminiscent of the zortzico, a traditional dance. The second movement, titled Pantoum, refers to a Malayan poetic form (the pantun) popular amongst French authors. The literary structure, in which the second and fourth lines of a stanza become the first and third of the following one, is mimicked by the interlocking but contrasting musical themes. The Passacaille looks to the past for inspiration, using a Baroque form in which a repeating phrase (an ostinato) provides the foundation for a series of variations. Ravel’s ostinato, intoned first by the piano, is dignified, graceful, and omnipresent. The final movement (Final. Animé) feels almost orchestral in scope; shimmering arpeggios in harmonics and quivering double-stop trills are used to magical effect.
The legacy of Nadia Boulanger (1887-1979) lives on almost entirely in the music of her students: Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, Elliot Carter, Virgil Thompson, and many others. Despite her excellent training (she began her studies at the Conservatoire at the age of ten) and creativity (as evinced by her few extant compositions), she ceased to compose in the early 1920s; the loss of her younger sister, Lili (whose music Nadia continued to champion vociferously) and her own self-doubts (“I wrote useless music,” she commented to Fauré) proved too heavy a burden. Her Three Pieces for Cello and Piano are a testament to what could have been. Composed in 1911 for the organ, Boulanger re-orchestrated the work three years later in its current instrumentation. The first movement (Moderato) begins distantly, the muted cello solo growing increasingly impassioned over the piano accompaniment that Boulanger describes as “soft and hazy.” The second, Sans vitesse et à l’aise (“without speed and at ease”) displays Boulanger’s mastery of imitative counterpoint and her familiarity with modes; the piano echoes the cello’s simple Aeolian melody in a canon. The aptly-titled Vite et nerveusement rythmé (“fast and nervously rhythmic”) is a stark change. The strummed cello accompaniment and whirling melody are filled with folk-like flair, and a sultry slow section beckons seductively before the vivacious dance begins once more.
In a discussion with his composition teacher, Claude Debussy (1862-1918) pushed back against the theoretical confines and conventions of the Western art music tradition, dismissing the principals of tonality, functional harmony, and rhythm that had long been foundational. “There is no theory,” he postulated, “You merely have to listen. Pleasure is the law.” These tendencies are evident in his String Quartet, a work that dazzles with its sensuous harmonic language, vibrant rhythmic play, and coloristic approaches to timbre and texture.
The quartet opens with an emphatic theme stated boldly by the unified ensemble. Listen closely to its contour and rhythmic profile; Debussy integrates this material throughout the work in various transfigurations, creating continuity between and unity amongst movements. The second theme of this movement (Animé et très décidé) is hopeful, constantly reaching upwards melodically. It is accompanied by gurgling sixteenth-notes that, at times, seem to overwhelm the main voice. Both themes are transformed throughout the remainder of the movement, surrounded by shifting harmonies and fluctuating tempos. The first theme, recast as a playful viola solo, returns almost immediately in the following scherzo (Assez vif et bien rythmé). The melody is situated within a novel textural and rhythmic web of pizzicati, as the other instruments pluck and strum their instruments, laying conflicting duple and triple patterns on top of one another. At the heart of the movement, a more languid version of the melody stretches out leisurely in the first violin over shimmering trills. The Andantino is the only movement that lacks an overt connection to the opening theme; this, combined with its muted soliloquies, explorations of distant keys, and rhythmic freedoms that obfuscate temporality, undoubtedly contributes to its ethereal, dream-like nature. The final movement begins uncertainly, as if groggily awakening; the cello recalls the main theme, but imprecisely. Slowly, however, clarity returns and excitement builds, culminating in an éclat of virtuosic octaves, shimmering tremolos, and other timbral effects.
©Anya Wilkening, 2022