Performance Friday, May 11, 2012 | 7:30 PM

Nadine Sierra
Carol Wong

Weill Recital Hall
At the early age of 23, Nadine Sierra is already an experienced performer. She entered the Palm Beach Opera Young Artist Program at 14, and by 19 received a rave review from The New York Times for a performance that exuded “elegance and confidence.” Currently an Adler Fellow at the San Francisco Opera, this season she performs in the company’s world premiere of Heart of a Soldier and Die Zauberflöte.
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The Program

Quatre chansons de jeunesse

When Debussy was still a student at the Paris Conservatory, he worked as an accompanist for the voice classes of Madame Moreau-Sainti, whose students included a gifted (and married) coloratura soprano named Marie-Blanche Vasnier. "Achille," as he was known then, was infatuated with her. When he won the Prix de Rome in 1884, he presented her with a collection of 13 songs, from which the first four songs on the program are taken.

The manuscript anthology begins with five songs to texts by Paul Verlaine, the poet with whom Debussy is forever linked. In Verlaine's Fêtes galantes (Gallant Festivities), the 19th century waxes nostalgic for 18th-century French courtly life before the French Revolution. As in the paintings of Antoine Watteau, elegant courtiers play at roles from the Italian commedia dell'arte. 

In "Pantomime," we meet the tipsy clown Pierrot, with his white face and white ruff; his beloved Columbine; the young lover Clitandre; the dupe Cassandre; and the clown Harlequin. Coloratura skills are definitely required for this song. In "Clair de lune," the beloved's soul is likened to a landscape in which courtiers, their desire constrained by politesse, make music and dance in an exquisite but melancholy nocturnal setting. Debussy's later setting of this same poem for the 1891 Fêtes galantes I is a masterpiece, but this earlier setting has its charms as well.

The young Debussy was often drawn to the poetry of Théodore de Banville, among the Parnassian poets who repudiated Romantic extremes of emotion and cultivated "art for art's sake." We meet another incarnation of the commedia dell'arte's famous clown Pierrot in Banville's and Debussy's song of the same name. Jean-Gaspard Debureau, invoked at the end, was a celebrated mime whose most famous creation for the Théâtre des Funambules was Pierrot. The character of Baptiste in Marcel Carné's 1945 classic movie Les enfants du paradis (Children of Paradise) is based on Debureau. Mischievously, Debussy quotes the French folk song, "Au clair de la lune / Mon ami Pierrot," dating back to at least the mid-18th century, in his own creation.

For "Apparition," Debussy chose a poem by the great Symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé, in whose famous Tuesday salons the young composer took part. If this sophisticated music still shows the influence of Jules Massenet's music, there are also signs of the true Debussy to appear shortly thereafter.

—Susan Youens

© 2012 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

Six Songs, Op. 38

Rachmaninoff, who was born into a noble but impoverished family of Tatar descent, studied at the St. Petersburg and Moscow conservatories, became friends with a then unknown bass named Fyodor Chaliapin in 1897, and composed three operas, three piano concertos, and much else before going into permanent exile in 1917. In the year of his death, he became an American citizen.

Between 1890 and his departure from Russia, he composed more than 80 songs in which we hear an essentially 19th-century Russian style, marked by long-breathed melodies, rich Romantic harmonies, and—Rachmaninoff's hallmark—an abiding sense of melancholy. These songs are in the tradition of the Russian romans ("song" or "romance"), influenced by the early 19th-century French romance; in its aim to share emotion with sympathetic friends, the romans is unlike the German Lied and the "realist" songs of Mussorgsky and, later, Shostakovich. Perhaps because he was cut off from the Russian singers and poets who had nurtured his songs, Rachmaninoff wrote almost nothing else in this genre after 1917. 

The Op. 38 songs were his last before going into exile and abandoning song altogether. Here, Rachmaninoff turns away from Russia's Romantic poets to the Symbolists who became a force to reckon with in the early 20th century. One would expect songs by one of the century's greatest pianists to feature sumptuous textures and sweeping melodies, and the first song, "In My Garden at Night," does not disappoint. For Aleksandr Blok's lament based on an Armenian poem (Blok is one of Russia's most important lyric poets after Pushkin), Rachmaninoff punctuates the accompaniment with stabs of pain and fashions an ultra-rich climax before the song dies away in sorrow.

The words of the second song, "To Her," were written by Andrei Bely, whose novel St. Petersburg was regarded by Vladimir Nabokov as one of the great prose works of the 20th century. Like obsessive thoughts of the beloved for whom the persona waits longingly, the bare, unharmonized figure we hear in the piano at the beginning haunts throughout the first half of the song.

The eccentric "Ego-Futurist" Igor Severyanin (a pseudonym meaning "Man from the North") put aside his more bizarre vein of verse for the darling hymn "Daisies." Rachmaninoff sets most of the song in the treble register, with a dip into the lower regions for the plea that earth and sky might nourish such beauty.

In 1915, a friend reproached Rachmaninoff for his supposed bad taste in poetry for music, so the composer decided to explore new territory in Russian Symbolist verse for his Op. 38 songs, including "The Rat-Catcher" by Valery Bryusov; this poet began by translating Verlaine and ended by embracing Bolshevism. The myth of the pied piper is about the power of music to seduce, and we hear that power in the difficult piano part. In Rachmaninoff's last songs before exile, the accompaniment becomes more virtuosic than before—he was, after all, one of the greatest pianists who ever lived.

A major figure of the so-called "Silver Age" of Russian Symbolist literature, Fyodor Sologub writes of enchanted worlds of reverie in "A Dream"; Rachmaninoff begins with a dreamy transparency of texture that builds to the kind of lush climax familiar to anyone who has played or heard his piano concertos and other works. The long postlude, after words are hushed in sleep, is purest Rachmaninoff.

Another major Symbolist writer was Konstantin Balmont, who spent the last two decades of his life in exile. "A-u!" is the biggest song of the opus, an opulent, sweeping work that amply displays Rachmaninoff's trademark harmonic richness.

—Susan Youens

© 2012 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

La bonne cuisine

In 1947, Bernstein—the first conductor-composer born and trained in America to achieve worldwide fame—dipped into a Parisian cookbook entitled La bonne cuisine française: Tout ce qui a rapport à la table of 1873 by Émile Dumont. When Bernstein entitled his four chosen recipes La bonne cuisine, he knew that song aficionados would understand the ironic reference to Gabriel Fauré's song cycle La bonne chanson; that we hear references to French mélodie (later 19th-century French art-song) in the music is only to be expected, but American-born irony, blues, and other influences are also audible. Dumont's cookbook is not for dieters, with its vast quantities of lard, butter, claret, and more, but if these dishes are a culinary "heart attack on a plate," they are a musical delight.

Bernstein provided his own witty English texts for these songs—the recipes undergo indigestible metamorphosis in the process—dedicated to the great singer Jennie Tourel as "the onlie begetter" (a reference borrowed from Shakespeare's dedication to the mysterious Mr. W. H., who supposedly inspired his sonnets). Two of the recipes are French dishes, and two hail from elsewhere, beginning with British "Plum Pudding," prefaced by a tongue-in-cheek directive matematico ("mathematical"). Do not stray from these instructions, the bass beat at the start tells us; one hears a singer determined to stick to the letter of the culinary law. Nowhere else in music is Crisco invoked with such ardor.

"Oxtail Stew" is an inimitably French dish, and Americanized Frenchness sounds here. A fluid, slithering figure in the piano—very "soupy"—starts us off, followed by bluesy staccato chords as the tails are removed from the stew, swathed in a piquant sauce, and served up on their own.

"Tavouk Gueunksis" is both a Turkish chicken dish and a delightful excuse for Bernstein to create an unconventional Turkish march—with five beats per bar instead of four. At the beginning, the dish is announced in declamatory style before the pseudo-exotic "alla turca" strains commence, complete with mimicry of cymbals striking.

In "Rabbit at Top Speed," we meet a host or hostess in a dilemma: Unexpected company has arrived, and dinner must be provided—quickly. Racing through ingredients so sinful that tastiness is assured, the musicians only pause to linger in momentary sensuous delight over the mention of lots of red wine, after which the helter-skelter pace resumes. Bernstein's deployment of bubbling trills in the piano to depict boiling water is only one of many delicious details. No wonder the last words ("and serve") sound so triumphant.

—Susan Youens

© 2012 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

Modinhas e canções, Series I

Villa-Lobos was among the most significant composers in 20th-century Brazil. Largely an auto-didact, he immersed himself in the music of Brazilian choroes, or itinerant street musicians. For him, the modernist aesthetic called for a break with European Romantic tonality; he was determined to renew and legitimize a distinctly Brazilian musical vocabulary, with elements taken from Portuguese, Afro-Brazilian, Amerindian, and other peoples of his country. After living in Europe—primarily Paris—throughout the 1920s, Villa-Lobos returned to Brazil by the time he composed his first set of Modinhas e canções; the term modinha comes from a genre of 18th- and 19th-century light, sentimental Portuguese love songs, while canções is a more generic term for "songs."

"Canção do Marinheiro" is a sailor's song to words by the late 15th- and early 16th-century dramatist Gil Vicente, called "the Trobadour." Above the unchanging, mournful beat in the piano and the oceanic low bass tones, the persona sings of lovers, all of whom also sing. This is a haunting work, capped off by a final, passionate threnody on the exclamation, "Ah!"

Viriato Corrêa was one of the foremost dramatists in 20th-century Brazil; "Lundú da Marqueza de Santos" comes from his play Marqueza de Santos, as a lover laments the beautiful marchioness's absence.

The "Cantilena" is based on a traditional "house slave song" from a particular region in the northeast Brazilian state of Bahia on the Atlantic. The slow, heavy, repeated beats of a work song emphasize a slave's longing for his former home, the little ranch preferable by far to any king's blandishments. This song is especially moving when words cede to wordless melody near the end.

Villa-Lobos's meowing lament for a lost cat, "A Gatinha parda," is a work one can add to Rossini's "Duetto buffo di due gatti" ("Comic Duet for Two Cats") and Ravel's cats in heat in his opera L'enfant et les sortilèges. The light, tripping gait evokes a child who asks where its lost cat might be and imitates its calls to entice it back home.

"Remeiro de S. Francisco" is a mestizo song (mestizo designates a person of mixed race) from Bahia. For this song of an oarsman who has been sold this very day, we hear rowing rhythms and a lament punctuated with occasional cries of heightened and heart-rending despair. 

"Nhapôpé" is a folkloric evocation of love to driving, motoric rhythms. In legend, Nhapôpé is a rare and beautiful bird who, when its wing is wounded, seeks healing in a human heart; here, a lover tells the beloved that she is Nhapôpé and that he is her lover.

"Evocação" is the most extended song in the set; it tells of remembered May-time passion, now past and understood to be an illusion—but one that still makes the persona happy. The sultry, smoky atmosphere of a nightclub in Rio, its crooner giving voice to impassioned and impossible love, is audible in these strains.

—Susan Youens

© 2012 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

"Melodia sentimental"

Green Mansions: A Romance of the Tropical Forest is an exotic romance novel from 1904 by William Henry Hudson; in his tale of a lost world and lost tribes, a traveler to the Guyana jungle of southeastern Venezuela encounters the bird-girl Rima and falls in love with her. In 1959, the novel was made into a film starring Audrey Hepburn as Rima and Anthony Perkins as the traveler Abel, but the movie was a failure with both critics and audiences. Villa-Lobos was asked to compose the music, but Hollywood intervened, to the composer's displeasure.

Villa-Lobos created a symphonic poem entitled Floresta do Amazonas, or Forest of the Amazon, from his film music and then extracted a song from it, "Melodia sentimental." His friend, poet Dora Vasconcelos, provided the ardent words; any lover who fails to succumb to music this luscious is simply not listening.

—Susan Youens

© 2012 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

"Engenho novo"

Francesco Ernani Braga studied music in Paris (with Jules Massenet) and Germany (he was an ardent Wagnerite), but he was also Brazilian to the core and harmonized six Afro-Brazilian folk songs. "Engenho novo" is an amusing specimen of onomatopoeia, imitating sounds in the external world: Workers operating a sugar-processing machine in Rio Grande do Norte in northeastern Brazil attempt to imitate the sound of the new invention.

—Susan Youens

© 2012 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

This concert is part of the Marilyn Horne legacy at Carnegie Hall.
This performance is part of Great Singers III: Evenings of Song.

Part of