The programme for last Saturday's MacKay Street concert was put together pot luck fashion in honour of Debussy's 150th birthday and featured five singers who'd chosen to perform various extracts from Debussy's compositions to the accompaniment of the pianist (familiar to Ottawa concert goers), Jean Desmarais, who did his best to describe this music and his enthusiasm for it, making the startling remark that Debussy, turning his back on the Wagnerian style of composition, was arguably the Greatest Composer of the Twentieth Century, which led to a lot of discussion and conjecture afterwards, between me and my husband at least. Neither of us agree with the claim, but, if not Debussy (who hardly qualifies for the accolade, being born in 1862), who was the 20th century's greatest composer? Stravinsky? Britten? Janocek? Bartok? Shostakovich? R. Strauss ... Sibelius ...Vaughan Williams might rank with the composers of that calibre, too. Any more suggestions? What does "greatest" mean, anyway?
Chris and I also wondered why Debussy's very French music doesn't have the same emotional impact for us as does German or British music of the same period (Verklärte Nacht by Schoenberg for example, composed about 5 years earlier than La Mer). It may just be that we haven't been so much exposed to it.
Several of the items on the programme (e.g. the songs sung by Denis Lawlor, baritone, and Isabelle Lacroix, soprano) were settings of poems by Paul Verlaine, which made me wish I'd brought my Verlaine anthology along so that I could follow the mellifluous words: De la musique avant toute chose ... as Verlaine described his poetry himself. But the sexiest item came in the second half of the concert, the setting of Pierre Louys' Chansons de Bilitis (1897) performed on this occasion by Arminé Kassabian, the mezzo soprano, who deservedly lived up to her description in the programme "... natural beauty, rich and radiant tone and vocal versatility ... a stunning presence ..." (I wonder who wrote that; he was obviously thoroughly smitten).
In the second half of the concert Jean-Philippe Fortier-Lazure and Marya Woyiwada sang a duet-scene from Debussy's tragic opera Pelléas et Mélisande for which the synopsis extract reads as follows:
Pelléas takes Mélisande to a well in the park. As she plays by the water, fascinated by her reflection, her wedding ring falls in, the moment the clock strikes noon. She wonders how to explain it to Golaud. Pelléas advises her to tell the truth.I confess I find it hard to suspend my disbelief when watching opera and staging this scene in a church made it all the more difficult for me. When her ring dropped into the carpet (in lieu of the well) in full view of the audience and she sang "It's fallen in the water!" and he answered "Where has it gone?" I had to suppress some giggles. Together with high heels, the dress she wore was distracting as well, too tight for cavorting around a forest well. It would have been altogether more convincing had I kept my eyes shut because the pair was singing with appropriate tenderness. The tenor sustained a beautifully lyrical tone every time he sang, and so did both sopranos. These are young people who have been well trained by their mentors not to strain their voices.