In Series' evocative Debussy salon

Key French impressionist (not!) in conversation and song at the Source.

WASHINGTON, December 8, 2012 – Achille-Claude Debussy (1862-1918)—better known to us as simply Claude Debussy—was the first and still the most celebrated of the French impressionist composers, although the composer himself hated the use of that term. Last weekend, the In Series presented a two performance-only look at the composer’s life and times, presented at the source in a virtual salon environment. The performing artists*—violinist Sonya Hayes, soprano Debra Lawrence, tenor Richard Tappan, and pianists Carla Hübner and Frank Conlon along with host Greg Stevens—not only presented selections from the work of Debussy and selected contemporaries, but also  engaged in a wide-ranging discussion of the composer, his historical period, and the influence of his work.

The Series’ program, intended to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the composer’s birth, consisted primarily of Debussy’s compositions, ranging from the familiar to the relatively obscure, while also including selections from the puckish Erik Satie and the now somewhat obscure Reynaldo Hahn.

The In Series’ performance space at the Source was impressively re-designed to resemble and actual small salon, the kind of place where so many musical and artistic exchanges, discussions, and soirées took place in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Chairs and tables were arrayed along the back and sides of the space with an upright piano placed to the right and back of the area. Dropping down from the ceiling was a screen-like backdrop upon which relevant images of the composer, his life, and his times were projected at appropriate points during the performance.

Similar to those get-togethers of like-minded artists then, the Series’ Debussy alternated performances and commentary on Debussy’s artistry which. Impressionist argument aside, his music proved in many ways to be the precursor for what came to be known as “extended tonality”—a musical vocabulary that, while remaining tonal, began to break loose from the old rules of harmony, an approach that gradually took shape in works by composers as disparate as Alexander Scriabin, Gustav Mahler, Erich Korngold, and Karol Szymanowski.

This recital explored not only some of Debussy’s most popular compositions such as his “Clair de lune” from the 1890 Suite Bergamasque, and the jaunty, ragtime and jazz influenced “Golliwog’s Cakewalk” from the Children’s Corner Suite (1908); but also including rarely heard music, including the composer’s difficult and more experimental suite of art songs entitled “Cinq Poèmes” de Charles Baudelaire, built on representative selections from this dark, French symbolist poet’s ominously named poetry collection, Les fleurs du Mal (Flowers of Evil).

These spooky, almost disembodied songs were expressively sung by soprano Debra Lawrence in these performances. Accompanying her in a rare appearance as a performer was In Series artistic director Carla Hübner, whose execution of Debussy’s uncommonly difficult piano part was correlated perfectly with Ms. Lawrence’s vocals.

A contemplative Claude Debussy. Undated, apparently re-touched photo.

A bit off the beaten path were selected songs from Reynaldo Hahn’s “Chanson Grises” (“Grey Songs”), an 1890 suite of songs on poems by another Frenchman, Paul Verlaine. More conventionally Romantic in style and harmony, Hahn’s songs, mostly forgotten today at least in the U.S., are remarkably intimate and direct, and were nicely delivered by tenor Richard Tappan, again with Ms. Hübner at the piano. Mr. Tappan later returned to deliver a pair of delightfully risqué cabaret-style songs by Erik Satie, accompanied by Mr. Conlon.

Mr. Conlon himself performed some of Debussy’s more interesting piano solo pieces. In addition to the “Claire de lune,” these included a trio of short works—“Le cathédrale engloutie,”  “Ce qu’a vu le vent de l’Ouest,” and “Minstrels” (“The Sunken Cathedral,” “What the West Wind Saw,” and, of course, “Minstrels”)—from Book I of the composer’s “Preludes;” as well as “Golliwog’s Cakewalk.”

(Below: A YouTube video, more or less, featuring what’s purported to be a live performance of “Golliwog’s Cakewalk” with the composer himself at the keyboard, circa 1912. It’s billed as a selection from the “Welte-Mignon Piano Roll #2733
Children’s Corner No. 6
’Golliwogg’s Cakewalk.’” We haven’t had the time to confirm its authenticity, but it does reveal a performance that, in many ways, varies considerably from contemporary performances of the same popular piece.)

Mr. Conlon’s performance was well executed and evocative of the period, although his piano seemed somewhat lacking on Sunday in terms of output, which sounded a bit muddy in a way that seemed in no way related to the kind of extended, blurred pedaling that traditionally works best with a good deal of Debussy’s piano music. Perhaps the piano is in need of revoicing. It actually sounded more crisp and precise during its use in the Series’ recent opera double bill.

After an interesting duet by Ms. Lawrence and Mr. Tappan who performed Debussy’s jarring anti-Great War Christmas song, “Noël des enfants qui n’ont plus de maison” (roughly, “Carol of the homeless children”), dating from 1915, young violinist Sonya Hayes, accompanied by Mr. Conlon, performed, with impressive ease and confidence, the “Violin Sonata,” one of Debussy’s final compositions, written just before he succumbed to cancer in 1917.

Spare, brilliant, requiring considerable technique and dexterity, both the Sonata and Ms. Hayes’ impeccable performance proved to be a fitting close to this intimate celebration of an important composer whose influences are still being felt in both contemporary classical music and in numerous film scores right up to the present day.

The In Series’ Debussy tribute was another fine example of the kind of thing this organization does best—intimate performances of notable but infrequently performed works that cross the silo-like boundaries we’re accustomed to drawing these days around individual art forms.

Less than a century ago and earlier, the various arts and artists hung around with one another. Now, not so much, which tends to detract from over all artistic vigor. The In Series strives to bring some of that spirit back which is what makes their concerts, recitals, and presentations unique, informative, and delightfully difficult to categorize.

  * Note: We attended the Sunday afternoon performance. Saturday evening’s performance also included David Gariff in the disdcussion group He’s a senior lecturer at the National Gallery of Art.


Rating: ** (Two out of four stars.)

Read more of Terry’s news and reviews at Curtain Up! in the Entertain Us neighborhood of the Washington Times Communities. For Terry’s investing and political insights, visit his Communities columns, The Prudent Man and Morning Market Maven, in Business.

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Terry Ponick

Now writing on investing, politics, music, and theater for the Washington Times Communities, Terry was the longtime music and culture critic for the Washington Times (1994-2009). 

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