MusicFest Vancouver's weekend program a study in contrasts
Donna Brown and Philippe Cassard: Forgotten Songs
At Christ Church Cathedral on Friday, August 17
Pink Martini: Shaken and Stirred
At the Orpheum on Friday, August 17. Both presented by MusicFest Vancouver.
As a study in contrasts, catching Pink Martini and a recital of songs by Claude Debussy made for a lively evening at MusicFest Vancouver. In fact, all the artists involved shared a zeal for unearthing what’s still fresh in music that some would consider odd or archaic.
Getting the less-desirable predinner spot, Canadian soprano Donna Brown and French pianist Philippe Cassard may not have had a full house at Christ Church Cathedral, but the stone building made for the coolest gig on a hot afternoon. The program was pretty chill, too, since we don’t often get to hear Debussy’s songs set to poems by the likes of Paul Verlaine and Charles Beaudelaire. (The French composer was born 150 years ago this month, and that’s a lot of candles.)
Although the event was dubbed Forgotten Songs, after a cycle of works devoted to Verlaine, the music—also utilizing poetry by Pierre Louÿs and Paul Bourget—is full of the softly shifting close intervals and faux-Oriental filigree we associate with impressionism. One Verlaine item called “Claire de lune” is a kind of morose companion to Debussy’s best-known piano solo of the same name. Cassard performed that endlessly gorgeous piece, and likewise interrupted the program for another palate cleanser, the almost equally popular “Arabesque No. 1”, giving listeners a hint of the four-handed Debussy slate he would perform the next night, alongside compatriot François Chaplin.
Speaking of hands, only a debonair Parisian like Cassard could get away with all the mani-kissing he gave Brown at the end of each song cycle. Certainly, her soaring performance was cherishable, even if her French was sometimes too vowel-heavy to follow.
No one will ever accuse Pink Martini singer China Forbes of vague articulation. Her performance of “Sympathique” had the near capacity Orpheum crowd singing along with the catchy French tune. As she told the house, this was her earliest collaboration with pianist and bandleader Thomas Lauderdale, and it became a huge hit in France, where they got successfully sued for lifting lyrics from surrealist poet Guillaume Apollinaire. They also grabbed some of the music from Francis Poulenc, she admitted.
The stealing of songs in Japanese, Mandarin, Italian, and Spanish were equally convincing, and amusing. The 12-piece Portland band, heavy on percussion and delightful preambles (mostly from Lauderdale), also took time to swing in plain ol’ Yankee fashion. The message was that all music, from every place and time, can be both fun and soulful, if handled right. Debussy would approve (but Verlaine would probably stay sulky).