REVIEW: Vieux Amis-Nouveaux Costumes, Midwest Chamber Ensemble; Steve Lewis, Musical Director; featuring Compositions and Arrangements by Philip Lasser

Review by John Chittum

Midwest Chamber Ensemble, directed by Steve Lewis, takes on classic French songs with new contemporary chamber arrangements by Philip Lasser, along with some of Lasser’s own original compositions. Lasser is known for his associations with French art music, ranging from his time studying at Nadia Boulanger’s École d’Arts Américaine. He also directs the European-American  Musical Alliance, a summer school in Paris dedicated to Boulanger’s famed teaching techniques. If there is a contemporary composer uniquely situated in arranging French chansons, it is Lasser. 

Vieux Amis-Nouveaux Costumes opens with arrangements of Claude Debussy and Gabriel Fauré songs with Sarah Tannehill Anderson as soloist. Anderson’s voice soared beautifully over the accompaniment throughout. “Apparition” begins with a light tinkling of flute, clarinet, percussion, and piano. From the opening strains, I could already hear the strong sense of craftsmanship in this recording. The group sounds balanced and neat, bringing a nice background to Anderson’s beautiful vocals. Lasser’s arrangement of all four Debussy songs appears to follow the original piano scoring closely, possibly too closely. I would have loved to hear a little more adventurousness in the arrangements. “Coquetterie posthume” offered the most interesting arrangement of the four Debussy songs.

Fauré’s songs don’t usually inspire me as compared to those of Debussy. “Clare de Lune (minuet)” opens with an exposed instrumental accompaniment. I found something oddly bright about the violin leading this, although generally the ensemble continued to blend well. “En Sourdine” ends with a similarly sparse instrumental part that proved tricky for the group, with a sort of hocket, or a dovetailing continuous line between the strings and flute. Generally I found the Fauré arrangements by Lasser more fleshed out and varied than the Debussy. Criticisms aside, I’d happily pay for a CD of Sarah Tannehill Anderson singing French chansons with any form of accompaniment. One of the greatest compliments I can think to give is “you make it seem so easy.” I know these songs are anything but easy, but Sarah Tannehill Anderson makes them sound effortless. This is especially true in her wide range shown in “La romance d’Ariel” by Debussy.

The final three tracks on Vieux Amis-Nouveaux Costumes are compositions by Philip Lasser. “La boite à bijoux (The Jewelry Box)” is a duet for violin and piano. Ho Man Lee (violin) and Jessica Koebbe (piano) acquit themselves well on what sounds like an early twentieth-century French song. I heard Eugene Bozza and Debussy with smatterings of fiddle-like passages. It’s that fiddling that makes me think of Bozza, a French composer influenced by the influx of jazz after World War I into Paris. It was a nice little piece, well-suited as a palate cleanser in the middle of a recital or album. I’m not sure I’d remember it if I wasn’t taking notes, but it was pleasant enough.

“Sonata” for cello and piano begins with something that instantly reminded me of Arthur Honegger more than Debussy, although the first movement has some striking similarities to Fauré’s “Cello Sonata No. 1.” All this is to say Philip Lasser’s “Sonata” fits squarely in the early twentieth-century French tradition. This work was the most substantial single work on the album, taking a solid twenty minutes of the recording. Eman Chalshotori (cello) and Charles Dickinson (piano)  were up to the challenge. “Introduction, Allegro Vivo” begins with a sweeping low cello line that seems to lay out the general character for the entire piece. As the piece progresses into the Allegro section, the writing falls into almost a caricature of early twentieth-century French writing. Having played a fair number of Bozza pieces, as well as Debussy and Fauré, it felt all too familiar. For some, this will be a good entry way into the music of a contemporary composer. For me, it made me wonder what it was bringing to the cello sonata repertoire in 2002 (the year of the commission) beyond being “new.”

The opening of the second movement, “Serenely Calm,” was a nice shift. It felt less like a meditative breath, and more like a calm before a It evoked images of the brilliant, brooding antagonist who likes classical music (as the trope goes). Chalshotori and Dickinson continued their strong playing, though at times Chalshotori’s vigorous playing pushed his technique to the limit. This caused some near misses, such as high notes from moving too far away from the unyielding intonation of the piano, or his rhythm falling on the forward side of the beat compared to Dickinson’s more steady rhythmic performance.

The final movement, “Allegro Molto,” begins with a rush, but quickly. At this point I felt a bit fatigued, holding out for something that would break from the post-Impressionistic, neo-Romantic writing of the early/mid-twentieth-century. “Allegro Molto” offers moments of that, but in much the same way I used to joke that Franck’s version of cyclic form feels almost post-minimalist. Cyclic form, in Franck’s compositions, is the use of recurring motives throughout an entire piece, spanning movements. This repetition is a sort of lead into the style popularized in post-minimalism, where specific musical motives, be they a backing ostinato or a melody, are repeated throughout a work. While not exactly the same, nor having direct lineage, the utility of language is a shared characteristic between various nineteenth and twentieth century music compositions.

Lasser’s “Ballade” sounded like it might be referencing Martin, Bozza, or Debussy. Granted, Frank Martin is Swiss, not French, but he wrote six “ballades,” with the two most famous being for flute and piano (1939), and trombone and piano(1940) Philip Lasser’s “Ballade” fits alongside Martin’s flute “Ballade” nicely––almost too nicely. Virginia Backman plays wonderfully on flute. As my mind started to get distracted, Backman nailed some notes in the high register of the flute, coming through in a breathy but evocative way. She never plays shrilly as she climbs in range, and she beautifully grows quieter through the passage, ending the CD on a literal and figurative high note.

In playwriting courses, my teacher used to ask us: “when were you most engaged? And when did you start thinking about the Royals (or Chiefs) game?” For me, I was most engaged by Sarah Tannehill Anderson’s singing, especially in “Coquetterie posthume” and “La romance d’Ariel.” My mind wandered on the second half of the CD, requiring a couple more listens as I instinctively went for my email. For Vieux Amis-Nouveaux Costumes, and the works of Philip Lasser represented therein, this might be a case of “too much of one thing.” Midwest Chamber Ensemble and Steve Lewis present an album with a single, clear picture. But, sometimes it’s nice to have something a little more radically different in the mix. Overall, the album is something any lover of French art music should enjoy, and samplings from the album, especially the French chansons on the first half, could easily make it into folks everyday listening lists. The album is available for purchase at Luyben Music or online at CDBaby. Digital downloads are available through CDBaby and Apple Music (iTunes). If you want to hear more Midwest Chamber Ensemble, check out their season and head out to a concert!