By Ted AYALA
They shared a similar musical aesthetic, lived in the same city for over a decade, mingled in the same circles, and their births were separated by a mere 17 months. But cruel destiny nonetheless shaped and ultimately diverged the respective paths of Francis Poulenc and his Dutch contemporary Leo Smit.
For while Poulenc managed a careful balancing with the Germans during their occupation of France in the early 1940s, no such option was open to Smit, whose Jewish ancestry marked him for death. In 1940 he was forced to flee Paris, where he had lived since 1927, and return to his native Amsterdam – where that city was subsequently invaded by the Nazis. In 1943 Smit and his family – along with thousands of other Dutch Jews – were ordered to be deported to a death camp in faraway Sobibor, now part of Poland. It was there that they met their demise on April 30, 1943.
Yet for the all the tragedy that would later darken his life, Smit’s music is remarkably bright and cheerful. His “Sextet for Winds and Piano”’ from 1933 – one of a number of his then unpublished scores that were kept in safekeeping by his pupils when he was sent to Sobibor – is all smiles, drollery and play.
It also shares more than a passing resemblance to Poulenc’s own “Sextet for Winds and Piano,” a characteristic heightened by Le Salon de Musiques’ pairing the works side by side last Sunday at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.
The opening movements of both works stamp about to a giddy, motoric tread; they each have a middle movement that borders a scherzo-like section with slow, reflective ones. The resemblance is all the more eerie given that they were actually composed nearly simultaneously.
But while Poulenc tends to prick the bubbles of sentiment that burst forth from his music with sharp irony, Smit is altogether more genial, friendlier, relaxed. And though he makes it clear that he models on the work of others (the finale’s arpeggios that strongly recall the “Dance of the Gypsy Women” from Stravinsky’s Petrushka are unmistakeable), he never lapses into imitation. On the contrary. Those models paradoxically allow him to highlight the uniqueness of his own voice.
For those who had been unfamilar with Smit’s work, Le Salon’s brilliant performance may just have been their discovery of the year.
Preceding the Smit and Poulenc were a handful of songs by Henri Duparc, Reynaldo Hahn, and Erik Satie, sung superbly by Elissa Johnston and accompanied on the piano with extraordinary sensitivity and color by Le Salon founder and artistic director François Chouchan.
Whereas Poulenc and his generation had shunned the “wagnérisme” that had gripped their elders, Duparc – if the selection of songs were any indication – seemed to gladly embrace it. The shadow of Bayreuth looms long over his songs (with the song “Infidelity” in particular recalling “Träume” from Wagner’s “Wesendonck Lieder,” which by extension is a pre-echo of the love duet from Act II of “Tristan und Isolde”), yet they were lovely gems of songcraft for all that. Both Johnston and Chouchan luxuriated in the music’s sensual, decadent atmosphere.
Mozart’s “Quintet for Winds and Piano” – a Rococo take on musical sensuality and play – tied the various strands of Sunday’s program together into a neat close.
The playing of the Le Salon musicians was fully the equal to the demands of this score that Mozart himself had declared was among his very best. Especially distinguished was Edith Orloff’s pianism, which flowed over the listener like cascades of ivory cream. Into this swirled the clarinet of Donald Foster, which streaked Mozart’s score with unforgettable velvety chocolate sweetness.