Arts » Classical Music

Review: Ronen Chamber Ensemble's Mademoiselle

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Nadia Boulanger in 1925.
  • Nadia Boulanger in 1925.

The name “Nadia Boulanger” does not come trippingly to the tongue as a major composer, pianist or conductor, yet the names of her students and her colleagues are a testament to her influence on 20th century music. Among them as composers, conductors, soloists, arrangers and teachers are Aaron Copeland, Philip Glass, Quincy Jones, John Eliot Gardiner, Elliot Carter, Virgil Thompson, Astor Piazzolla and Emile Naoumoff, who joined the Ronen Chamber Ensemble during the March 24 tribute program.

Naoumoff, professor at IU Jacobs School of Music since 1998, is a model of modesty and humility. Born in Sophia, Bulgaria in 1962, by age five he was recognized as a child prodigy. A chance meeting in Paris in 1970 brought him into Boulanger’s studio and he became “her last disciple,” studying with her until her death at age 92 in 1979. The youthful disciple then took over Boulanger’s classes in Fountainebleau.

"From the very beginning of my journey, as a child prodigy, one finds, shining in full brilliance, the flexible longevity of the music teacher of the century: Nadia Boulanger," he said in his book My Chronicles with Nadia Boulanger. "I will continue to attempt to convey Mademoiselle’s message for the duration of my voyage."

What Naoumoff conveyed in conversation with pianist and program host Gregory Martin was Boulanger’s gift of inspiring her students to find their own voices, chart their own journeys. He described how she could spot a weakness in a composition and lead its composer to a point of strength, but did not insist that her word override her student’s own choice.

In describing his relationship with Boulanger, Naoumoff quoted his mentor, "'Je n’ai pas à enseigner Emile, j’épluche seulement l’orange…' she would say; 'I do not have to teach Emile, I only peel the orange…'"

Grace and beauty were her entry to counterpoint and musical structure as well as to life. Naoumoff engaged the Wood Room audience with anecdotes about his associations with the heady world of personalities over the nine years of studying under her. He learned from her that one’s interpretation of a piece in performance belongs to the player. Her role she felt was to help a composer know every quality of his/her composition and to compose so as to allow a player to grow through presenting it.

The musical program showcasing the compositions of Boulanger’s sister Lili, Maurice Ravel, Aaron Copland, Igor Stravinsky, Jean Francaix and Naoumoff. Pianist Martin, who also introduced each piece, often by reading from Naoumoff's biography, was joined by violinist Austin Hartman, cellist Ingrid Fischer-Bellman, flutist Alistair Howlett, oboist Jennifer Christen and clarinetist David Bellman.

While each of the pieces merited applause for their finesse, it was Boulanger’s own work, Toward the New Life, in honor of her sister whose untimely death in 1918 left a an ever-present void, that most engaged me. Making full use of the keyboard, Martin delivered a soaring symphonic paean to close a long and absorbing program with the spirit of “Mademoiselle,” who had become a new friend and whose advice to “never write anything boring” can now serve as inspiration to those in attendance.

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