Music in Midtown: Bilitis et Babar
April 4, 2019, 1:00 to 2:00 pm
The Graduate Center, CUNY
Paula Robison as narrator
Sooyun Kim and Sungwoo Steven Kim, flutes
Franziska Huhn and Krysten Keches, harps
Tae Kim, piano and celesta
Francis Poulenc – Histoire de Babar, le petit éléphant (text by Jean de Brunhoff)
Hector Berlioz – Dialogue of the Young Ishmaelites from L’Enfance du Christ
Claude Debussy – Bilitis (original version written for a staged presentation of Pierre Louÿs’ verse)
In recent years a great deal of Paula Robison’s energy has gone into training the next generation of flutists. Knowing her approach to music and many other valuable forms of thought and expression, her teaching is a humanistic education in itself. Still, she finds time to perform and record. Most recently she delighted a New York audience with her talents as a narrator—in French, on this occasion. Narration for her is a passion that goes back to her family origins, as the daughter and niece of theater people: her mother was an actress, her father a screenplay writer, and her uncle a playwright.
In this program, which covers her interest in French literature as well as music, she recited the text of Jean de Brunhoff’s classic L’Histoire de Babar, le petit éléphant, interspersed with Francis Poulenc’s brief musical interludes, which created an intimate performance piece of the beloved book, as enjoyable for the lunchtime audience in the CUNY Graduate Center’s Elebash Hall as it was for Poulenc’s eleven small cousins who “commissioned” the music—or rather demanded it—from him. The story goes that he was once visiting the children’s parents and was playing his own music on the family piano. Bored with this, the children placed a copy of the book on the piano and told him to play that, which he did.
Robison’s second performance consisted of twelve poems from Pierre Louÿs’ Chansons de Bilitis (1894) selected for a 1901 recitation with mime. The notoriety of the poems for their sensuous depiction of lesbian eroticism was enhanced by the presence of half-naked models at the performance before an invited audience. The author, a friend of Debussy’s, approached the composer for interludes to illustrate the poems. (Previously, in 1897, Debussy had asked Louÿs for permission to set three of the poems as songs.) Debussy scored the pieces for two flutes, two harps, and celesta, here played by a superb group of mostly young musicians assembled by Ms. Robison: her students, Sooyun Kim and Sungwoo Steven Kim, flutes; Franziska Huhn and Krysten Keches, harps; and Tae Kim, piano and celesta.
Tae Kim had already made a strong impression for his masterful playing of the Poulenc, which excelled in its pianism as well as in his ability to use color and pacing to tell the story. He maintained a strong of narrative continuity, in spite of the constant interchange with spoken narrative. In the Debussy he alternated between the piano and the celesta with equal effectiveness. Musicianship and artistic sensibility don’t rise above the level of these brilliant players. The flutists’ command of tone and phrasing and the expressiveness of the harpists also contributed to the richness of the music. One can only imagine the experience of the premiere performance.
Paula Robison’s French is really very good indeed, and, best of all it, it was clear and easily understood by anyone who knows French well enough to read the books. Her approach to Babar was true to the fact that adults love the book as much as children. This was obviously not an issue for Bilitis, which Ms. Robison recited with a passion which could leave few unmoved. She closed her introductory talk by urging the audience to get hold of Les Chansons de Bilitis and to enjoy them for the beautiful works they are. They are in print, as they have been since 1894, in several editions in French, as is Alvah Bessie’s English translation.
Another path to explore is Paula Robison’s enthusiasm for French music, most recently expressed in her 2016 CD, Caprice, with the brilliant Finnish pianist, Paavali Jumppanen (Pergola Recordings PR 1040). This disc was planned as a tribute to Pierre Boulez, with whom both Ms. Robison and Mr. Jumppanen worked. Around his Sonatine, they play Le Merle noir by his teacher, Messiaen, and Cinq Caprices, by one of his pupils, Thierry Lancino, specially arranged by the composer for flute and piano. The rest is Debussy, either as he wrote it (for solo piano: “Le vent dans la plaine” from Preludes, Book I; for solo flute: Syrinx) or arranged for flute and piano by the artists (Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, Quatre mélodies, from Ariettes oubliées and Fêtes galantes, and “La Flûte de Pan” from Chansons de Bilitis). This recording is much more than mere representation of the music: the program has a cogent significance and the performance is as much of an event as a live concert. The commitment of their playing make it must for any lover of French music.