Last night at the French Institute, the Skylark Vocal Ensemble sang a sometimes understatedly somber, often outright harrowing program that was as hubristic as it was relevant. Interspersing imaginatively arranged Civil War folk songs and hymns in between movements of Poulenc’s dynamic and rarely performed World War II-era Figure Humaine, the fifteen-piece choir voiced affectingly disparate reactions to wartime terror and the stress of living under siege.
Other choirs have mashed up iconic works from the classical repertoire with other styles, or with lesser-known pieces, with mixed results. Seraphic Fire‘s iconoclastic performance of the Mozart Requiem last year at Trinity Church, incorporating new compositions, worked swimmingly well. An attempt by another group to interpolate rather unrelated material into a dark and troubling Frank Ferko chorale, later in the year further uptown, was jarring and problematic.
In this case, the segues between calm, stoic American hymns or strikingly ornate arrangements of 19th century folk songs with Poulenc’s alternately starkly kinetic and acidically lustrous, Stravinskian themes didn’t make for easy transitions. But Poulenc probably wouldn’t have wanted any of this go to over smoothly: as a survey of human reactions to suffering, it packed a wallop, segues be damned.
Poulenc wrote his suite clandestinely with the hopes that it could be performed after an Allied victory. Turbulent, defiant cadenzas alternated with uneasy close harmonies and brooding atmospherics, all the way through to a triumphant coda fueled by soprano Sarah Moyer’s resolute intensity, just thisclose to a scream. She’d been tipping that pitch all evening long, the flicker of a smile often breaking into almost a smirk as she stood centerstage: she knew what was coming and reveled in it.
The rest of the group shone brightly in the Civil War material, as strikingly reflective of its time and place as Poulenc’s. In attempting to establish a distinctly American repertoire, choirs of that period often souped up folk tunes with elaborate and challenging arrangements. Some of these, like the stark rendition of Johnny, I Hardly Knew Ye – the original Scottish version of When Johnny Comes Marching Home – date from then. Conductor Matthew Guard’s own arrangements – a stately, hazily optimistic version of When This Cruel War Is Over, a plaintive take of Soldier’s Memorial Day and finally a Battle Hymn of the Republic that transcended schoolyard mockery – were true to the spirit of the times.
Likewise, the choir brought emotion, whether the savage cynicism – “Ridicule! Ridicule!” – in the Poulenc, or the funereal nebulosity of the hymn Abide with Me, into sharp focus. Crescendos were vivid and affecting: tenor George Case got plenty of time in the spotlight and rose to the occasion. Likewise, baritone Glenn Billingsley and the rest of the low voices offered endless, steady washes of circular breathing, lowlighting a couple of the folk tunes. Ultimately, the group delivered a message of hope: as much as we have suffered, even World War II didn’t last forever. In times like these, that message resonates just as powerfully.
This was it for this season’s characteristically eclectic series of concerts at the French Institute, but their similarly eclectic film series continues through May; there are also wine events, and a big Bastille Day bash this summer.