The Yale Choral Artists, an ensemble featuring preeminent singers from across America, will perform on Saturday in New Haven’s Christ Church.
Led by Yale School of Music professor of conducting and Yale Glee Club Director Jeffrey Douma, the ensemble will perform 20th-century French composer Francis Poulenc’s cantata “Figure Humaine” and French Renaissance composer Josquin des Prez’s “Missa l’homme armé super voces musicales.”
“[The two pieces] share in common the theme of war, and the idea of resistance” Douma said.
Because of its difficulty, Poulenc’s cantata, written for two choirs and no instrumental accompaniment, is rarely performed, according to Douma. The cantata’s text is a setting of poems by one of Poulenc’s contemporaries, French poet Paul Éluard. Douma said Poulenc composed the cantata while Paris was under Nazi occupation during World War II, during which Éluard was jailed for joining the resistance movement. During Éluard’s imprisonment, he wrote poems Douma described as “searing, unsettling but ultimately hopeful” works that inspired Poulenc in the composition of his cantata.
Mezzo soprano Kate Maroney MUS ’06, who has returned to New Haven for the performance, emphasized the piece’s dark character, communicated in part through a poetic text that depicts images such as women cleaning the spilled blood of dead soldiers.
Maroney also noted the difficulty of Poulenc’s cantata, both individually and as a group: One soprano must sing an exposed high E, and the group must navigate the piece’s chromaticism and constantly shifting tonality.
According to Maroney, another important aspect of the piece is the interplay between the two choirs. Echoing Douma’s description of Éluard’s poetry as ominous yet hopeful, Maroney characterised the first choir’s part as a more hopeful voice, while the second choir, in which Maroney sings, is a much darker voice that “crushes the optimism.”
“Éluard’s poems — and Poulenc’s setting of them — are relevant in the present day and reveal striking resonances with our current political crisis,” Douma added.
The program also includes Josquin’s early 16th-century mass, in which instrumentalists from the Elm City Consort, a group of musicians who specialize in the performance of early music, will accompany the singers.
Michael Rigsby MED ’88, a musician in the consort as well as its director and one of its founding members, said in a statement to the News that the accompaniment will feature three sizes — and thus ranges — of the viola da gamba, a Renaissance stringed instrument used during Josquin’s lifetime.
Rigsby said that the mass was based on a popular secular tune, “L’homme armé,” translated as “the Armed Man.” According to Rigsby, more than 40 masses from 15th and 16th centuries build from that tune.
“The musical style is quite intricate, and part of the challenge has been finding suitable performing editions that are true to the original and also practical for modern performers,” Rigsby said.
Douma noted the “wonderful dimension” that the viola da gamba accompaniment provides to the singers’ rendition of the mass.
“As instrumentalists, we are very grateful for and excited about the opportunity of performing this landmark composition of early Renaissance polyphony along with an excellent group of professional singers,” Rigsby said.
The Yale Choral Artists made their debut in 2012.
Julia Carabatsos | email@example.com