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Monday, May 4, 2009

Bernstein's Choruses from 'The Lark'

I just finished two performances with the Vocal Arts Ensemble of Cincinnati and opened the program with Leonard Bernstein's Choruses from 'The Lark'.

These are terrific pieces, but when they were published were divided into two sets: French choruses and Latin choruses. The problem is, this has nothing to do with the way the music was originally conceived and ordered.

I'm not the only one to realize this, of course. I believe I sang them when an undergraduate in the correct order with Rod Eichenberger, so I can't take credit for figuring this out myself (although I hope I would have looked at the play to see context!). But there is at least one recording (by The Sixteen) which simply puts them in the published order, which makes no sense at all.

The music was originally written as incidental music for a play, originally by Jean Anouilh, adapted by Lillian Hellman in 1955. The play was about Joan of Arc and Bernstein was asked to write incidental music for it (Hellman was also the original librettist for the first version of Candide, done about the same time). Bernstein chose to use the pioneering early music ensemble, New York Pro Musica, for this, so the music was written for seven singers (one-to-a-part), plus hand-drum and bells. The music was, of course, recorded for the play (not done live). The seven singers were three women, three men, and counter-tenor (the pioneering American countertenor, Russell Oberlin). The music is recognizably Bernstein, but he borrows some of conventions of music of the period to create a wonderful hybrid of old and new.

I've done the work several times, once with a one-on-a-part ensemble, but more usually with chorus. One of the times we did it, the drama department at PLU was inspired to do the play in the following year and used our concert recording during the play--the music adds much to the "flavor" of the play. My last year at PLU we did it for our Scandinavian tour (2001) and I wrote a short narration that two singers read at performances, putting each of the movements into context within the action of the play.

Just before doing it with VAE I looked online to see if I could find the original recording anywhere. I couldn't, but found a recording by Robert DeCormier and his new group, Counterpoint, done one-to-a-part and with a narration (using Joan's words from the play) done by his wife. The narration is very effective, sometimes done over the ensemble singing. I bought it through iTunes just to hear the narration--the performance isn't terrific, but the narration is great.

I've also seen that the original production was filmed for a Hallmark Hall of Fame production with the original cast. The New York production of "The Lark" by Jean Anouilh opened at the Longacre Theater in New York on November 17, 1955 and ran for 229 performances. Boris Karloff was nominated for the 1956 Tony Award for Actor in a Drama for "The Lark" for the role of Cauchon and recreated his stage role in this movie version. Bruce Gordon, Michael Higgins, Ralph Roberts, and Julie Harris (as Joan) also recreated their stage roles in this movie version (also Denholm Elliott, Basil Rathbone, Eli Wallach, and Jack Warden). What a cast! Unfortunately, I can't find it anywhere for purchase or rental. I'd love to see it.

This is a reminder to always look for context when you perform a work--who was it written for? for what kind of space (church, theatre, concert hall)? what size and kind of ensemble? what purpose (liturgical, court, home)? These are always questions that can inform your performance.