NEW YORK — What connects Fanfare for the Common Man with the pop hit “Killing Me Softly with His Song”? Both were written by composers who studied at the Fontainebleau American Conservatory just south of Paris. That common thread was pointed out by Fontainebleau’s program director and archivist, Joe Kerr, who introduced the May 2 concert at Merkin Hall celebrating the school’s 100th anniversary.
There was plenty to celebrate. This three-hour concert, called “Fontainebleau, 1921-2021: Ancient Palace – Cradle of Modern American Music,” came at the end of a weekend of festivities, delayed by a year because of Covid. Guided by Kerr and music director Diana Ligeti, the Fontainebleau Association put together a program jam-packed with respect for the past, pride in the present, and promise for the future.
The school was started when Walter Damrosch, then conductor of the New York Philharmonic, was hired to come to Europe during World War I and train musicians in the U.S. Army band. Damrosch and Francis Casadesus ended up starting a school in one wing of the Chateau de Fontainebleau. The war ended, but the conservatory remained as a summer teaching institute.
The list of composers who have taught there is truly impressive: Maurice Ravel, Henri Dutilleux, Leonard Bernstein, and Marcel Dupré, just to name a few. But chief among them was the beloved composition teacher Nadia Boulanger, who directed the school from 1949 through 1979. These centennial festivities have paid her a lot of well-deserved attention.
To delve into the biography of Boulanger is to learn of her lifelong devotion to the memory of her sister Lili, who died in 1918 at the age of 25, by which point she was already an accomplished composer. So it was appropriate that this Fontainebleau tribute opened with Lili Boulanger’s Two Pieces for Violin and Piano (1911-1914). Violinist Kelly Hall-Tompkins, accompanied by Donna Weng Friedman, played with a rich, expressive tone, particularly in the first piece, “Nocturne,” with its lyrical and pensive melody.
It was interesting to contrast that work with one by Nadia Boulanger. Her Three Pieces for Cello and Piano received a deft reading by cellist/music director Ligeti, with Friedman again at the piano, showing the elder Boulanger sister to have the darker palette. The first of the evening’s several world premieres followed in direct response: Dalit Hadass Warshaw’s Notes on an Improvisation (hommage à Nadia Boulanger) started with Boulanger’s simple four-note theme from the third cello piece and evolved into a wild, Lisztian fervor. It was a memorable reminder of the wise adage “less is more”; Warshaw’s inadequate piano skills did not help her argument that more is, in fact, more.
Other illustrious faculty from the past found representation here. Robert Casadesus (nephew of the school’s co-founder) wrote his Piano Etudes, Op. 28, circa 1940. Matthew Bengtson played two of them with romantic grace — Number V., arpeggiated, and the pouncing, virtuosic Number VI. Another past professor, Louise Juliette Talma, had been a Fontainebleau student in her youth and came back to teach. Although Natalia Darst Xia struggled with rhythm and bow control through Talma’s Sonata for Violin and Piano (1962), accompanied by Baron Fenwick, she did demonstrate the work’s ethereal sparkle.
There were plenty of current faculty premiering works, including many participating in person. Mahir Cetiz played piano for his fascinating The Shades of Twilight, with violinist Idil Belgin Kucukdogan and bass clarinetist Carol McGonnell sharing passages of sustained minor seconds followed by long, arching phrases. McGonnell also played current teacher Allain Gaussin’s poetic 1990 work for unaccompanied clarinet, La Chevelure de Bérénice.
Charles Fox, who, during his lucrative period as songwriting partner to lyricist Norman Gimbel, composed “Killing Me Softly with His Song,” started as a Fontainebleau student and is now faculty. During the concert’s second half, he conducted the Orchestre de Chambre du Conservatoire Américain de Fontainebleau in the U.S. premiere of his Fantasie (Hommage à Chopin), a duo concerto for piano (played with elegance and vibrancy by Magdalena Baczewska) and clarinet (McGonnell, who expressed sly humor in her phrasing). The work’s rousing jazz rhythms and nostalgia for the golden age of Hollywood made it seem more like a tribute to George Gershwin than to Chopin.
A great music school tends to be more famous through its successful students than its faculty, and Fontainebleau has had its share of boast-worthy alumni. Among the most renowned is Aaron Copland. Pianist Fenwick nearly blew the roof off Merkin Hall with his spectacular, riveting delivery of Copland’s Piano Variations, written in 1930. On the other hand, some of the school’s past pupils are not as famous as they should be. Cellist Khari Joyner, with Bengtson at the piano, introduced many of us to the music of African American composer George T. Walker (1922-1918). Walker’s 1957 Sonata for Cello and Piano features cinematic scope and Shostakovich-like energy.
Proving that Fontainebleau’s legacy as a training ground for composers continues to grow, former student Bright Sheng presented a world premiere of his Rages of Love. The work for violin and chamber orchestra started life as 3 Fantasies for Violin and Piano, published in 2006. Sheng, who conducted this performance of the reimagined piece, explained in the program that he asked himself while composing it, “what is the single most important thing that matters” at this calamitous time when “it looks as if art is so frivolous and negligible.” The work displayed Sheng’s usual focus and emotional efficiency, brought to life in the playing of violinist Dan Zhu. Each of the three movements uses musical ideas from a particular culture (China, Tibet, and Kazakhstan); the second, “Tibetan Air,” sustained breathtaking intensity.
As compelling as this tour of a musical century was, only one moment came close to giving a sense of what the school itself is like. That happened with the world premiere of Variations sur le nom de Nadia Boulanger. Famed for both his musicological mind and his ability to improvise in any historical style, former Fontainebleau student and current professor Robert Levin composed two waltz themes, one on “Nadia” and one on “Boulanger.” And then Levin and nine colleagues wrote variations on those themes, which the assembled musicians took turns playing.
As Joe Kerr explained it, this was a tribute to the “Nights at Fontainebleau,” a tradition of faculty and students gathering in the gardens of an evening and sharing short pieces. The Merkin stage is no French royal garden (even if it does have some of the best acoustics in New York), but we did get a taste of the camaraderie of the Fontainebleau experience as the artists sat together onstage and enjoyed each other’s work.