French musical organizations are not always the best at presenting French programs. That’s the assessment of famed Gallic soprano Sandrine Piau, who is thrilled to take part in a Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus program Oct. 5-7 featuring two major French choral works: Francis Poulenc’s Gloria and Charles Gounod’s St. Cecilia Mass. “It’s really a beautiful French program,” she said. “It’s hard to have this kind of program sometimes in France, so I’m really happy that Chicago has organized it.”
The two pieces, from different centuries, display considerable stylistic contrasts. Written as a tribute to the patron saint of music, Gounod’s mass debuted on St. Cecilia’s Day — Nov. 22, 1855 — in the venerable Church of St. Eustache in the heart of Paris. It was his first major work. Commissioned by the Koussevitsky Foundation, Poulenc’s Gloria had its premiere in 1961 by the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Chorus Pro Musica. The opening movement movements recalls Igor Stravinsky’s Serenade in A for Piano, written a little less than four decades earlier.
“There is something very French in both of them — this transparency,” Piau said. “The soprano voice is used in Gounod, as in Poulenc, like an angel.”
She is an especially big fan of Poulenc (1899-1963), an independent-minded composer who had a gift for simple, inspired melodies and rejected the dictates of serialism that overshadowed so much 20th-century music. The soprano will appear in December at Brussels’ La Monnaie in a production of the composer’s 1956 opera, The Dialogues of the Carmelites, a rare modern work that has remained in the international repertory since its debut. Poulenc’s opera, which focuses on a group of nuns martyred during the French Revolution, and Gloria, Piau said, reveal not only the composer’s religious fervor but also his deep humanity.
“I have to say, when I sing this Gloria of Poulenc, it’s really hard for me not to cry,” she said. “It’s exactly like The Dialogues of the Carmelites. This music is so emotional. It’s really hard to stay a singer and not cry and be in the emotion. For us, if we want to give emotion, we can’t be too much in the emotion, or it doesn’t work. I’m in love with this piece. For me, it’s a gift to come with this orchestra in Chicago and sing especially this Poulenc. I love the Gounod, too, I’ve done it before, but the Gloria is always a very personal experience.”
Piau believes that human beings can attain some kind of higher state through great art and music: “This Gloria of Poulenc gives me the impression that we can reach a sort of spirituality somewhere.”
TOP: Sandrine Piau observes that “the soprano voice is used in Gounod, as in Poulenc, like an angel.” | Photo: S. Expilly/Naive Records