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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 14, No. 6 March 2009

Marc Boucher & Olivier Godin: Willing Complicity

by Lucie Renaud / March 1, 2009

Version française...

Occasionally in a singer’s life, pitfalls seem to accumulate, making artistic progress impossible: an inadequate cast, a totally incompatible director, a third-rate orchestra that tarnishes the quality of the voice. Once in a blue moon, however, the way seems paved with welcoming gold. In the last decade, Marc Boucher has sung the role of Pelléas in an acclaimed Opéra de Montréal production, debuted with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra under Charles Dutoit in Duruflé’s Requiem and Gounod’s Messe de Sainte-Cécile, performed under Jean-Claude Malgoire with his Grande Écurie and La Chambre du Roy in Versailles and Lille and in Puccini’s Tosca in Reims, Brest and Tourcoing, and also in Rameau’s Platée at the Megaron in Athens. In August 2008, Marc was invited to give a recital of French song at the prestigious Académie Francis Poulenc by fellow baritone François Le Roux, the recognized ambassador of the genre. This April, at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, he’ll perform in Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, having already creditably defended the composer in many European cities. No one will be surprised to hear, then, that Boucher was awarded an Opus Prize last January for his outstanding success outside Canada, in addition to the Opus Prize he received in 2007 for his CD, Théodore Dubois, on the XXI-21 label.

Occasionally, in a true musician’s life, almost miraculous encounters also occur. Paths cross one day, thanks to a connection favoured by destiny, through mutual friends. Marc Boucher was searching for a pianist with whom he could work on French art songs. A name was suggested with surprising certainty by some of the vocalist’s musical guides—once, twice, three times: Olivier Godin. Personal calendars were consulted and an appointment was made in autumn 2005. The prospect of a world première recording of Dubois’s mélodies was  outlined. The door of the rehearsal room opened: almost immediately, the baritone knew he’d just met an ally, both a mirror and an artistic complement to himself. “We didn’t know each other. We’d never made music together,” the singer recalls, interviewed in the brand-new concert hall of the Conservatoire de musique de Montréal. “Yet the minute I began to rehearse with Olivier, it was as if we’d been working together for a hundred years! It was instantaneous. I have an approach to French mélodie that prioritizes an open questioning, meaning that as a performer I should go where I believe the text should be going. In that aspect, I think Olivier and I share the same way of seeing things. We don’t put up any barriers for ourselves—we’re there to explore. We always try to take the piece a little further in one direction or another, to take hold of the material, to twist it and work it to see how far it can go.”

The depth of the bond linking the two artists is as striking in the interview as when they perform together. Ideas flow freely back and forth, with one lending an attentive ear while the other speaks, but never hesitating to clarify a point or to carry the dialogue further, interrupting gleeful laughter or breaking a silence. “We have a lot of fun together because, precisely, I think what makes the strength of a good duo is this fundamental musical empathy that connects us, in which we don’t need to negotiate or compromise,” Olivier Godin specifies. “I think that if this musical flow is natural from the beginning, the team will last for a long time, since rehearsing won’t be a chore.”

After their more than conclusive first meeting, professional engagements prevented the two artists from seeing each other again for several months. It didn’t matter: they felt they would find a common ground for their respective visions of French song. “Things just happen on their own, even if, at the outset, our two interpretations differ. When they come together, a fusion occurs spontaneously,” the pianist explains. Only four or five rehearsals of the Dubois works were held before the two collaborators found themselves in the recording studio, facing a blank page, or almost. “What we want to do is to return to the source, to the composer. Often, French mélodie was deformed by layers and layers of interpretations, of mannerisms. Starting in the mid-20th century, singers began to over-interpret, adding virtuosic vocal elements and moving a little too far away from the text. It’s a tradition that is being lost. Fortunately, we still have good ambassadors of the French mélodie, who want nothing more than to pass the torch on to the young generation. But there are very few of them.” Names are quickly supplied by a pair of voices in duet: “We’ve been able to talk and work with masters of exceptional experience. Bruno Laplante’s recordings have drawn a lot of attention in Europe, and Jacqueline Richard shows a concern for authenticity in the works she chooses for her teaching activity. We should also mention Pierre Mollet, Jean-Claude Germain, and Jean-Paul Jeannotte, who sang accompanied on the piano by Francis Poulenc himself. He was the first to bring Poulenc’s mélodies here, the first to have worked with Pierre Bernac [who created several of the composer’s cycles]. We’re in continual contact with these people for advice and musical choices.”

Patiently and with conviction, the two musicians decided to extricate the art song from its dusty casing, caressing it with voice and fingers. They have removed the encumbrances from its workings, polished each line, and allowed its poetry to gently insinuate itself into their consciousness. “In my opinion,” says Marc Boucher, “the art song is the genre requiring the most musicality, the greatest control of tone, sound dynamics and colours. Composers had been writing romances and mélodies since the 19th century. These songs were the ancestors of Elton John hits! People who heard this poetry would weep; it really touched them. Why, in the middle of the 20th century, was this music suddenly stripped of its emotional content by a phony rigour? When Baudelaire wrote Le jet d’eau and La vie antérieure, he conveyed such deep emotion. Today, obviously, people are not as sensitive to these things.” Boucher barely pauses before revising his statement: “No, that’s not true! People are sensitive to these things if they’re done truthfully. My objective, which I share with Olivier, is to find my truth, our truth, to make these poems, these words, this music, come to life again.” Olivier Godin adds: “Rigour may have allowed French song to renew itself. Perhaps we needed it to be able to reach a deeper level of the poetry, which may seem disconcerting at times, but the interpretation of French mélodie has no room for intellectual rigour. Once you’ve internalized the poem and understood where you’re going, you must return to the emotion. If you limit yourself to a reading of the lines, the tonal stresses and the way the composer has placed the text, something will be missing.” The singer adds: “Another thing, too: the French art song is a music of colours, for the piano as much as for the voice. Also, too often, we’ve heard the French song performed by singers in the twilight of their careers. The mélodie cannot survive any ugliness. If the sounds aren’t beautiful, it can’t work, and by the same token, the sonic palette of the piano must be filled with colours. First and foremost, the mélodie must remain something beautiful. Furthermore, there must be poetic truth in it for the singing to involve the emotions, for the voice to have charm, an expressive searching.”

Besides winning an Opus Prize, the Dubois recording was given five stars by the prestigious French magazine Diapason, and was praised by American Record Guide, the bible of classical CD reviews. This paved the way for a series of recitals, including several in France. “It’s not because we didn’t want to rehearse more,” explains Olivier Godin. “But there’s a John Newmark saying I like to keep in mind: ‘Don’t wear out the music.’ The mélodie is such a finely woven form that it can’t be taken apart, reassembled and restarted. Spontaneity must be maintained.” The aim in the recording studio is to achieve a perfect first take, an undertaking sustained by the exceptional ear of Pierre Dionne, referred to as a “third musician” or “fifth Beatle” by the duo.

In the case of Les Fleurs du mal, de Fauré à Ferré, the process was reversed, as the preparation work was lengthy. The CD originated from Marc Boucher’s wish to underline both the 150th anniversary of the first printing of Baudelaire’s volume and the 50th year since the creation of some thirty songs based on those poems by Léo Ferré (whom Boucher fervently admires). For a year, archives were combed in search of scores, including the songs by René Lenormand that were unearthed at a Texas publishing company and recorded by the duo as a world première. More than 350 art songs had to be read and analyzed before making a selection. This repertoire was painstakingly honed in concerts at home and in Europe, each piece visited in minute detail. Olivier Godin fleshed out certain Ferré songs with arrangements that are a tribute to Schubert and Debussy. A musical theatre project grew around the concept at the Orford Arts Centre in 2007; Lorraine Pintal directed Jean Marchand in the role of Baudelaire, a character made larger than life by the baritone and the pianist.

At their recital on March 29, the two musicians will present pages taken from this remarkable collection, together with Jacques Hétu’s cycle, Les clartés de la nuit, based on poems by “Quebec’s Baudelaire”, Émile Nelligan. Hétu’s work “falls completely within the continuity of Fauré’s French song,” affirms Olivier Godin. Although the program was not quite finalized at the time of this interview, the recital will likely end with the song cycle, Tel jour, telle nuit. The pair presented this cycle at the Académie Francis Poulenc, using the same piano the composer played on the occasion of the work’s first public performance, and surrounded by photographs of different performers of Poulenc’s work, to his niece, Rosine Seringe. With emotion, Marc Boucher remembers the tears she shed: “I realized that for her, this music was alive and true, and that Éluard’s poetry was part of her daily existence. When we performed at the Prieuré de Saint-Côme, there were people singing along with me! It was an incredible feeling. It proved that what we’re doing isn’t out of date.”

Even if this honey-toned baritone with the exemplary diction is strongly attached to the French art song, he confesses that he’d like to see our composers finally get to work on setting the texts of Quebec poets to music. Marc Ouellet is in the process of writing a piece for the duo, evoking a bestiary of Quebec and based on poems by Bertrand Laverdure, winner of the 2003 Rina-Lasnier prize. Boucher’s dream is to feature at least one work by a Quebec composer each time he gives a recital in Europe. In his view, the mélodie can rise from the ashes to touch a new generation of connoisseurs. “I think the most serious error was to want to perform the mélodie in large concert halls. The star system (and its artist’s fees) killed the French art song, which had always been presented in an intimate setting. It’s almost an artisan genre and should be practised as such. That way, it will move the audience in the same way it did when it was created.”

Time has gone quickly. An invitation to the (Baudelairian) voyage, and above all, to further sharing, beckons.  But before turning to other things, each musician is asked to name the other’s essential quality. The vocalist doesn’t hesitate for a second to describe his pianist as an extraordinary colourist. “When Olivier plays a chord, the colour sets the mood. Sometimes, when I think I’d like to hear something, he’s already done it.” When colour is applied with finesse and skill, the text can only flow from the source. Olivier Godin appears to listen to a musical passage in his head before declaring: “Marc has many qualities, but the most important one is his musicianship, the naturalness with which he succeeds in transcending a considered interpretation. Accompanying a singer like him is a wonderful present for a pianist.”

A long-term association is in the cards. A little more than three years after their first meeting, the two are conscious that in the intimate dialogue joining their two worlds together, the spoken word is superfluous. With the light of a smile deep within their eyes and to the sound of contagious laughter, they’ll be adding dozens of mélodies to their repertoire.

Société musicale André-Turp, 3:00 p.m., March 29. turp.com

La Scena Musicale’s second Discovery CD is Marc Boucher and Olivier Godin’s 2007 Opus Award winning recording of the music of Théodore Dubois. The Discovery CD is a co-production with XXI Records and is available exclusively to paying LSM subscribers and copies of LSM sold in the newsstand.

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