About 80-100 people were present in the sanctuary of the University United Methodist Church in Chapel Hill on the rainy evening of August 30 to hear and enjoy a beautifully crafted and performed program of for the most part rarely heard French sacred music for the distinctively French combination of harp, flute, organ, and voice that was particularly popular from about 1880 to 1940. The musicians were Emily Laurance, harp, of the UNC and Duke faculties, and the organizer of the week-long NC tour, Mary Sullivan, soprano, Thomas A. Gregg, tenor, Timothy Macri, flute, and Heinrich Christensen, organ, who perform regularly in King’s Chapel in Boston, and Jason McKinney, baritone, from Winston-Salem, a recent NCSA graduate, filling in ably for the regular King’s Chapel baritone who was unable to make the trip south.

The first half of the program featured short works carefully arranged to feature each vocalist in alternation with all three performing in the Trio from Saint-Saëns’ Oratorio de Noël and the sole instrumental-only work, the Sicilienne from Fauré’s Pelleas et Mélisande , spotlighting impressive work by Macri, in the center. The three prayers of Les Angélus by Louis Vierne for voice and organ were split to simulate the passage of the day, opening with “Au matin,” sung by the baritone. “A midi,” featuring the tenor, was given just before the Trio, and “Au soir,” realized by the soprano, closed this portion. Before the central ensemble pieces, Franck’s Panis Angelicus allowed Gregg to strut his stuff, and it did not pale in comparison with recollections of the ubiquitous Pavarotti renditions, although this more intimate instrumentation gave it a less spectacular feel. Sullivan displayed her talents in André Caplet’s Les Prières , the French equivalents of the Lord’s Prayer, the Hail Mary, and the Apostolic Creed, and McKinney displayed the range and depth of his registers in Arthur Honegger’s “O Salutaris,” which, curiously, comes from the 1939 film Cavalcade d’Amour (with dialogue by playwright Jean Anouilh). After them, Sullivan gave the somewhat trite, but nonetheless lovely in its simplicity, Christmas lullaby by Henri Büsser, “Le Sommeil de l’Enfant Jésus,” and Gregg delivered a fine rendition of Bizet’s Agnus Dei , set to a portion of his incidental music to L’Arlésienne .

The second half of the program was devoted entirely to Claude Debussy’s cantata L’Enfant prodigue , written for the Prix de Rome contest, and declared the winner. It was his third attempt. This prize (which also exists for the visual arts) is still awarded by the Institut de France; it entitles the winner to a three-year residency in the Villa Médicis in Rome to study and compose. The applicants must write a cantata on a text, usually of a sacred nature, commissioned specifically for the contest and supplied to the candidates who then immediately go into isolated seclusion for three weeks at whose end they deliver the fruits of their inspiration and labor to the judges. The 1884 judges were Gounod (winner in 1839), Massenet (won in 1863), and Delibes, whose styles Debussy cleverly imitated, using this smaller, intimate instrumentation (similar to another that he invented 31 years later in 1915 and which was featured in a summer recital at Duke reviewed in these pages: flute, viola and harp), and presenting the text in a dramatic rather than a narrative fashion. The artists, representing mother, father, and son (Sullivan, McKinney, and Gregg respectively), performed it likewise, with minimal appropriate dramatic movements about the performance space – the prodigal son entered down the central aisle – and postures and gestures such as kneeling and embracing. It kept the listeners enthralled and left them breathless.

The printed program gave titles of works, composers’ names and life dates, and short bios of the artists. An insert included the complete texts of all the works in the original languages with side-by-side English translations, and a brief introductory note about the Debussy cantata: a model presentation, although not totally free of typos. Laurance gave introductory verbal comments adding tidbits of information about some of the other works. The uninitiated might have wished for brief bios of the composers, which, together with the failure to credit the author of the poetic texts of the Vierne pieces and to provide composition dates for the works themselves, were the only weaknesses of the set of printed materials.

Even if I were not a Francophile and lover of vocal music, especially the French mélodie, I’d give this program and performance five stars; I think the others in attendance would, too. Although pronunciation wasn’t quite of native-speaker quality, it was excellent, with only one or two errors, and diction was outstanding – everything was clear and perfectly understandable. The music has unbeatable melodies and the artistry was stunning. Communication between the musicians was excellent and the inherent danger of the organ overpowering everything else never once manifested itself; Christensen matched the volume levels of the singers and Laurance’s superb and sensitive harp playing extremely well. The performers were deservedly greeted with a true “standing O” when everyone rose pretty much together after a moment’s silence, and the aisles remained empty.

The group presented the program in King’s Chapel in Boston in the spring and will present it again later this week in Wilson, Kinston and Wilmington. Check our calendar for details and make the trip if you possibly can, for it is a program not to be missed. Performances like this are as rarely heard as is this music. An acquaintance of mine in the audience, a former King’s Chapel parishioner, said: “Imagine hearing this kind of music every Sunday, and you will understand one of the things I miss most down here.”