Arts News | Midwest Chamber Ensemble’s Third Album: A Francophile Delight

The cover of MCE’s new CD features a detail of French Impressionist Claude Monet’s “Bazille and Camille” (1865) from the collection of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. (Midwest Chamber Ensemble)

This summer, Midwest Chamber Ensemble released its third album: “Vieux Amis-Nouveaux Costumes” (Old Friends in New Clothes).

It’s a Francophile delight. The album features works by American composer Philip Lasser, including arrangements of song settings by Gabriel Fauré and Claude Debussy. MCE performs the songs with vocalist Sarah Tannehill Anderson.

The songs are written for soprano and a chamber ensemble of eclectic instrumentation, co-commissioned by the Juilliard School and Carnegie Hall for Ensemble Connect.

The cycle’s title came from a statement by famed French soprano Natalie Dessay, who premiered the work with Ensemble Connect.

When MCE’s music director, Steve N. Lewis, Jr., first heard about the project, he knew that he wanted to perform the songs with MCE, and that Tannehill Anderson would be the perfect partner. “It was all one thought, right there.”

The album fits succinctly in MCE’s oeuvre, combining the timbres of 20th-century impressionism and the tenets of 19th-century form, presented with modern sensibility. There’s a gentle pulse to the rhymes as the colors shimmer and elide, like light and shadow on the surface of a pond.

Lasser, who teaches at the Juilliard School in New York City, upholds a strong French tradition. He studied with Nadia Boulanger at the Ecole d’Arts Americaines as a young student and lived in Paris at the start of his career.

Lewis met Lasser at the European American Music Alliance a few years ago. Lasser is the director of the summer program in Paris designed to continue the pedagogical method of Boulanger.

“A lot of his teaching centers around communicating the lineage with the past through Boulanger back to Fauré and even further,” Lewis said. “He’s very passionate about keeping tradition alive and communicating that to students in the hope that that will live on.”

Lineage and tradition are integral components for MCE, too. “Our mission as an ensemble is to present music of the classical tradition, and that is a very broad concept that’s ranging from presenting the music of Bach and earlier up until the present day,” Lewis said.

Performing and promoting new compositions is an integral part of MCE’s mission. “As soon as we give up on the idea of new music, the tradition and the lineage stop,” said Lewis.

But it’s not all about the newest of the new, he said. Too often, work is premiered, then shelved. “While premieres and commissions are very important, sometimes it is the second and third performances that can be more meaningful and more impactful.” That was part of his desire to not just perform the Lasser works for a one-off concert, but to record them.

The album also includes work for violin and piano, cello and piano, and a quintet for flute and strings, arranged, said Lewis, “to show a lineage from Fauré and Debussy through Dr. Lasser’s own music.”

Along with the goal of supporting the tradition of classical music is supporting the next generation of musicians, and in September, MCE hosts “Youth at Their Best,” featuring concerto winners Cameron Quick and Matthew Liu.

On Oct. 20, MCE performs “A Schubert Mass” with the Kansas City Kansas Community College Choir. This concert explores the lineage of Romanticism, including Franz Schubert’s G Major Mass, Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s “Serenade,” and a work by Nicolas Flagello. Flagello is a 20th-century American neo-Romantic composer who, in Lewis’ opinion, not nearly enough people have heard of, so he’s excited to connect MCE audiences with an unfamiliar voice.

That’s one his favorite parts about MCE, said Lewis: “finding music off the beaten path and relating it to the tradition of the past and where the tradition is moving.”

Midwest Chamber Ensemble albums are available at performances, CD Baby and locally at Luyben Music and Vinyl Renaissance.

Libby Hanssen

Originally from Indiana, Libby Hanssen covers the performing arts in Kansas City. She is the author of States of Swing: The History of the Kansas City Jazz Orchestra, 2003-2023. Along with degrees in trombone performance, Libby was a Fellow for the NEA Arts Journalism Institute at Columbia University. She maintains the culture bog "Proust Eats a Sandwich."

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