CBSO and Lili Boulanger by Christopher Morley
Daughter of a Russian princess, sister of one of the 20th-century's most formidable musicians, first-ever female winner of the Paris Conservatoire's prestigious Prix de Rome, and with Asteroid 1181 Lilith subsequently named in her honour. Lili Boulanger died exactly 100 years ago in 1918 at the age of 25 after a life plagued by illness.
Yet during the few years allowed her she composed music of amazing visionary power, often with a strong religious impulse. It is muscular, uninhibited, even gaudy in its colours, and never fails in getting its gripping message across.
Her elder sister Nadia, like Lili a pupil of the great Gabriel Faure, was determined to keep Lili's memory alive, promoting her music wherever possible. And thus it was that Birmingham became acquainted with Lili Boulanger's work in 1967, when Nadia, beloved teacher of Anthony Lewis (who had become Peyton and Barber Professor of Music at the University of Birmingham), arrived in the city at the Prof's invitation to conduct the CBSO and the University Choir in a programme of Bach, Faure and Lili Boulanger.
As an undergraduate I was a member of that choir, and remember how we were all stunned at the emotional and expressive power of Lili's music, not least when it was directed with such forceful conviction by elderly, frail Nadia -- who had more strength in her little finger than all of us strapping youngsters put together.
That event marked the beginning of an affinity the CBSO has felt to this day for the music of Lili Boulanger, an affinity preserved forever in the Chandos recording set down in 1999, in which Simon Halsey's CBSO Chorus was invited to sing with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra under conductor Yan Pascal Tortelier in a generous programme of Boulanger's music.
Earlier this year the CBSO and Chorus were directed by Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla in an intriguing sequence of Lili's music, rounded off with the Requiem by her revered mentor, Gabriel Faure. On August 14, Lili Boulanger's setting of Psalm 130, Du Fond de l'Abime, sits at the heart of an all-French concertat Symphony Hall, beginning with the wispily pictorial Nocturnes by Debussy (who also died in 1918) and ending with Ravel's filmic ballet-score to the idyllic story of Daphnis and Chloe.
It is pleasant to remember Simon Rattle's quip when he succeeded the great (but still disgracefully under-rated in this city which owes so much to him) Louis Fremaux as principal conductor of the CBSO in 1980, that he had inherited "the best French orchestra in the world".
And this affinity with music from across La Manche has remained with the CBSO over the decades, with some of its most popular guest conductors and soloists coming from France. Ludovic Morlot, who directs Tuesday's concert, is one such, and he spoke to me from Seattle, where he has been chief of the excellent Symphony Orchestra there, high on the west coast of the United States, since 2011.
All three of this programme's composers, Debussy, Boulanger and Ravel, were alive at the same time. Did Lili Boulanger ever meet the other two, perhaps as Prix de Rome prizewinners, I ask him?
"I'm not sure about them actually meeting, but there are quite a few references to Debussy in writings about Lili," he replies.
" I believe Debussy was quite fond of her. Lili having studied with Fauré, there must have been chances for them to actually meet at some point."
This CBSO programme could be considered quite demanding, featuring as it does chorus plus orchestra in all three works. How does Ludovic approach such a task?
"One of my last programmes last season in Seattle with the Seattle Symphony was all-Stravinsky, opening with the Piano Concerto (piano and winds) with Marc Andre Hamelin as soloist, followed by Les Noces with the Pokrovsky Ensemble, then followed by Michael Curry’s full staging of Persephone with chorus, vocal soloists and actors/dancers/puppeteers.
"This is how I prepare for such a task, I suppose."
Does Ludovic see himself as an ambassador for French music, or does he cultivate a repertoire from the music of the country in which he is conducting?
"I love being an ambassador for French music which I love dearly. I am lucky to come from a country where the music offering is so rich and so diverse. Of course I have affinity for music from other parts of the world with a particular affection for Slavic music but always love coming back to the music of my countrymen."
After the Symphony Hall concert on August 14, Ludovic Morlot, mezzo-soprano soloist Justina Gingryte, the CBSO, CBSO Chorus and CBSO Youth Chorus decamp to London's Royal Albert Hall to perform a similar programme in the BBC Proms.
"This will be my second appearance at the Proms," Ludovic tells me. "I made my debut there a few years ago with the Britten Sinfonia and the Labeque sisters.
"I am so looking forward to this, and am grateful for the opportunity to share the stage once again this year with the gorgeous CBSO in the beautiful settings of both Symphony Hall and the Royal Albert Hall."
*Ludovic Morlot conducts the CBSO's all-French programme at Symphony Hall on August 14 (7.30pm), then slightly different programmes at the Proms (August 15) and the Edinburgh Festival, this featuring Sheku Kanneh-Mason in Elgar's Cello Concerto, on August 17.