The story of the Boulanger sisters is tragic, touching and inspiring all in equal measure. Lili, a child-prodigy and the younger of the two, was plagued by illness throughout her short life. After her death from tuberculosis in 1918, aged just 24, her sister Nadia – the Paris Conservatoire matriarch who taught the likes of Aaron Copland, Quincy Jones and Phillip Glass – would go on to tirelessly champion her music, in doing so trailblazing the way for a generation of women conductors and composers who, without her example, may never have had the confidence to pursue careers in classical music.
Saturday night’s concert formed the triumphant conclusion to a day spent happily immersed in the work of these two women. The BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus under American conductor James Gaffigan provided a meaty backdrop to British tenor James Way, in a first half dedicated entirely to earlier, large-scale works by Lili Boulanger. Her Vieille prière bouddhique – which sets a French translation of an ancient Buddhist text – gave Way the perfect platform from which to showcase his silky upper-register. An undoubted Debussian influence can be heard in Boulanger’s florid orchestration and flagrant use of modal, whole-tone and octatonic melodies (a middle-section flute solo could have been copied straight out of the score to Prélude à l'aprés-midi d'un faune).
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