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Alexis Tantau Performs Reynaldo Hahn’s Art Songs at An die Musik’s Sunday Salon, May 22

May 20, 2011

Alexis Tantau

On a balmy Baltimore night in May, the cream of local salon society crowded around Paul Cassedy’s table for another great night of what he calls “dinner and music.” It’s no mean feat for a Baltimore rowhouse.

Cassedy introduced Alexis Tantau, the night’s singer, and her piano accompanist, Elizabeth Brown. He toasted them with a comment about their earlier Valentine’s Day performance of Reynaldo Hahn songs: “More people need to hear this than can fit into my home.”

Consider that an invitation. On Sunday May 22 at 3 p.m., have an intimate “salon” experience at An Die Musik. Cassedy teams up with Henry Wong to reprise the songs of Caracas-born French composer Reynaldo Hahn–some of the most romantic music ever written.

Prepare to be wooed by mezzo-soprano Tantau, whose command of French allows her to be by turns coy, soulful, and profound. Brown and Tantau offer exactly what pianist and singer Hahn would demand: L’heure exquise.

Cassedy selected this art-song repertoire for his Valentine’s celebration for Tantau, who wondered if she’d have the chance to sing the program more than once. She’s already performed it two more times, including for Holocaust survivors in Park Heights.

Art-song, or mélodie, dates back to the time of troubadours. Tantou thinks of them as “miniatures.” Unlike opera’s long, drawn-out battle of arias, art-song delivers its emotional payoff in bursts of minutes. Plus, the text that’s set is far smarter, written by bone fide poets. You probably know some of the names: Victor Hugo and stormy lovers Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud. The accompanying pianist sets the tone by painting sound images of wind through fields, rain on a roof, or fish teeming in the Loire valley stream. Other times the pianist contrasts the singer’s soaring lines for heightened drama, capturing the twists and tensions of a love affair.

Cassedy thinks of art song as a diamond. “All the best poets known to man are condensed like diamonds into a tight structure,” he said during his May salon. “And the musician goes even farther to concentrate the glory of each instantaneous moment.”

Art-song is a fleeting pleasure, like the fists of lilies bursting in a vase on the piano in Cassedy’s front room. That’s where Tantau and Brown offered a preview of two songs: “Offrande” or “Present” and “Le Rossignol des Lilas” or “The Nightingale Among the Lilac.”

The polish of the performance filled the room with sparkle and charm that promises to expand into An die Musik’s second-floor concert room. But not all songs will be laughs or love. Case in point: Hahn’s setting of Verlaine’s “D’une Prison”–“From Prison.”

What was Verlaine doing in prison? Well, he’d shot his young lover, Rimbaud, in 1873 in a drunken fit, earning a jail sentence of 18 months. During that time he studied Shakespeare and Cervantes, renounced his former wastrel youth, and turned to the Catholic faith. Indeed, Tantau’s rendition condenses this agony into a bright diamond of stunning truth.

Hahn’s world, then, wasn’t all flowers and sighs. Proud Napoleonic princesses and celebrated courtesans competed to bring the best painters, poets, journalists, and musicians to the dinner tables and drawing rooms of their salons. Hahn, a hot commodity, made his pianist’s debut at age 12 at the salon of Napoleon’s niece, Mathilde.

Smart salon-goers, like literary colossus Marcel Proust, could find a free dinner every night of the week in Paris. You could find Proust in Madame Lemaire’s lilac garden for her Tuesday salon in May. Then he’d be at Princesse Mathilde’s Wednesday salon. But sometimes he’d have to choose. Marguerite de Saint-Marceaux had composers like Faure, Ravel, Satie, and Stravinsky also play on Wednesdays.

Proust feasted on those around him for stories–or he seduced the guests. He met young Hahn at Madame Lemaire’s. Long before Remembrance of Things Past, Proust dedicated his first short story to Hahn: “Poet, Singer, and Musician.”

Thus began a two-year romance. Many years later, in a 1903 Figaro feature, Proust betrays undiminished admiration for Hahn. To set the scene, Hahn plays his own work at Madame Lemaire’s piano. Proust writes:

“With his head slightly thrown back, his melancholy mouth slightly disdainful, letting escape the rhythmical waves of the most beautiful, the most passionate voice that ever existed, this ‘instrument of musical genius’ who is Reynaldo Hahn grips every heart, moistens every eye . . . makes us tremble as we bow our heads one after another like a silent and solemn undulation of wheat in the wind.”

Tantau surely gives that genius a run for his money. Catch her this week because she’s bound for Languedoc in the south of France to perform and study for a year. With her crystalline talent, there’s a good chance she’ll be away longer. And after the music, prepare to enjoy a selection of aphrodisiac treats in keeping with the romantic decadence of the experience.

Alexis Tantau and Elizabeth Brown perform the songs of Reynaldo Hahn at An die Musik May 22 at 3 p.m. Visit for more information.

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  • Dillon Naylor

     I wish I were in Baltimore!