Claude Debussy's songs, while not huge in number, are nevertheless among the most significant and musically stunning additions to the French art song repertoire from the turn of the last century.
Among this collection is the "Trois Chansons des Bilitis." Published in 1897, the songs are based on three poems from Pierre Louÿs' book of prose "Chansons des Bilitis." Louÿs claimed these were translations of poetry by the ancient Greek courtesan Bilitis, a contemporary of Sappho. In truth, however, these were poems that Louÿs himself had written. But they were so cleverly and convincingly constructed that even scholars of the time believed them to be genuine.
Debussy, who was a good friend of Louÿs, was captivated by the poems and set three of them to music: "La Flute de Pan," "La Chevelure" and "Le Tombeau des Naïdes," all of which brilliantly capture the sensuality and the hedonism expressed in the words.
The "Trois Chansons de Bilitis" will receive a rare local performance Monday, part of this summer's Intermezzo Chamber Music Series. Singing will be mezzo-soprano Kirsten Gunlogson accompanied by pianist Kimi Kawashima. Also on the rather eclectic program will be music by György Ligeti, Christopher Theofanidis and Carl Nielsen.
" ('Trois Chansons de Bilitis') is an amazing work," Gunlogson told the Deseret News. "The poetry is fantastic, and the way Debussy sets it is fabulous."
Monday's concert will be the first time Gunlogson will sing the work, and she and Kawashima have had a great time working on it. "We're sinking deeply into them, and it's amazing how the texture and the mood transport you to someplace else."
The three songs aren't particularly challenging for the singer, Gunlogson said. "They're not taxing on the voice. But what makes them hard is how you communicate them to your audience. The colors and textures are rich and the songs are extremely sensual and fantastical, and you need to be able to convey that to your listeners. The songs paint an incredible picture."
When the Deseret News spoke with Gunlogson she was in Austin, Texas, at the International Clarinet Association conference, where she was going to perform. That and the upcoming Intermezzo concert are just a couple of things that have kept the Alaska native fairly active this summer. "Actually, this summer has been a bit lighter than usual, which is nice, especially since the year was so busy. This gives me a chance to catch up."
Gunlogson tries to find a good balance between operas and recitals. But until she joined the University of Utah faculty four years ago, that had been nearly impossible to achieve. "Until I came to the University of Utah, my schedule was predominantly filled with opera and I missed singing chamber music and doing recitals. But since I've been here I've been so lucky. I can do opera and also collaborate with other artists in concerts like this one."
Next season, Gunlogson will appear as Cherubino in Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's "The Marriage of Figaro" with Opera Columbus and Nashville Opera.
One of the big highlights of her career so far was being nominated for a 2010 Grammy in the best classical album category. That was for Maurice Ravel's one-act opera "L'enfant et les sortilèges" with the Nashville Symphony and conductor Alastair Willis. The album didn't win, but Gunlogson was thrilled with being nominated. "It was a great honor and a wonderful experience, and I was lucky to be a part of it all."
If you go ...
What: Intermezzo Chamber Music Series
Where: Vieve Gore Concert Hall, Westminster College
When: 7:30 p.m., Aug. 2
How much: $15 general admission, $12 senior citizens