Aaron Copland, Elliott Carter, Roy Harris, Virgil Thomson, Philip Glass. It's like a roll call of the 20th century's leading American composers. All five had at least one thing in common: At one point in their musical education, each made a beeline to the doorway of Parisian teacher Nadia Boulanger for instruction in the finer points of composition.
They were not alone. Boulanger had many hundreds of pupils in a career that spanned seven decades, developing a reputation as the most influential music teacher of her generation.
Who was Boulanger, and why was she such a great teacher? These are the questions author/musician Mina Fisher sets out to answer with "Nadia," a new play (with live music) that premiered Sunday afternoon at MacPhail Center for Music in Minneapolis. "Nadia" was the opening event of the Bakken Trio's 2017-18 season.
As Nadia, Twin Cities actor Christina Baldwin was onstage almost constantly for an intermission-free 80 minutes. Her Nadia was a proud, elegant, sophisticated creation, wryly intellectual yet cuttingly acerbic when confronted by sloppiness or stupidity.
Affecting a French-tinged accent can be dangerous business for an English-speaking actor. But Baldwin's decision to do so paid dividends in suggesting the exotic spell that Boulanger cast over her American and English pupils.
Director Steven Epp moved Baldwin about the stage with telling economy, emphasizing the cloistered, occasionally claustrophobic world of apartment and rehearsal room. An easy chair, a music lectern and a couple of grand pianos defined these different spaces. And although MacPhail's Antonello Hall is not a fully equipped theater, overhead spots were available to flag upshifts of scene and emotional temperature.
The Bakken Trio, playing music related to the action by Fauré, Bach, Stravinsky and others, joined the action as bit players.
Pianist Michael Kim — with help from a cigar, hat and a particularly nerdy cardigan — morphed neatly into composers Fauré, Pugno and Copland. Cellist Pitnarry Shin cowered behind a Steinway as a timorous piano student, while violinist Stephanie Arado doubled as Nadia's younger sister Lili in moments of domestic music making.
Fisher's script adopted a broadly chronological approach to Boulanger's life, based largely on comments made by Nadia herself (with added insights and biological research). The picture that emerged was full and sympathetic, emphasizing Boulanger's toughness as a woman in a musical world dominated by fusty, frequently misogynistic men.
The best moments came when Nadia described music itself — what it meant to her, how to understand its inner workings. These passages could easily have turned preachy. But Baldwin voiced them lightly, with an air of breezy improvisation, making the audience sense the spell Boulanger cast upon her pupils.
"A musical midwife," Nadia called herself. Fisher's graceful, sensitive play showed how the midwife worked her magic, and shaped the history of 20th-century music.
Terry Blain writes about classical music and theater.