CAMBRIDGE - In an unlikely historical intersection, American classical music was indelibly shaped by a diminutive Frenchwoman: Many a 20th-century American composer took an expatriate's working holiday to study with the legendary Nadia Boulanger. On Saturday, the Longy School of Music, continuing its free "SeptemberFest" series (which concludes this weekend), featured some of Boulanger's more famous pupils, striving to invent an American sound.
Aaron Copland was one of the first pilgrims. Soprano Karyl Ryczek, accompanied by Brian Moll, brought committed clarity to a pair of his songs revealing Boulanger's influence. "Pastorale," predating Copland's French lessons, was languid with lush harmonies; by comparison, "There came a wind like a bugle," from Copland's 1950 Emily Dickinson cycle, coursed with steely efficiency.
Virgil Thomson's "Mostly About Love" (performed here by Nancy Armstrong, accompanied by Longy dean Wayman Chin) surrounds poet Kenneth Koch's absurdities with triadic cheer, parlor-song melodies wandering into dotty, effusive tangents. Marc Blitzstein gravitated toward popular song: his e.e. cummings setting "Open Your Heart" (sung by Elizabeth Anker, with Moll) marries Broadway turns of phrase to the finely-crafted "grand line" Boulanger extolled. Three songs by one-time Longy faculty member Theodore Chanler (given a nostalgic cast by Jayne West and Chin) went in both directions - the Shakespearean "O, Mistress Mine" and the haunting "Memory" enrich Thomson's diatonic simplicity; the comic "Dr. Livermore" detours down Tin Pan Alley.
The concert's main focus was the nigh-centenarian Elliott Carter. His 1945 Emily Dickinson madrigal "Musicians Wrestle Everywhere" (operatically rendered by Ryczek, Anker, Rachael Chagat, Brendan Daly, and Robert Honeysucker) has a dash of jazz, but syncopations are subsumed into the intricate activity. Similarly, in Carter's ingenious 1939 "Canonic Suite," the sound of a saxophone quartet (Kenneth Radnofsky and students Dennis Shafer, Tsuyoshi Honjo, and Gordon Gest, in elegant form) evoked Paris rather than Harlem. Carter's 1940 "Pastorale" is more explicitly jazzy, a hortus-in-urbe Coplandesque landscape spiked with dry, offhand dance rhythms; Robert Sheena's velvety English horn played off Chin's bell-like piano.
But Carter's "Warble for Lilac-Time," a 1943 Whitman setting performed by Ryczek and Moll, strains at the limits of oracular populism. Carter would strike out in a new direction in his monumental 1945/46 Piano Sonata; Randall Hodgkinson's majestic, Herculean performance emphasized the music's stream-of-consciousness quality, Carter feeling his way into the postwar American psyche. The program's chronological outlier, Carter's 1985 "esprit rude/esprit doux," flutist Vanessa Mulvey and clarinetist Michelle Shoemaker deploying loquacious, coruscating lines with energy and grit, completed the new vision: an America of aggregate individualism, of multiplicity and motion.