Dover Quartet Excites in Unusual Program

Dover String Quartet
Hannaford Hall, USM-Portland
Dec. 6, 2018
by Christopher Hyde

Portland Ovations has done it again; brought one of the most exciting new string quartets in the country to Hannaford Hall. Word must be getting around because the intimate venue was considerably more crowded than usual for a brilliantly played program by the Dover String Quartet Thursday night.

I was late and programless for the opening bars and couldn’t quite figure out what I was hearing, as delightful as it was. Janacek? Borodin? Smetana? It was certainly Slavic, melodic in a terse sort of way, without lengthy song lines, yet highly rhythmic, full of violent emotional ups and downs. And very, very long, as if the composer couldn’t figure out how to end it, or didn’t want to.

It was, of course, the Tchaikovsky String Quartet No. 3 in E-flat Minor (Op. 30), a work that seems more advanced musically than the late Romanticism characteristic of that composer. As played by the Dover, it appeared to be an unfairly neglected masterpiece, not only overshadowed by Tchaikovsky’s symphonic works, but also so technically difficult that it is not often programmed.

The Dover Quartet seems capable of mastering anything it essays, with perfect balance, precise enunciation and excitement explosively contained. But then, they’re all Curtis graduates (I’m a prejudiced Philadelphia native), while the spectacular violist, Milena Pajaro-van de Stadt, is also an alumna of the Bowdoin International Music Festival. She plays the viola like a tenor version of the first violin, and the result is a new feel in well-known compositions, such as the Dvorak Quartet in A-flat Major, Opus 105, that ended the concert.

The second work on the program was a quirky yet strangely moving musical essay by Mason Bates (b. 1977) called “From Amber Frozen,” which seems to depict the process of emerging from petrified tree sap, which sometimes imprisons insects from a few million years ago. Random notes eventually coalesce into a harmonious whole which then proceeds to disintegrate again like an exploding clock, drawing a few laughs from the audience. It was played ferociously, melodically and with the perfect timing of a good stand-up comedian.

The quartet also had something new to say in its version of an old favorite, Dvorak’s last string quartet, written after he had returned to Prague from his sojourn in America. It is closer to “absolute” music than any of his earlier works in the medium, and contains no recognizable Americanisms nor much Bohemian folk influence,except for the Furiant-like second movement.

The Dover shifted the balance of the piece slightly toward the lower register, which only improved it. I’d like to hear them play Brahms. In the final rousing presto, the viola and cello not only kept up the pace but seemed to be egging things on, resulting in a long, well-deserved standing ovation.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at classbeat@netscape.net.

Portland String Quartet Shines in Bartok

Portland String Quartet
Woodfords Congregational Church
Dec. 2, 2018
by Christopher Hyde

As played Sunday afternoon at Woodfords Congregational Church by the Portland String Quartet, the early Bartok String Quartet No. 1, Opus 7 (1909), was a perfect introduction to that composer’s chamber works—easy to follow, atmospheric, profound and even humorous.

The quartet, with new cellist Andrew Mark, sounded like it must have 50 years ago when it was pioneering the work of American composers such as Walter Piston.

The PSQ sometimes has trouble jumping into the pool, for want of a better simile—easing into the music rather than proclaiming a bold beginning.

That was certainly not the case with the Bartok, which opens with an ethereal violin canon that presents the germ of almost everything that is to come. The minor sixths and seconds are not only pure Bartok, but lend themselves to incredible transformations.

Transformations, that, like Beethoven’s, seem inevitable once they have sounded, beginning as a song of the dawn and ending with raucous fun in a schoolyard. One can hear the taunting children running away as the headmaster’s steps approach. The section is billed as an Hungarian folk dance but it seems a little more like “the rat gets the cheese” or one of the incomprehensibly droll folksongs at the end of “Mikrokosmos.”

This section is in stark corniest to the Romanic intensity of the first movement and the elegance of the allegretto. One critic has called the opening Lento a “projection of the horrors of existence”—it marks a suicidal moment caused by an unfortunate love affair— but that seems as inaudible to a modern ear as the terrors of the Verdi “Requiem.”

The program to me seems like a day at school, beginning with a walk to the schoolhouse through woods and fields, a lesson in fugue while ogling a pretty girl,  and recess; or an illustration of Paul Klee’s theory of the connection between art and music. One is supposed to hear Wagner, Max Reger and Richard Strauss in it, not to mention Debussy, but it is the first of his work to be all Bartok, through and through.

It was followed by the Mozart String Quartet in A Major (K.464), which spotlighted cellist Mark in the drum-like passages that give the quartet its nickname.

After intermission came the great Brahms String Quartet in A Minor, Opus 51, No. 2, which also has a fine cello part. It was marred a little by a too-fast allegro in the Minuet, which made it sound like Mendelssohn in “A Midsummer Night;s Dream.” Like the Bartok, the Brahms quartet concentrates nodes of harmony, like the sun shining through clouds. They need to be emphasized somehow, perhaps with a resonance that exceeds what is available in a well-tempered piano chord. It should be possible with a string quartet, but I have never heard it.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal, He can be reached at classbeat@netscape.net.

A Tribute to the North Woods

Premiere of “The Allagash Suite”
Augusta Symphony Orchestra
South Parish Congregational Church, Augusta
Nov. 17, 2018
by Christopher Hyde

I haven’t paddled the Allagash Wilderness Waterway—I prefer the less strenuous St. John, a few miles west—but when I heard that Nate Saunders (b. 1960), a Maine guide, mechanical engineer and second violinist with the Augusta Symphony Orchestra, had written an orchestral suite describing such a descent, I had to hear it.

The Saunders work was given its world premiere on Saturday at South Parish Congregational Church by the Augusta Symphony Orchestra under Paul Ross. It will be played again at L.L. Bean’s in Freeport on Dec. 16.

While it is not Beethoven’s Sixth (What is?), it was unfailingly entertaining, descriptive, and well written in a traditional tonal style. It made me wonder why the Maine Woods has not inspired more musical tributes. It has its own distinctive soundscape.

The Suite’s degree of musical sophistication and innovative orchestration, for example a wet shoestring on a coffee can to capture the bellowing of a moose, or a charming male-female interchange between oboe and clarinet, are impressive for anyone and quite incredible for a non-professional musician. Saunders once contemplated a career in violin making, but turned to engineering as a more supportable vocation.

(Concerning amateur vs. professional, I like to quote Schopenhauer to the effect that we deride one who practices an art for love and praise those who do it for money.)

The program begins with a tonal description, complete with the cry of the loon, of the 50 miles of lake-like river that begin the trip, comparing early morning calm to the typical afternoon’s wind and waves. There is a rollicking dance-like interlude involving a visit to the logging locomotives buried in the woods nearby, and a dream of their coming to life. Plus a flinger-snapping, toe-tapping rainstorm (in the orchestra) that is quite effective.

“Campfire Lullaby” is characterized by a romantic melody and the aforementioned duet between clarinet and oboe.

“Chase Rips/Umsaskis Meadows” depicts the trip’s major rapids and the moose-haunted meadows that follow them. The river becomes more defined and majestic in the next two movements, culminating in a musical descent of Allagash Falls (which has to be portaged in the real world)) and the snap of a broken paddle. The suite ends further down the river, in “A Quiet Peace.”

Saunders’ use of the French horn leads me to believe that he is an admirer of Brahms, whose repeated four-tone descending theme, from the early Piano Sonata No. 3 in F Minor, appears in the Allagash River section, with a different resolution. An intentional reference or not —themes lurk in our minds forever—it is a lovely touch.

If I had any suggestion about improving the flow of the work, it would be perhaps to eliminate the verbal preludes and let the musical descriptions speak for themselves,  with a short hint in the program. Everyone has to find his own way through the rapids.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lies in Pownal, He can be reached at classbeat@netscape.net.

A Study in Contrasts

Portland Symphony Orchestra
Merrill Auditorium
Nov. 13, 2018
by Christopher Hyde

Tuesday night’s concert of the Portland Symphony Orchestra, under guest conductor Jeffrey Kahane, was a study in contrasts—two great works in the Western classical tradition but diametrically opposed in mood, scope, dynamics and content.

Mozart is said to have burst into tears when hearing a trumpet as a child. One wonders what he would have thought of the brutal orchestration of the Shostakovich Symphony No. 10 in E Minor (Opus 93). Would he have joined in the standing ovation from a capacity crowd at Merrill Auditorium?

Kahane’s performance of the Mozart Concerto No. 17 in G Major, for Piano and Orchestra, which he conducted from the piano, was uncanny in its realization of the composer’s intent

I asked Matt Guggenheim, the Steinway technical affiliate for Maine, if Kahane had requested a tuning more similar to that of pianos in Mozart’s time. He did not—the tuning is standard for PSO concerts—but the placement of the piano, keyboard toward the audience and strings pointed upstage, coupled with the removal of the lid, gave it an entirely different sound, in addition to enabling Kahane, like Mozart, to conduct effectively, both sitting and standing, from the piano bench.

“Effectively” is not a strong enough word. Every single note, pause and change ini dynamics contributed to a supremely musical and balanced whole, without a scintilla of empty virtuosity. Even the cadenzas, those icons of showmanship, contributed to the sense of unity.

The tempo was fast, yes, but one felt that Mozart would have played it exactly the same way. For anyone familiar with this concerto, it was a peak experience, unequaled by any recording.

Neither could a recording do justice to the monumental 10th. Shostakovich opens the floodgates to the torrent of emotions he experienced on the death of his nemesis, Stalin. One can imagine him echoing the sentiments of another artist confronting powerful critics: “Just outlive the bastards.”

The Stalin-Shostakovich conflict was a matter of life and death rather than mere name calling, and the long opening movement of the symphony is a threnody to the deaths of millions under the dictator’s reign. The shorter second movement is a sustained hiss at evil and totalitarianism. The message is that buffoons in power can also be dangerous.

The scherzo of the third movement is jubilant, and introduces a theme based on the letters of the composer’s name. Here his satyrical waltz motifs, relieved of their double meanings, sound almost Straussian.

Finally, in the Andante-Allegro, Shostakovich goes around shouting his name at the top of his voice, like an ADD schoolboy at recess. He finally comes to his senses, realizing new possibilities, but ends with a final ferocious nailing of the name theme by the timpani.  All it needs is a holly stake.

The audience rewarded a tremendous performance with a long standing ovation, while Kahane went around the stage, congratulating individual orchestra members, from piccolo to percussion, all of whom had given more than heir best.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal, He can be reached at classbeat@netscape.net.

An Authentic Monteverdi “Vespers”

Monteverdi “Vespers”
St. John the Bapist Church, Brunswick
Nov. 11, 2018
by Christopher Hyde

Emily Isaacson, artistic director of the Oratorio Chorale, is attracting quite a following. On Sunday afternoon, the huge parking lot of St. John the Baptist Church in Brunswick was completely full, and its cavernous interior also. It was the largest audience I have seen for Renaissance music in Maine, and Claudio Monteverdi’s Vespers of the Blessed Virgin (1610) is not exactly a crowd pleaser.

The crowd thinned out a bit after intermission, as some amateur concert-goers realized what they had gotten themselves in for. A complete performance of the Vespers is akin to those Romantic concerts that included three symphonies and a concerto.

As a music critic I have heard such a large number of masses that I have no fear of purgatory. This one was among the best performed, by soloists Molly Quinn, soprano, Virginia Warnken,, mezzo-soprano, tenors Jason McStoot and Lawrence Jones, and baritones Eric Christopher Perry and Sumner Thompson, with a large consort of period instruments led by violinist Scott Metcalfe.

The 67-voice Chorale itself was front and center, with some sections calling for the full ensemble and others smaller groups, which were marched around with appropriate military precision. (The performance was on Veterans Day.)

I’m sure that Isaacson has beaten the bushes for basses, but regrettably as usual, the bass section was not as strong as it should have been. In one section of the final Magnificat, it was up to the low brass section to inspire a proper fear of the Lord.

This may have been due to the music itself, however, in an era when the heroic was represented by a tenor, or counter-tenor.
Monteverdi’s innovations— combinations of secular and liturgical music, wreaths of polyphony around a sustained plain chant, psychological and physical states portrayed in music—were emphasized, but some of the simpler combinations were most effective, such as he use of the soprano voice as an instrument in the Sonata on Holy Mary, which began the second half of the concert, or the delightful recorder parts in the following Hymn to the Star of the Sea (Go Maine!).

The soloists were best in plain melodies as compared to the heavily ornamented passages, which sounded a bit like Handel, but written out. Tremendously difficult vocally but adding little to the beauty of the score.

Since we’re not living in Pakistan, I’m going to commit blasphemy and suggest that the Vespers be shortened considerably, perhaps by half, either by eliminating some verses and repetitions or omitting some complete sections that don’t seem to fit a theme. Isaacson may have already done some pruning —some regard the Vespers as a miscellany, as she points out in the program notes. If so, more is needed.

I’ll end this with a disclaimer. As a former choir boy and soprano soloist, the worrying of a line in the Mass, repeating it ad infinitum, drives me completely up the wall. As we used to say to the born-again, once is enough. Get on with it.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal.  He can be reached a classbeat@netscape.net.

Early Music Festival Enlightens and Entertains

Early Music Festival
Portland Conservatory of Music
Oct. 28, 2018
by Christopher Hyde

The final concert of the 7th Annual Early Music Festival at the Portland Conservatory of Music, Sunday afternoon at the Woodfords Congregational Church, was devoted to Chamber Trios of the 18th and 19th Centuries, performed by Lydia Forbes, violin, Myles Jordan, violoncello piccolo, and Timothy Burris, the festival’s founder,  on lute and guitar.

The festival is always a combination of education and entertainment. The revelation in this case was the popularity of small chamber ensembles in the 19th century, centered around the guitar. Everyone is familiar with the piano transcriptions of operas and orchestral music that brought the latest compositions into middle-class parlors, but there was an equally flourishing market for  guitar-based works.

A strange example was the Grand Trio Extract de Mozart of Pierre Jean Porro (1750-1831). It consisted of an arrangement of the trio and minuetto from the Mozart Violin Sonata No. 21 in E Minor, K. 304.

The transcription, for guitar, violin and cello, was innovative and charming, but why not just play the original? The answer seems to have been portability. Porro was a military type, retiring with the rank of lieutenant colonel, and it is unlikely that he took a piano with him into the field. Also, pianos were not quite as ubiquitous (and cheap) as they later became, and many households were without one, whereas a guitar could be found almost anywhere. (La plus change…?)

Of course transcriptions were not the only musical forms available to a guitar-based trio, and some delightful examples were offered, by Antonio Vivaldi and Francois de Fossa (1775-1849). The lute part of the Vivaldi Trio in G Minor, (RV85) was particularly striking, with an uncanny ability to imitate even the brass sections of an orchestra. And loud. It made me think of another instrument not usually associated with trumpet calls: “The wedding guest here beat his breast for he heard the loud bassoon.” (“The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner.”)

Burris, on guitar, played a delicate but lively suite from an earlier era: three dances rom “Livre de Pieces Pour la Guittarre dedié au Roy,” by Robert de Visée, (ca 1655-1732.)

The program began and ended with J.S.Bach. Forbes and Jordan opened with four two-part canons from “The Art of the Fugue,” —well-played, profound and, as Jordan pointed out, “not at all flashy.” I sometimes wonder if Bach’s magnum opus, which he was working on until his death in 1750, was intended for public performance at all.

My opinion was bolstered by the final work on the program, the Bach Sonata in G (BWV 1021), which was everything the cannons were not—short, concise, brilliant and obviously written to entertain, something old Johann knew how to do very well.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at classbeat@netscape.net.

An Outstanding Symphonie Fantastique by the Midcoast

Midcoast Symphony Orchestra
Franco Center, Lewiston
Oct. 20, 2018
by Christopher Hyde

Hector Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique is one of the longest and most difficult works in the orchestral repertoire, and also one of the most exciting. Last night’s performance by the Midcoast Symphony Orchestra under Rohan Smith, was one of the best I have heard, and more dramatic than most.

The performance will be repeated this afternoon at the Orion Center for the Performing Arts in Topsham, and should not be missed. Live performances are few and far between, due to lack of resources, and the piece probably will not be scheduled next time you visit New York or Vienna, if you want to hear a comparable rendition.

Smith went for broke in evoking contrasts between movements and within them, reflecting the mercurial Romantic moods of the composer. He unified the structure by emphasis on the recurring “beloved” theme. The glorious waltz of the second movement, for example, almost degenerates, presaging what Ravel did with the form many years later.

The dialog between oboes —the English horn is a large oboe— in the third movement, set in the bucolic countryside, was perfection, with the horn soloist located about halfway up the incline of the Franco Center,  providing a sense of open space. The movement itself, suspended between delight and horror, is the essential interlude.

The final witches’ sabbath, following the famous scene in which the hero, having murdered his inamorata, imagines his affair with the guillotine, is one of the most colorful and imaginative in music. It has everything, from a supernatural flight of locusts, sul legno, (played with the wood of the violin bow), to the world’s most terrifying “Dies Irae” on the low brass.

Every section of the orchestra played admirably, but the percussion often took center stage, including the loudest drum roll I have ever heard.

Part of that effect was due to the addition of mallet percussionist Nathaniel Hackworth, to the battery.

Hackworth, from Presque Isle, is the winner of the MIdcoast’s first Judith Elser Concerto Competition, and just before intermission played the Concerto for Marimba and Vibraphone, Op. 27 of Darius Milhaud (1892-1974). The concerto, which Hackworth played brilliantly, sensitively supported by the orchestra, is jazzy and colorful, full of musical in-jokes. One passage, for example, is lifted verbatim from Stravinsky’s piano transcription of “Petrouschka,” where, for a few measures, the piano does sound very much like a marimba.

The orchestra warmed up with the delightful Prelude and Mazurka from “Coppélia” by Leo Délibes (1815-1910), which first got me interested in ballet many years ago. It immediately conjures up grande jetés by Nureyev.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at classbeat@netscape.net.

A Spectacular American Debut for Ukrainian Organist

Elena Udras, Organist
Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul, Lewiston
Oct. 4, 2018
by Christopher Hyde

You haven’t lived musically until you have heard “The Great Gate of Kiev,” from Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition,” played on a world-class pipe organ. One is immersed in a sea of sound surpassing that of a full orchestra.

Such was the case Thursday night at Lewiston’s Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul as Ukranian organist Elena Udras made her American debut.

Well-known in Europe, Udras is also an accomplished transcriber and composer for organ. Her “Song of a Dolphin,” as played on Thursday, is a tour-de-force of watery imagery that should have been the theme song of TV’s late lamented “Flipper.”

The famed 1938 Casavant organ in the Basilica is a treasure, now being restored, helped by donations at concerts during the Spring and Summer. Under Udras’ capable hands (and feet) it did not seem in need of much help. She calls it “an inspiration.”

The program began with religious works by Ukrainian and Russian composers who deserve to be better known in this country. Their settings of a Sanctus Dei and Ave Maria compare favorably to those of composers in the Western tradition.

More “modern” sounding were two fine symphonic fugues by Igor Asseive (1921-1996). and “Carpathian Meditations” by Valeri Kikta (b. 1941), which had a true regional flavor, somewhere between Bartok and Borodin.

They were followed by a lugubrious Passacaglia by Shostakovich, based on themes from his opera “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk,” highly unusual in its use of a low bass stop as the primary voice.

Like that of the Great Gate of Kiev, Udras’ transcription of the famous Rachmaninoff Prelude ini C-sharp Minor made it seem to have been written specifically for the organ, giving its sonorous bell-like chords their full value.

The following “Waltz of the Flowers,” from Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker,” was ponderous, like the dance of an elephant, perhaps indicating that new electronics might make the Casavant capable of a little more rapid response. It was, however, quite elegant in its own way.

Speaking of rapid response, a Toccata by Vladimir Nazarov (b. 1952) was a fantastic (and ferocious) sequel to the great Bach Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, adding more and more voices and themes to the first familiar bars until the edifice was just of the verge of collapse—and rescued in the nick of time. So spectacular that it should be looked at for next year’s concert series by the Bach Virtuosi in Portland.

The program concluded with a sentimental “When Blue Mountains Sleep,” by Anatol Kos-Anatolsky. and long applause from the audience standing and turning to face the organ loft.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal, He can be reached at classbeeat@netscape.net.

The PSO and the Power of Suggestion

Portland Symphony Orchestra
Merrill Auditorium
Sept 30, 2018
By Christopher Hyde

As we approached Merrill Auditorium Sunday afternoon for the-season- opening concert of the Portland Symphony Orchestra, we noticed a long line snaking around the corner and almost a block up Congress Street. The matinees are well attended, but this was unheard of. We learned later that the first arrivals had used only one of the three doors and that those coming later assumed incorrectly that it was the only one open . Hence the traffic back-up.

It was an eye-opening introduction to the power of suggestion, affirmed during the concert by guest conductor Jeffrey Kahane’s monumental interpretation of Tchaikovsky’s opera-for-orchestra “Francesca da Rimini” (Opus 32).

The music is supposed to depict a descent into Dante’s Inferno by two illici lovers, with a romantic interlude describing their passion—so it is said—in highly graphic terms, rather like Wagner’s Liebestod from “Tristan und Isolde.”

Suppose, however, that one was unfamiliar with the plot of “Francesca da Rimini” and was hearing the music for the first time. It would seem like two gigantic sea interludes by Rimsky Korsakov or a scene from “Peter Grimes” or “The Flying Dutchman,” interrupted by a peaceful on-shore stroll accompanied by clarinet solos.

One can feel the tremendous power of the wind and waves as the storm approaches, thrill to the strain of the sail on the creaking foremast, hear the canons in a sea battle, and sympathize with the ship going down in a whirlpool. In other words, one could write an entirely different scenario, equally convincing, based on the music alone. It is words and their power of suggestion that turn it into a tragic love fest. Or maybe Tchaikovsky suffered from sea sickness, and that was his vision of Hell.

Something to think about next time one hears program music, but it did seem like a fine tribute to the Maine coast from a guest to our state.

The stage was set for the opera by one of Tchaikovski’s most lush works for string orchestra, the Èlégie from the Serenade for Strings (Opus 48).

During the first half of the concert one felt a bit sorry for Amadeus, his “Prague” Symphony No. 38 in D Major, K. 504, relegated to a rather low-key opener for an extremely flashy and well played Concerto for Flute and Orchestra, Opus 39, by Lowell Liebermann (b.1961).

Kahane, who is also a concert pianist, balanced the solo part, played by PSO Principal Lisa Hennessy, almost magically, accentuating all of the sections in which the composer demonstrates the virtuosity of James Galway–equalled by Hennessey in this rendition. The work itself, in a Stravinski-like style, without much dissonance, falls just short of greatness. Its combinations of voices are unique in the literature—muted trumpets and flute, piano-like sounds made by bouncing the bow on the strings, a woodwind ensemble that chirped like a nest full of songbirds—there was something new around every corner.

Like the concluding “Francesca,” it drew an enthusiastic standing ovation from the capacity audience.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at classsbeat@netscape.net.

Brahms and Schumann at the Franco Center

Pianist George Lopez
Franco Center Piano SeriesSept. 28, 2018
by Christopher Hyde

The Franco Center Piano series opened its 13th season with a recital Friday night by George Lopez, Beckwith Artist in Residence at Bowdoin College. HIs program, consisting of early works by Robert and Clara Schumann and Johannes Brahms, duplicated a performance earlier this week at Studzinski Recital Hall.

Lopez used an electronic score, which projects the notes on a screen in any desired size and eliminates that need for a page turner (if one is not playing from memory, an accomplishment popularized by Franz Liszt). I don’t know why the device is not seen more often; noted Maine pianist Martin Perry uses one, but it is not traditional, and it can be distracting to the audience. Witness a string quartet a while ago that sported four flashing green screens in a darkened room. Lopez’s was more subtle, almost like a paper score on the Steinway’s music stand.

The program began with “Quatre pièces fugitives,” Opus 15 of Clara Schumann—highly Romanic sketches that could have been written by her husband if he were not a genius. They were, however, thoroughly delightful and played lovingly, not as an academic exercise.

The surprising thing about them was their virtuosity, especially in the final Scherzo. They are not for amateurs, male or female. Clara was a famous concert pianist who supported her large family through appearances throughout Europe. The early works in question might have been written as display pieces.

As Lopez pointed out, the young Brahms appeared on the Schumanns’ doorstep with a gigantic fugue just when they were studying that musical form. It was the finale of his Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Handel (Opus 24) and, although a youthful creation, one of the Romantic period’s towering masterpieces.

Lopez introduced the work with Handel’s original theme plus that composer’s own five variations on it. The contrast in styles highlighted Brahms’ harmonic and rhythmic daring. Although some of the variations seem light years distant from the theme, a recognizable element always remains. The listener never gets lost, at least in Lopez’s interpretation. On the negative side, I would have preferred a slower, more majestic tempo and an emphasis on Brahms’ characteristic bass lines.

The Schumann “Carnaval,” Opus 9, which followed intermission, was also up-tempo, fitting the mercurial nature of the character sketches, all of which were effectively (and brilliantly) portrayed. I have always loved the musical portrait of Chopin, about whom Schumann is said to have exclaimed: Hats off, Gentlemen, a genius.”

Lopez played the “Sphinxes,” A.S.C.H. S.C.H.A., the four notes (in German letters) upon which everything in “Carnaval” is somehow based. They are usually omitted in concert performances, but hearing the sequences helps solve the riddles of at least some of the 21 compositions. The evening ended with a rousing version of the “Marche des Davidsbundler contre les Philistins,” Brahms being one of David’s brotherhood, with Liszt and Wagner as the Philistines.

The next concert in the series will be on Dec. 21, with Diane Walsh. Save the date. This is one not to be missed.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at classbeat@netscape.net.

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