“Duke Bluebeard’s Castle”

“Duke Bluebeard’s Castle”
by Christopher Hyde
Oct. 25, 2016

“Behind every great fortune is a crime.” I used to repeat that quote from Balzac to get a rise out of my friends in New York, who were utterly convinced that great wealth was an outward sign of inner virtue. But that was long ago and in another country, and besides, the wench is dead. Today the quote is a truism, and I thought of it only in connection with the Portland Symphony Orchestra’s production of “Duke Bluebeard’s Castle” on Nov. 1, a daring must-see presentation if there ever was one.

Volumes have been written about the opera, Bartok’s earliest stage work. (The final version was written in 1921.). Like Brahms, he found it difficult to summon up the requisite stupidity. It is most probably an allegory of the artist’s relations with the world, the castle being his mind, and his final wife the public. Bartok was feeling very alone at the time, striking out in new directions that were not very well received, if at all. In a letter to his mother he stated his belief that he would be alone forever.

In the opera, every door that the new wife, Judith, opens, reveals something beautiful but awful—the jewels are stained with blood and the lake is composed of tears. The last chamber, which contains the wraiths of former wives, holds nothing but darkness. The dark secrets behind each door are portrayed by a minor second chord.

Intellectually, the blood represents the pain and struggle of the composer to realize his visions—something he wishes to conceal from his audience, as an artist destroys his preliminary sketches.

There is another reading, however, that also makes sense. Bartok was becoming increasingly alarmed by the rise of fascism in Hungary and wanted to show, on some level, that all of its promises, and the great fortunes of a few, were tainted by blood and tears, and eventually would come to nothing except destruction. As the man, Bluebeard, reveals more and more, the woman, Judith, becomes weaker and weaker, finally vanishing into the darkness, while her husband (in his vocal line) becomes ever stronger.

With its use of folk idiom to portray the tragedy, the opera can also be read as “curiosity killed the cat.” The story of Bluebeard, and woman’s frailty, is as old as the hills.

Bartok’s vision of the castle is dark indeed, but the music, which owes a great deal to Debussy, raises it to the level of Greek tragedy. In this silly season, we could all use a good catharsis.

And there is always the delightful Bach Concerto for Two Violins—also on the program— to remind us that there is still goodness on the earth.

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

Midcoast Shines in Romantic Program

Midcoast Symphony Orchestra
Franco Center, Lewiston
Oct. 22, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

As a hopeless Romantic, I went to the Franco Center Saturday night expecting to hear live performances of three of my favorite works— the “Light Cavalry” Overture, the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 2 and Brahms’ Symphony No.1 in C-minor.

What I was unprepared for was the quality of the performances by the Midcoast Symphony under the direction of Rohan Smith. They would have done credit to any well-known professional orchestra; from an “amateur” ensemble they were little short of miraculous. I urge any music lover who can get there, to attend a repeat of the program at the Orion Center in Topsham today (Oct. 23) at 2:30.

It reminded me of Schopenhauer’s paradox, to the effect that we admire those who practice an art for money and denigrate those who do it for love, calling them “amateurs.”

The von Suppé, which I believe was sometimes played on “The Lone Ranger” in addition to the “William Tell” Overture, is the epitome of a canter cross-country with some light excuse. As the general said of fox hunting; “all the excitement of war and only a quarter of its danger.” It is pure delight, with just the hint of a melancholy center to contrast with the beginning and end.

The overture, of course, is a popular war horse of the repertoire, but difficult to do well at an exciting tempo. The Midcoast’s swash-buckling rendition was well-nigh perfect.

The Rachmaninoff, equally familiar, was equally well played, with Jonathan Bass at the piano tossing off coruscating clouds of notes, matched in brilliance by the orchestra. There was a little tug-of-war about tempo at the beginning, but that only added to a suspenseful performance as the composer, knowingly aided by Smith, teased the audience with hints at the final movement’s “Full Moon and Empty Arms.”

After the Center’s traditional crepes and wine during intermission came the greatest test of any orchestra, a Brahms symphony. In this performance, Smith succeeded in conveying the composer’s debt to Beethoven (and Bach), without compromising the forward thrust of the score.

The symphony is full of pitfalls, from lush orchestration to demanding percussion parts to pizzicati by the full swing section, all of them negotiated without a hitch. What one really worries about, however, are the heavenly horn calls preceding the ode to joy of the final movement. Those of principal Carolyn Kanicki were enough to bring tears to your eyes. The other players in the all-female section are Beth Almquist, Cynthia Harkleroad and Sarah Rodgers.

Brahms may not outdo Beethoven in his own “Ode to Joy,” but he achieves the same triumphant effect without the last resort of composers—the human voice.

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

BalletX Shows the Best of Both Worlds

Merrill Auditorium
Oct. 20, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

BalletX, which came to Merrill Auditorium Thursday under the auspices of Portland Ovations, presented one of the most unusual and satisfying dance programs in recent memory. (Disclaimer: the company originated in Philadelphia, where I was born.)

They had to overcome two prejudices of most balletomanes: combining classical ballet and modern dance, and the use (primarily) of popular rather than classical music. Both objections vanished in the face of the dancers’ enormous talent and energy, and the originality of the choreography.

The music was recorded, which robs the performance of some of the spontaneity made possible by a conductor, but the styles were so individual —from Klezmer to Bach— that it would have been impossible to produce their variety with one orchestra.

If I had to characterize BalletX in one word, it would be “erotic.” But the appeal goes much deeper than that. The poses, lifts and steps, no matter how intricate, elaborate, and athletic, stem from the natural motions of the human body. They are real life raised to a higher power, and the audience can almost feel them.

Some claim that piano playing ability improves when one’s muscles subconsciously imitate those of a pianist on stage. The same thing happens with BalletX. The audience walked more gracefully as they left the theater.

The choreographers, different for each of the four short ballets on the program, know their fine arts. There were instant snapshots of Matisse dancers, Delvaux’s mysterious women, the loneliness of Edward Hopper, and the hieratic poses of Will Barnet. They are also very conscious of the changing patterns of negative space. Multiple hand and arm gestures sometimes unfolded like the petals of a flower under time-lapse photography.

The first ballet, “Slump,” is described as “a wild, aggressive dance about courtship and the instinctual rituals of mating, set to klezmer, jazz and mambo music.” It was all of the above, and more, perfectly matched to the unique mood of klezmer.

My favorite ballet of the night was an elaborate semi-classical pas de deux, by Chloe Felecia and Richard Villaverde, set to Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” It reminded me of the line from Arnold’s “Dover Beach”—“Love, let us be true to one another…” giving each other strength in bad times.

“Gran Partita,” set to classical music by Berg, Mozart, Bach and Monteverdi, replaced “Delicate Balance,” which illustrates pattern in chaos through the use of contemporary music. It also emphasized the company’s skill at setting large unified patterns, like a living kaleidoscope.

The final work on the program, “The Last Glass,” explored the joys and tribulations of everyday street life, among them boy meets girl, boy loses girl, girl loses boy. At least the star-crossed lovers were reunited during many enthusiastic curtain calls.

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

Roman Legions Triumph at First Portland Symphony Concert

Portland Symphony Orchestra
Merrill Auditorium
Oct. 9, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

Until Sunday’s concert of the Portland Symphony Orchestra at Merrill Auditorium, complete with Kotzschmar Organ, I had never realized just how good Ottorino Respighi’s “Pines of Rome” was. It was a shining example, if any were needed, of the absolute necessity of live performance. To think that any substantial percentage of its excitement could be captured electronically is palpably absurd.

Music director Robert Moody pulled out all the stops for this crowd-pleasing conclusion to the first concert of the season—a terrific nightingale recording, off-stage trumpets, reinforced brass and the growl of the afore-mentioned organ. The entire orchestra was on its best behavior in a score that for gorgeousness of orchestral color puts even Rimsky-Korsakov, Respighi’s teacher, to shame.

All four movements of the work were superb examples of musical scene-painting. One could almost feel the warm winds blowing through the pine branches or visualize the ancient Christians chanting in the catacombs, but the final triumphant procession of the Roman legions was sui generis. Compare it to Ravel’s infinitely long crescendo in “Bolero”, the only composition that comes anywhere near to its spectacular climax. It was held to imperceptible gradations in volume by the terrific work of John Tanzer on timpani.

If there are seats left for today’s (Monday, Oct. 10)) performance, it is not to be missed. You will be able to hear it just fine from the nosebleed sections.

The program began with an excellent performance of the Beethoven Symphony No. 4 in B-flat Major (Op. 60), marred somewhat by over-attention to detail and over-blown dynamic contrasts, perhaps resorted to because the piece lacks the inherent appeal of the other eight. The details, however, such as the soaring flute solo in the adagio, posed yet another argument for live performance.

In listening to this seldom-heard symphony, I find it helps to imagine it as aspects of water, beginning with a still lake, eventually ruffled by a breeze. The Fourth doesn’t compel visions, like the Sixth, but the water imagery helps one follow its development.

The most disappointing aspect of the afternoon was a new concerto by Mason Bates (b. 1977), written for cellist Joshua Roman, who performed it as well as could be expected, accompanied by a huge orchestra with no place to go. I believe some of the instruments were used only once in three movements. Their purpose seemed to be the simulation of electronically generated sounds.

In the final movement, a kind of jazzy Irish pub improvisation that goes on forever, without even the consolation of beer, Roman resorted to a guitar pick for some involved pizzicato passages. I guess it’s easier on the fingers.
The audience gave the talented young cellist a standing ovation, but the concerto is the kind of music that would sound better on a CD.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal, He can be reached a clssbeat@nescape.net.

Asakawa Shines in Contemporary Piano Music

Mari Asakawa, Piano
Bates College
Sept. 28, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

Lewiston is becoming the piano music capital of Maine. The Franco Center’s excellent piano series is gaining a wide following and ever since the residency of the late Frank Glazer, Bates College has been showcasing some of the world’s finest talents at Olin Hall. For music lovers on a limited budget, many of the Bates concerts are free and open to the pubic.

Wednesday night’s recital by Mari Asakawa, a world-renowned specialist in contemporary piano music, was one of the most unusual I have attended, except perhaps for the Gamper Festival of Contemporary Music at Bowdoin.

Asakawa began her program with Contrapuncti I, V and VII from Bach’s “The Art of Fugue,” (BWV1080) remarking from the stage that many of the techniques employed by both serial and avant garde composers were already prominent in Bach’s counterpoint..

Her piano interpretations, the first I have heard since Glenn Gould’s, were remarkable in their sharp delineation of voices. Unlike Gould’s, they were played from memory, while the rest of the works on the program were “read” from a score. Asakawa turns her own pages, since I doubt that many page turners could follow the music well enough to be of any assistance.

The Bach was followed by “Eventide” (2016) written specifically for the concert by Hiroya Miura, who was in the audience. The two movements, “In Blue,” and “In Purple,” were in an impressionistic, stream of consciousness style, somewhat reminiscent of Persichetti. One incorporates a quote from the opening guitar solo of “When Doves Cry,” by Prince, who died suddenly at the time that Miura was writing the work.

My favorite of the evening was “Ciaccona” (1998) by Claudio Ambrosini, perhaps because it was easy to follow on first hearing. The theme, modeled on the ancient slow-dance form, is a descending chromatic scale, with treble embellishments that become more and more virtuosic as the dance progresses, reaching the near impossible by the end.

Perhaps serial (twelve-tone) music will catch on eventually, although I doubt that audiences will go home whistling the tunes, as Schoenberg hoped. That thought was prompted by “Post-Partitions” (1966) of Milton Babbitt, so well and carefully constructed that it stands out like a granite monument among ephemera.

A lengthy work by Eliott Carrter, “Night Fantasies,” (1980) concluded the program. As an attempt to capture the thoughts and dreams that dominate the mind late at night, it was unsuccessful, although beautifully played by an artist strongly associated with Carter. There was too little contrast between moments of calm and the lightning flashes of insight, and the dynamics ranged from mezzo-forte to fortissimo.

Strangely enough, Carter was trying to imitate the “poetic moodiness” of certain works by Schumann; like his model, he wound up with too many notes, as if dreading an instant of silence.

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

How Do You Know When to Stand Up? A Short History of the National Anthem

“Whoever plays, sings or renders “The Star Spangled Banner” in any public place, theater, motion picture hall, restaurant or cafe, or at any public entertainment other than as a whole and separate composition or number, without embellishment or addition in the way of national or other melodies, or whoever plays sings or renders “The Star Spangled Banner” or any part thereof as dance music, as an exit march, or as part of a medley of any kind shall be punished by a fine of not more than one hundred dollars.”

I came across this gem of Boston law while reading articles on Stravinsky during the centennial of “The Rite of Spring.” It seems appropriate today with the controversy over an athlete sitting out the Star Spangled Banner because of its racist overtones. (The offending verses are usually removed from the text, as they were in my grade school songbook.)

My first thought was eureka! now we’ve got them, all the singers at baseball and football games who like to show off just how much they can “embellish” the song while still retaining a slight vestige of its original melody. It has gotten to the point where anyone who sings the tune straight is regarded as a novelty. It would be different if the pop artists (and even opera stars) were trying to make it more compelling, but they’re not. Maybe it’s just that they’re trying to disguise wrong or unreachable notes in a difficult composition.

Unfortunately, it seems that there has been only one instance of the ordinance’s application–against Igor Stravinsky on Jan. 15, 1944, about the time I belted out the song from the balcony before a performance of “Oklahoma” in New York. (My father told me that it was on opening night, but that would have been in 1943.)

I mention that incident only to illustrate the unreliability of hindsight, which has perpetuated the myth that Stravinsky was actually arrested, complete with a mug shot (taken of a look-alike criminal four years earlier).

In reality, Stravinsky wrote his arrangement of “The Star Spangled Banner” in token of his appreciation of his adopted country. It includes contrapuntal counter-subjects and a modulation into the subdominant by means of a “blue note”–a passing seventh. (The original version has been recorded.)

After the first performance with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, a concerned citizen phoned the police to complain and they attended the second performance, on the 15th, en masse. Stravinsky, however, had been tipped off and played the work straight. The 14 policemen are said not to have remained for the rest of the concert, which included some of Stravinsky’s latest compositions, including the “Circus Polka.”

Stravinsky’s reaction to the peculiarities of his adopted country has not been recorded. It probably took the form of an extra vodka martini.

The composer’s musical taste, in this instance, leaves something to be desired, since he referred to “The Star Spangled Banner” as “a beautiful sacred anthem.” The tune, of course, is that of a risque British drinking song, “Anacreon in Heaven,” which doesn’t even fit slave-holder Francis Scott Key’s verses very well.

It caught on after 1865, when it was played at the restoration of the flag to Fort Sumter (not Ft. McHenry) and later was taken up by John Philip Sousa, who made it popular. It was named the official anthem of the United States by Congress in 1931, just before Sousa’s death.

A phrase from the anthem,”In God is our trust,” inspired Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase to put “In God We Trust” on the dollar bill during the Civil War.

So next time the Patriots play in Gillette Stadium, I expect a phalanx of Boston’s finest to be present, with copies of the original score and a paddywagon.

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

Surprise at the Portland Chamber Music Festival

Portland Chamber Music Festival
Hannaford Hall, USM Portland
Aug. 20, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

The final concert of the Portland Chamber Music Festival, Saturday night at Hannaford Hall, achieved something unprecedented in musical history—an avant-garde piece of electronic music that was pleasantly bland. Varèse must be turning over in his grave.

The work in question was entitled “Self Destruct,” by Jeremy Flowers (b. 1979) and “was conceived as a companion to stress and failed time management.” (Composer’s notes.)

He continues: “The first movement begins with a germ of an idea sneaking in softly, followed by a rash (sic) of excitement. After a period of crippling self-doubt, the melodic lines in the strings come together to state the fully realized melodic idea that was borne (sic) from the germ at the beginning.

“The second movement is slower, more representative of the moments of serenity one can find in seeming chaos. We return to the initial germ from the first movement heard again over a slowly writhing electronic ostinato. If the first movement’s development of this idea is by brute force, here it’s a much more tender realization.”

The notes state that the piece is in three movements, but the third seems to have disappeared. (Maybe that’s the one that self-destructed.) It is scored for electronics, operated by the composer, viola, two cellos, marimba and piano.

There seemed to be an element of improvisation involved at first, as the composer sampled the timbres of the real instruments and transformed them in various ways, including some interesting reverberation and glass harmonica effects. There was a good common-time rhythmic pulse throughout.

One could follow the construction pretty well, but the final result of the combined forces was a repeated, harmonic and tonal phrase that came dangerously close to elevator pop. It was all pleasant enough, but more perpetual motion than self-destruction. Perhaps it was intended as an antidote to negative feelings. The audience liked it, and gave performers and composer a standing ovation.

The contemporary composition was balanced by two well-played crowd pleasers: the Mozart Piano Quartet No. 2 in E-flat Major (K. 293) and, as a finale, the Dvorak String Sextet in A Major (Op. 48).

It was good to hear Portland’s own Henry Kramer at the piano in the Mozart quartet, which is basically a miniature piano concerto without the overt display. He didn’t have much to do in the Flowers opus, however. The Dvorak was an ideal finish to the season, ending on an upbeat Czech dance that brought cheers from a large audience.

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

Salt Bay Season Ends on a High Note

Salt Bay Chamberfesst
Darrows Barn, Round Top Center, Damariscotta
Aug. 19, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

The Salt Bay Chamberfest ended its 22nd season on a high note Friday night, with three outstanding performances by the Brentano String Quartet, with soloists Thomas Sauer, piano, and Romie de Guise-Langlois, clarinet. As usual for the last several seasons, Darrows Barn, at Damariscotta’s Round Top Center, was filled to overflowing.

It is rare in Maine to be able to compare performances of the same work by different artists during the same season, but such was the case with the String Quartet No. 2 (“Intimate Letters”) by Leoš Janáček. The Portland String Quartet showcased the work in April (see review “Intimate Letters”) It was second on Friday night’s program by the Brentano Quartet.

The PSQ version tended to emphasize its new cellist in the role of the composer in this love affair with a married woman 38 younger than he. The Brentano had a more balanced approach, in which lover and beloved were treated with equal passion.

Written in the last year of Janáček’s life (1928), when he was 74, the quartet should nevertheless be X-rated. It depicts every aspect of the long-lasting liaison, using letter keys, numerology and speech patterns to tie incidents to specific times and places and leit-motifs to code specific actions.The official line is that the affair was platonic, but the music says otherwise.

Maybe it was just the second live hearing of the work, but I found the Brentano’s version somewhat more compelling, in an earthy rather than intellectual way.

Speaking of earthy, the opening work on the program, commissioned in 2016 by the Brentano from Israeli composer Shulamit Ran (b. 1949) was named “Stream” . The three movements, for string quartet and clarinet, can depict a stream becoming a river, like Smetana’s “Moldau,” or a stream of consciousness progressing from fragmentary images to firm resolution.

Whatever the chosen program, the quartet is a vehicle for overwhelmingly fluid virtuosity on the clarinet, matched by and complementing its partnership with the strings. Heard live, it was marvelous.

The evening ended with more virtuosity than seems possible for a 15-year-old composer: the Mendelssohn Piano Quartet in B minor, Opus 3. It doesn’t yield much, if at all, to the later piano concertos, in terms of solid construction, inventiveness and pure excitement.

The young composer seems to have just discovered the possibilities of triplets (from Scarlatti?) and purely revels in them. The whole quartet is a sort of tarantella, While the members of the Brentano, absent the second violin, were able to hold it together as a quartet for the first three movements, they had to throw up their hands in the final Allegro vivace, and yield the stage to Sauer, who turned in an astounding performance with seeming nonchalance. It was remarkable for a pianist at the height of his powers. For a teenager it must have seemed the work of the devil.

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

VentiCordi: Food for Thought

Unitarian Universalist Church, Brunswick
Aug. 17, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

VentiCordi (Winds and Strings), is one of Maine’s hidden treasures. Founded by violinist Dean Stein and oboist Kathleen McNerney seven years ago, it is devoted to presenting the repertoire of chamber music written for winds and string instruments. In the process it uncovers a few masterpieces, some unknown works and some very strange ones. All are extremely well played by musicians who love them, and all are fascinating.

At the penultimate concert of the season —the last is tonight at South Congregational Church in Kennebunkport—they were joined by Bridget Convey, piano, Laura Jordan, percussion, and Gary Gorczyca, clarinet, in a selection of works that were primarily contemporary but always accessible. The opening piece, “Tangling Shadows” by Nathan Daughtrey, based on a poem by Pablo Neruda, was tonal, light and romantic. The duo of oboe, MacNerney, and vibraphone, Jordan, was a marriage made in heaven.

Lou Harrison (1917-2003) was an eccentric composer who studied with the equally iconoclastic Henry Cowell. His “Varied Trio,” for Violin, Piano and Percussion, is an eclectic romp that can be enjoyed by anyone. Its percussion effects, which include pitched rice bowls filled with water (not Sake), plucking on the piano strings and hypnotic drum patterns, were especially effective, and his “Rondeau in Honor of Fragonard” also honored Ravel, whose “Tombeau de Couperin” it rivals.

Even more unexpected was the Suite for Violin, Clarinet and Piano, Op. 157b, by Darius Milhaud (1892-1974) which has everything. The other day I disrespected the marimba as being incapable of tragedy. Its bass notes in the suite’s Divertissement proved me wrong, being lugubrious in the extreme, followed by a joyous fete in Jeu, and a totally jazzy Introduction and Final.

After intermission, the “Schilflieder” (Reed Songs) for oboe, viola and piano, of August Klughardt (1847-1902) sounded like Brahms after too many beers—sentimental, showing off gloriously obvious harmonies, and a florid piano accompaniment full of sturm und drang, giving Convey a real workout. It is easy to see why Klughardt was extremely popular in the last days of German Romanticism.

The composer, Stephen Michael Gryc, introduced his “Dream Vegetables” for voice, clarinet, violin and marimba, based on poems by Maggie Anderson, which depict not dreams OF vegetables, but BY vegetables, including exposure, falling, nightmare, insomnia, recurring and flying.

The poems are whimsical, and so are the sometimes minimalist settings, which nevertheless capture dream states unerringly. The bass marimba makes its appearance again in underground sequences. They were dramatically read by McNerney. In case you were wondering, it is the radishes who have insomnia, pacing up and down in their red and white pajamas.

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

Salt Bay Chamberfest: Then and Now

Salt Bay Chamberfest
Darrows Barn, Round Top Center, Damariscotta
Aug. 12, 2016

“If you build it, they will come.” Twenty two years ago, when I first reviewed a concert at the Salt Bay Chamberfest, the founder. cellist Wilhelmina Smith, was happy to have Darrows Barn half filled. But word gets around. On Friday, in spite of a heat wave, it was standing room only, and that is now typical.

The secret is quite simple—-everyone is satisfied with the best. The festival offers the finest in classical and contemporary music, played by outstanding musicians who devote just as much attention, and affection, to new music as to the classics.

Imaginative programming doesn’t hurt either. On Friday, Haydn’s last quartet (Opus 103) was paired with the early Brahms Sextet for Strings in B-flat, Opus 18. In the middle was some quite fiendish new music by Marc Neikrug (b. 1946), Philip Glass, (b. 1937), Zosha Di Castri (b.1985) and Julia Wolfe (b. 1958). The audience loved it all.

I had visions of Haydn spending his last days playing his favorite tune, the Kaiser Hymn. Instead, he was occupied with a final string quartet, the form that he practically invented and passed on to Mozart and Beethoven. What Opus 103 lacked in cheerfulness it made up in invention. An unusual amount of chromaticism led to unexpected developments. Only two movements were completed, but they show that the old dog could still learn new tricks.

The composers mentioned above were each commissioned by violinist Jennifer Koh, a Chamberfest regular, as part of a project she calls “Shared Madness.” It was. I won’t describe each of these short works, but all explored some aspect of contemporary virtuosity, pushing the violin to extremes, but without resorting to ancillary devices such as drumming on the wood.

One bow-shredding piece came close to being impossible, a melody played on one string while a second produced a sort of growling wolf note. Another explored overtones in registers at the limit of human hearing. One hopes that Koh will soon have enough madness in her collection to produce a CD.

Before intermission came the premiere of a new work by Marc Neikrug, entitled “Ruminations,” commissioned by the Chamberfest. As lovingly rendered by a string trio of Jennifer Koh, violin, Hsin-Yun Huang, viola, and Wilhelmina Smith, cello, it is one of the few “modern” works that appeals to the senses on first hearing. Going by the title, it seems composed of random musical thoughts that eventual;lay coalesce, like clouds into a tornado or leaves into a tree (depending on your mood). The process is satisfying, musically and intellectually.

There was nothing unexpected about the Brahms Sextet, except perhaps for its genius. The young Brahms knows exactly where he’s going with every theme and its development, all of which seems ineveitable— once you hear it. One could see the musicians smiling as the drama unfolded, now in its predictably glorious way. One thing the youthful Brahms has over Mendelssohn at the same period in his life; he is not afraid of being obvious.

There’s more to come at Salt Bay, August 16 and Aug.19. The latter concert includes the (very) early Mendelssohn Piano Quartet in B Minor, Op. 3.

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

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