Sebago-Long Lake Concerts Worth the Drive

Sebago-Long Lake Music Festival
Deertrees Theater, Harrison
July 18, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

From Pownal to Harrison is an hour’s drive over twisty roads and 17 (I counted) turns. The Sebago-Long Lake Music Festival at Deertrees Theater, every Tuesday evening from now until August 8, is always worth the trip.

The theater, with its resonating wooden shell, is like being inside a giant cello. The musicians are first-rate and the programming imaginative. One can always hear something new and unexpected, such as the Dvorák Terzetto in C Major for Two Violins and Viola, Opus 74 (1887), which the composer, then at the height of his powers, dashed off for a friend.

I wish I could be more enthusiastic about it, but the work is more fun to play than to listen to in a concert setting. It also suffers from lack of a bass line, although the viola struggles valiantly to make up the deficiency.

That said, Dvorák seldom wrote badly and the work is full of interesting touches, characteristic melodies and some successful experiments, such as the tremolo variation in the final movement.

The Brahms Trio in A Minor for Clarinet, Cello and Piano, Op. 114, was also written for a friend, the clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld, whose playing brought the aging composer out of retirement. It is more thoroughly composed than the Dvorák, but was obviously written to show off the beauties of a wind instrument assuming its modern form under the fingers of a virtuoso.

Brahms is even reticent with the piano part, which must have cost him a great deal of angst. It also contains one of Brahms’ most charming waltzes and harks back to the earlier Hungarian dances in the final movement. My favorite sections were the compare-and-contrast interludes with the cello, and wherever clarinetist Carmelo Galante produced that lovely burbling signature sound.

Does any one recall “Music Minus One?” I had the recording of Schumann’s great Piano Quintet in E-Flat Major, Op. 44, to attempt playing the piano part with a famous quartet. It didn’t work. Not only was the score difficult to play in strict tempo, but matching the pitch of the recording to the piano tuning was virtually impossible. Still, I got to know the quintet well enough to appreciate a really exciting performance by Mihae Lee, whose rapid chord scales in the Scherzo almost (but not quite) turned the piece into a piano concerto for Clara.

The entire work went by too fast, from the glorious opening theme to the final fugue, which evolves naturally from what has gone before instead of being an obligatory homage to Bach, as with other Romanic efforts.

It earned a typical Deertrees standing ovation from the large audience, with deafening foot-stamping to take advantage of the theater’s resonance.

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

Bowdoin Festival Friday Concert Enthralls a Sold-Out Audience

Bowdoin International Music Festival
Crooker Theater
July 14, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

Every time a pundit bemoans the decline or death of classical music, all one need do is think of the Bowdoin International Music Festival, which is now attracting larger audiences than at any time in its history, including many sold out concerts. Maybe classical music is getting too popular. Florence at the height of the Renaissance had a population of about 35,000.

Friday night’s SRO concert at Crooker Theater is just one example. Admittedly, it offered rock-star level violinist Anne Akiko Meyers in the Mendelssohn violin concerto, but the enthusiasm for every work on the program was infectious. When was the last time a contemporary composer, (Jennifer Higdon), received a standing ovation?

The program began with an entertainment by Mozart, his Oboe Quartet in F Major, K. 370, brilliantly executed by James Austin Smith, oboe, Kurt Sassmanhaus, violin, SoHui Yun, viola,, and Ahrin Kim, cello. I use the word “entertainment” advisedly, because the quartet, written for an oboe virtuoso, is a display piece, without much depth. Mozart treats the oboe as a sort of super violin, neglecting the instrument’s primary attraction—its reedy tonal quality.

“Light Refracted,” by Jennifer Higdon (b. 1962), scored for clarinet, violin, viola, cello and piano, is a more introspective work in two movements, “Inward” and “Outward,” that could be a meditation on Shelly’s line:: “Life, like a dome of many-colored glass, stains the white radiance of eternity.”

It begins with a pianissimo clarinet solo, evocative of a light ray from a high window, illuminating dust motes in its path. It goes on, in a relatively passive vein, exploring the ways light affects emotion.
The second movement, ferocious and rhythmical, seems more like the sparkle of a diamond, or a dancehall mirror ball. The audience loved it, and gave the musicians and the composer several curtain calls.

The piece de resistance, of course, was the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in E Minor, Op. 64, with Meyers and the Festival Orchestra, conducted by Angel Gil-Ordóñez.

The Festival Orchestra, of students and faculty, just continues to get better. In this performance it was indistinguishable from a professional ensemble that has played together for years. There was a reversal of the usual balance problems, with the conductor having to turn down the volume to avoid drowning out the soloist.
Meyers was technically and emotionally superb, like a great actress who forces an audience to listen to every word by subtle modulations of a quiet voice. It enthralled the audience at Crooker, which leaped to its feet after the final note. I was brought up on a more heroic approach, but that is just a matter of personal taste.

There was no encore, in spite of repeated curtain calls. Hooray, hooray!

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

DaPonte at Top Form in “More for Four”

DaPonte String Quartet
Unitarian Universalist Church, Brunswick
July 11, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

Most classical music programs take the form of a sandwich. One “difficult” or contemporary work, squeezed between two audience favorites. The DaPonte String Quartet’s concert Tuesday at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Brunswick, was more of the open-face variety, beginning with a devastating “Four for Tango,” by Argentine composer Astor Piazzolla—black as midnight in Buenos Aires and twice as dangerous.

It never ceases to amaze me how much dissonance can be carried on the broad shoulders of the tango, without missing a beat. Everything seems normal, including shrieks on the violins that sound like gauchos sharpening their knives. Every good performance of Piazzolla—and this was one of the best—contains a black hole of violence and despair. “Four for Tango” ends in a knife fight. Absolutely gorgeous.

If one needed further evidence that the DaPonte was in its best form, it was given by the next rendition, of Samuel Barber’s famous Adagio from the String Quartet No. 1. The long, drawn-out increase in intensity built to an almost unbearable level before an abrupt transition to the tranquility of the opening—all with the same richness of texture that one has come to expect in the better-known orchestral version.

It was followed by a delightful series of musical one-liners, “Microcosms,” by John Heiss, narrated by violinist Lydia Forbes. The short jokes range from major and minor seconds “rubbing together” in “Clustered,” to a crazy waltz in “Stuck” to aleatoric shenanigans in “Free.” How can one dislike a composer who writes a fantasy on Schoenberg’s “Pierrot Lunaire”? (In the concluding “Homeward Bound”).The audience thoroughly enjoyed it.

Speaking of crazy waltzes, the DaPonte presented another example in a magnificent performance of Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 7 in F Major, Op. 59 No. 1, as quirky in its own way as the Heiss piece.
It came in the second movement, Allegretto vivace e sempre scherzando in B-llat major, which really is a joke, unlike many scherzi, which take themselves seriously. In the midst of persistent and strangely rhythmical motif in repeated notes comes a strange little tune that is the height of vulgarity and very hard to get out of one’s head.

The scherzo is followed by a seriously melodic adagio, with some appealing cello and violin solos, leading suddenly to series of variations on a Russian theme (sounds like our MSM) insisted upon by the sponsor of Opus 59, the Russian ambassador Count Rasumowsky.

The Count certainly got his money’s worth. Every time one expects the ending chords there comes another take on the “Russian” theme, which I believe was actually invented by Beethoven. Just when the audience thinks it can’ t stand another false cadence, the work comes to an abrupt end—in this case leading to a standing ovation.

The program will be repeated on July 13 at 7:00 p.m. in the Burnt Cove Church community center in Stonington and on July 18, at 7:30 p.m. at the Maine Jewish Museum in Portland.

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

A Revelatory Brandenburg 3

Portland Bach Festival
Cathedral Church of St.. Luke
June 23, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

Now No. 3 has to be admitted to the pantheon. The performance of the third Brandenburg Concerto by the Bach Festival Orchestra Friday night at St. Luke’s Cathedral came like a revelation, or was it an epiphany?

Scholars have been debating for centuries about the absence of a slow movement in this work, but Arthur Haas at the harpsichord improvised a riff on Bach’s central cadence that showed what had been there all along, inspiring Beethoven to write equally short movements.

A form exists as a frame for the composer, not an edict from on high. A convenient convention.

A discussion over a late dinner at Bao Bao, around the corner from St. Luke’s, centered on what made the Portland Bach Festival, playing works that have been reiterated for 300 years, so fresh and, yes, joyful.

The consensus was that Lewis Kaplan and Emily Isaacson have assembled a critical mass of fine musicians, whose abilities play off one another to create a chain reaction of some kind. The Brandenburg No. 3 seemed almost like a jazz session (in heaven rather than Preservation Hall) with each string section responding and building upon the work of the preceding one.

That they had a work of supreme genius to recreate didn’t hurt either. What Bach does with strings and continuo alone is sui generis. The result had the capacity audience leaping to its feet.

He isn’t bad with solo instruments either, as shown by the opening Orchestral Suite No. 2 in B Minor, basically a flute concerto based on a succession of dances. I have only heard flautist Emi Ferguson in works by Bach, but if she is equally good in other classics and moderns, Rampal may have to move over. I want to hear her Debussy.

As she moved from one ballroom to the next, the only question was how she could possibly out-do what had gone before. The spectacular final Badinerie provided a definitive answer.

The Harpsichord Concerto in D Major, with Haas at the keyboard, was equally delightful but too intimate for a large hall, in spite of Rod Regier’s strong and handsome instrument. Except in the cadenzas, it was difficult to hear the delicate nuances of the keyboard part.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, the organ was a little too powerful in the Motet: “Jesu, Meine Freude.” But the Oratorio Chorale, under Emily Isaacson, gave an outstanding performance of one of Bach’s most inventive compositions for voice, blessedly without recitative. One could wish for more of the five soloists—Sherezade Panthaki, soprano, Jolle Greenleaf, soprano, Jay Carter, countertenor, Steven Caldicott Wilson, tenor,  and David McFerrin, baritone. Sherezade, in particular, has a phenomenal voice. But even at the PBF one can’t have everything.

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

An Outstanding Brandenburg 2

Portland Bach Festival
Episcopal Church of St. Mary
June 18, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

Like Oscar Wilde, I have very simple tastes: I am always satisfied with the best. Such as the Portland Bach Festival’s performance of the Bach Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 at St. Mary’s Church on Sunday.

I was brought up on that and the No. 5, on what I now realize was a bad recording (better than nothing), and have never missed an opportunity to hear it once again. Sunday’s rendition by the festival orchestra under Lewis Kaplan, with soloists John Theissen, piccolo trumpet, Emi Ferguson, flute, John Ferrillo, oboe and Renée Jolles, violin, was quite simply the best I have heard.

It also flirted with danger, setting a rapid tempo in the first movement that only the most experienced of soloists could maintain accurately. Thiessen was phenomenal in his melodic and unstrained negotiation of a score that gives most trumpet players nightmares.

A little clarino goes a long way, and Bach wisely omitted the part in the second movement, providing room for some limpid and graceful work by the remaining trio, led by Ferguson, whose attitude reminds me of the musicians on Greek vases. She can also hold her own with the piccolo trumpet; some passages in unison almost made the timbres of the two instruments sound the same.

The third movement echoed the virtuosity of the first, but more so, ending in a standing ovation by an overflow crowd. (Other music lovers could watch and hear the program gratis on a large TV screen outside.) Inside the church, the acoustics were remarkable, every instrument in the concerto clearly identifiable.

The evening began with the Bach Cello Suite in C Major, BWV 1009, in an outstanding performance by Paul Dwyer, making the most of the contrast between open and stopped strings, as Bach intended. The contrasts also emphasized the sonic distinction of the baroque cello on which he was playing.

The evening ended with a fine performance of the cantata “Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben,” BWV 147, with Festival Choir-in-Residence, the Oratorio Chorale, and soloists Jolle Greenleaf soprano, Jay Carter, countertenor, Steven Caldicott Wilson tenor, and David McFerrin, baritone.

This seems Maine’s year of the countertenor, with effective use of the high male voice in Negro spirituals, a Gluck opera and now a cantata. It is a welcome addition, but it was matched by the clarity and enchanting inflections of Greenleaf in the soprano aria “Bereite dir, Jesu…”

Of course, what most of he audience was waiting for was the chorus and orchestra in “Jesu , joy of man’s desiring.” They were not disappointed, and showed their appreciation with the longest standing ovation I have seen at St. Mary’s.

There’s more to come this week. See the schedule on www.portlandbachfestival.org. and hope that there are still a few seats available.

I was unable to hear Kaplan last week in the famous Bach Chaconne, so I played Brahms’ piano transcription for the left hand (which Kaplan recommended over the better-known Busoni). It was lovely, and pretty authentic, but my left hand almost fell off after the final bar.

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

St. Mary Schola Offers a Believable Orpheus

St. Mary Schola
Cathedral Church of St. Luke
June 13, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

Quick, name an opera with a happy ending. Against the parade of those one knows will end badly, I can think immediately only of “Der Freischutz” and Gluck’s “Orpheo ed Euridice.” The former ends with the hero undergoing a year of probation, and the latter with a dance in the temple of love, after a deus ex machina, Amore, reverses the tragedy.

The excerpts from “Orpheo,” performed Tuesday night by St. Mary Schola at St. Luke’s, fulfilled Mark Twain’s dream of an opera composed entirely of the parts you have to wait too long for: Orpheus’ journey to Hell, his charming of the vengeful spirits, his rescue and loss of Eurydice, and the reuniting of the lovers by Amore, plus nymphs and shepherds at the end.

(Someday, when I figure out the mechanics of it, I’m going to post the dawn serenade of our Airedale and his Golden Doodle friend, which makes Gluck’s Cerberus music seem tame.)

All the sung parts, the chorus and the orchestra of period instruments, plus guest artist Virginia Flanagan on harp, were uniformly excellent, but the surprise of the evening was the voice of counter-tenor Christopher Garrepy, which suddenly made understandable the use of that range by Purcell and his contemporaries for heroic roles.

In Gluck’s scoring, the counter-tenor voice, as clear and resonant as a classic mezzo-soprano, but with a feeling of reserved power, is ravishing, taming the Furies like Daniel Webster’s oratory to the damned in Hell. His aria, “Che farò senza Euridice,” was worth the price of admission.

Garrepy was well supported by soprano Erin Chenard, a believably jealous Eurydice, and soprano Molly Harmon as a no-nonsense, take-no-prisoners Amore. The final dance-like stanzas by soloists and chorus in the Temple of Love were as delightful as Gluck meant them to be.

The first half of the program, though equally well presented, was not as satisfying to modern ears, although the scenes of dancing around the Maypole, and some risqué verses, were often charming. I find the part singing of Morley, Dowland and their contemporaries on the continent a bit puzzling. The polyphony is intricate but it has no nodes—points were the vocal lines converge into harmonic chords. The melodies are not the sort one goes home whistling.

That the disconnect is the fault of the modern ear was borne out by the increasing sense of familiarity with time, in works by Purcell and Monteverdi. The latter contends with Gluck as the inventor of modern opera, and his dance music in “Il Ballo” is equally good.

The final concert of the St. Mary Schola Spring Series, “A Musical Banquet,” will be 7:30 p.m., June 16, at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Portland, It should not be missed.

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

Concertos and Brandenburg Concertos

Concertos and Brandenburg Concertos
Portland Bach Festival
June 17-25, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

I don’t know which of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos are most popular, but my favorites are No. 5, with its virtuoso keyboard passages, played at last year’s Portland Bach Festival by Arthur Haas on the harpsichord, and No 2, with its rousing piccolo trumpet part, to be performed this year on June 18 at St. Mary’s Church in Falmouth by John Thiessen.

Thiessen is noted for his virtuosity on this instrument, and the No. 2, with returning Festival artists, should be as outstanding as No. 5.

Haas will be returning as well, in the Vivaldi Flute Concerto in D Minor, with Emi Ferguson, flute, June 22 at Etz Chaim Synagog, and the Bach Harpsichord Concerto in D Major (BWV 1067) in the Sanctuary at St. Luke’s on June 23. He will appear in a number of other concerts, since  harpsichord continuo is virtually a necessity for baroque music, plus participating in a post concert lecture at Etz Chaim.

If the Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 in G Major (BWV 1048) is your cup of tea, you can hear that one too at St. Luke’s, plus the Orchestral Suite No. 2 in B Minor (BWV 1067), and the Motet “Jesu meine Freude” (BWV 227) by the Oratorio Chorale and soloists under Emily Isaacson.

The penultimate concert, June 24 at St. Luke’s,  promises to be something entirely different, featuring works that influenced Bach and others that were influenced by him, including a trio sonata by CPE Bach, the Vivaldi “Winter” Concerto and a Ligeti viola sonata.

The final work of the Festival will be the Cantata “Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen” (BWV 51) with soprano Sherezade Panthaki, whom Festival founder Lewis Kaplan calls “the greatest baroque soprano I have ever heard.” Be sure to hear her and soprano Jolle Greenleaf in the François Couperin “ Troisième Leçon à deux voix“ at the “Before and After” concert.

Cellist Beiliang Zhu will once again be playing an Amati lent to her by Florian Leonhard Fine Violins, who will also be binging other famous baroque instruments for display at the Bach and Beer event on June 19.

For further details of concerts and events, visit www.portlandbachfestival.org.

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

Second Bach Festival Offers Even More

Second Portland Bach Festival
Offers Even More
by Christopher Hyde

The first Portland Bach Festival, in June of 2016, was one of the most successful premieres in recent Maine history. In fact, it was so popular that it was difficult to find seats at some of the smaller venues.

This year’s festival, June 17-25, will maintain the world-class quality of solo and ensemble performance, while adding some new features intended to broaden its audience, according to associate artistic director Emily Isaacson , who with violinist Lewis Kaplan founded and co-directed the first programs.

The festival will open with one of its most unusual concerts: “Bachtails” at the newly renovated Bayside Bowl on Alder Street in Portland. The facilities are large and complex, with room for 15 different 15-minute performances in various areas, including the rooftop, beginning at around 5:00 p.m. with “Musical Games for Kids.”
Visitors can hear all of the performances, or just one or two, Isaacson said, while enjoying cocktails, wine and beer, the last of which H.L. Mencken declared “the universal solvent for the music of old J.S. Bach.” Admission is free but drinks and food are not.

“The less formal setting for hearing early music is not that unusual,” Isaacson pointed out, since much of Bach’s non-liturgical music was meant to be heard in an intimate social setting rather than a concert hall.

The second public concert will be on Sunday, June 18, 6:30 p.m., at St. Mary’s Church in Falmouth. Tickets will be required for the concert inside the church, but it will also be broadcast on a large screen outside for the general public. “Bach on a Blanket” will feature the Brandenburg Concerto No. 2, in F Major, and the Cantata “Herz und mund,“ with soloists, the Oratorio Chorale and the Festival Orchestra conduced by Lewis Kaplan.

Both free concerts are an extension of last year’s popular “Bach and Beer” party at Ocean Gateway, which this year will be on Monday, June 19.

Bach Virtuosi Institute, June 14-25

In what Isaacson believes is the first program of its kind in the country, exceptional students from around the world will attend a twelve-day program to refine their craft, focus on the performance practice of Baroque music, and immerse themselves in the music of Bach and those inspired by his work.

The Bach Virtuosi Institute focuses on learning through performance. Fellows will perform alongside distinguished international musicians in an intimate, collegial atmosphere. Limited enrollment (10 students this year) allows all participants significant coaching and performance opportunities. Selected Fellows will perform in PBF concerts, Bach Virtuosi concerts,  at “Bach and Beer,” and at outreach concerts in the community.

All participants receive a full scholarship including tuition, room and board and stipend

For the ultimate in outreach, there will be a Cantata Sing-Along at St. Mary’s on Wednesday, June 21, with soloists and piano accompaniment to the early Cantata “Christ lag in Totes Banden (BWV 4).

For further information about individual concerts, visit www.portlandbachfestival.org. Advance tickets, including season passes, are still available but they are going fast. The first festival was sold out.

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

You’ve Come a Long Way: A Piano Recital in the 21st Century

Piano Recital
Students of Ginger Yang Hwalek
Minsky Recital Hall, University of Maine
May 21, 2017

On Sunday I went to Minsky Hall, on the University of Maine Campus, to hear my grandson, nine-year-old Jordan Seavey, play a Beethoven Sonatina and a Tarantella by Stephen Heller. I stayed to hear the rest of Ginger Yang Hwalek’s students in recital. I had prepared myself for an ordeal, but the experience turned out to be an unanticipated pleasure.

Piano teaching has come a long way since I went to my first recital, when everyone was happy just to make it through “The Jolly Rancher.” Any graduate of Juilliard now probably plays better than Franz Liszt, and I’m happy to see that the improvement extends to those, like Jordan, whose feet don’t reach the pedals. All of Hwalek’s students seemed to enjoy what they were doing

Every piece, and there were some long and challenging ones, was played by heart (as we used to say) and although there were some minor hesitations at times, generally all went smoothly and in tempo. Jordan had the sonatina down pat, and even seemed to like playing it before an audience.

He came first on the program, and was followed by an even tinier Zoe Pulitzer, who played four short pieces, including a nice Hayden Quadrille, and ended with a Waltz for Four Hands by Heinrich Wohlfahrt, with her teacher playing secondo.

Sofie Reuter also played four short works, including a Haydn German Dance in D Major, but I was most impressed by her gliding portrait of “The Snake“ by Renée Christopher.

William Xu came next, with a CPE Bach Solfeggietto and a Sonatiina in A Minor by George Anton Benda, the first work on the program to require the use of crossed hands.

Vetri Vel played another Beethoven Sonatina, in F Major, plus a descriptive “Teasing Song” by Béla Bartók.

Nate Shearer performed an up-tempo Allegro from a Sonatina by Kuhlau (Is a pattern emerging here?) but seemed more at home in an atmospheric “L’Orage” (“The Storm”) Op. 109, No. 13 by Burgmüller, stemming from the days when pianos had attachments for rendering musical portraits of battles and thunderstorms.

I was floored by the grace and feeling of Inga Zimba’s Mendelssohn Song Without Words, Op. 55, No. 1.  Many professionals do not play it as well. Then she turned around and mastered something the exact opposite—a fiery and percussive study in overtones—Rodion Shchedrin’s “Russian Bell Chimes.”

Helen Shearer performed the Bach Invention No. 8 in F Major—all of the Inventions are more difficult than they seem at first glance—plus a dramatic “Knect Rupert” of Schumann.

Clementi’s Spiritoso from the Sonatina in C. Major, Op 36, No. 3, reminded me of Vladimir Horowitz’s predilection for this composer, but Cecilia Doering’s version of a Toccatina by Samuel Maikapar was even more virtuosic.

Emma Higgins’ Six Ecossaises by Beethoven were eminently danceable, followed by a wonderfully discordant Bagatelle, Op. 5, No. 1 of Alexander Tcherepnin

Robert Starer’s tone poems, Pink and Bright Orange, from “Sketches in Color,” as played by Mei Tian, were effective. I could see the correct shade of pink behind closed eyes, but pale yellow was as far as I could get with Bright Orange.

She was followed by Emma Shearer, with a highly proficient and descriptive interpretation of Joaquin Turina’s modern masterpiece “Clowns.” She then switched effortlessly to Greig’s melodic tone poem in sonata form: “Wedding Day at Troldhaugen,”

The Shearer sisters and brother got together for a delightful six-handed romp through Robert Vandall’s “Triple Dip,” a jazzy piece that combines a stride bass with overtones of bebop.

The program concluded with a performance by Mira Schubeck, Hwalek’s senior student, of Two Arabesques by Claude Debussy. These seminal works, with their unexpected transitions and quirky humor, presage Debussy’s mature piano music, and their premonitions were beautifully brought out. She was rewarded with flowers and a hug.

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

Oratorio Chorale Ends Season with Amazing Grace

Oratorio Chorale
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Brunswick
May 20, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

“Amazing Grace” is a simple pentatonic tune (it can be played on just the black keys of a piano), which has become a cliche at public funerals, but Emily Isaacson and the Oratorio Chorale, in Sunday’s concert at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, turned it into something magical, with drones, fugues of intermixed stanzas and more musical devices than you can shake a baton at.  It wasn’t a Negro Spiritual, but it sounded marvelous nonetheless.

Spirituals were at the heart of the program, presented in collaboration with the Portland Abyssinian Meeting House, which will be offering an Emancipation Celebration at St. Paul’s on June 10.

Isaacson programmed a varied selection of these works in roughly chronological order, from the darkest days of slavery through emancipation to the 20th Century. The Chorale was ably assisted by Reginald Mobley, countertenor, Mary Sullivan, soprano, Judith Casselberry, reader and Scott Wheatley, piano.

Casselberry’s readings, beginning with Frederick Douglass, were valuable in establishing context and significance, but sometimes difficult to understand. It would have been helpful to include them in the program.

Mary Sullivan’s solo in “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” with the chorale emulating a desolate wind, reminded me of Marian Anderson. She was equally effective in livelier spirituals.

Stealing the show, however, was countertenor Reginald Mobley. Countertenors are often featured in Baroque and earlier music, but using one as a soloist in spirituals is rather unusual. As usual with Isaacson’s innovative ideas, this one worked perfectly.

Mobley , although he sounded a little unsure of himself at first, soon came into his own, with marvelous renditions of “Were You There?” and “Steal Away.”  Toward the end, his “Precious Lord” was a prime example of what Gospel shout should be, full of perfectly timed musical ornaments, delivered in a powerful mezzo-soprano voice. with infectuous enthusiasm.

My favorite among the well-known songs by the chorale alone was a fast-paced, perfectly rendered version of “Ezekiel Saw de Wheel.”

If I had any quarrel at all with the concert, it would be with its very variety. The Gospel songs are good enough on their own without shifting choirs around, marching, alternating piano accompaniment with a cappella, and using (a few) gussied-up arrangements.

That said., it was a very satisfying coda to the Chorale’s outstanding 2016-2017 season.

(For more on the subject matter of this concert, see “Negro Spirituals” on this site.)

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

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