Pianist Excels at Franco Center Recital

Franco Center Piano Series
Christopher Staknys
Franco Center, Lewiston
Jan. 20, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

At the advanced age of 20, pianist Christopher Staknys has already performed three times at the popular piano series of the Franco Center in Lewiston. The first time, at the age of ten, he had just broken his right arm and played his own composition for the left hand alone.

Probably just a coincidence, but the young pianist’s most successful rendition on Friday evening was the Sonata-Fantasy in G-sharp Minor, Op. 19, of Alexander Scriabin, best known for his Nocturne for the left hand.

Scriabin’s early piano works are heavily influenced by Chopin, but more virtuosic. The sonata, like those of Chopin, requires a master to bring out the internal voices amidst a Russian snowstorm of notes.

Staknys was more than up to the task,  in a well-balanced performance that, in the final presto, seemed like bolts of lightning inside a dark thundercloud.

Staknys, who lives in Falmouth and is now attending Juilliard, may have been nervous at the beginning of the concert, since he attacked the Mozart Sonata No. 8 in A Minor (KV 310) like a falcon dive-bombing a pigeon.

It was fascinating to hear. No one should be able to play that fast and furious without making a single mistake. “No, he can’t possibly negotiate that passage correctly at that speed!” But he does. Miraculous, but unfortunately not Mozart.

The accelerator was slightly less depressed in three waltzes from Chopin’s Opus 34, but they still sounded like Godowsky transcriptions of Strauss. The best was No. 2 in A Minor, which demands some thoughtful melancholy.

During the first half of the program, the young pianist was most at home in “Ondine,” from Ravel’s “Gaspard de la Nuit,” with its sparkling sprays of water flicked off by the nymph of the title, who is trying to get the poet to come with her to her palace under the lake.
A little more contrast of moods, from playful through Romantic to pouting (when the poet refuses her), would have been ideal, but the entire portrait was brilliant and technically flawless.

The second half began with two original preludes, dedicated to the pianist’s mother. They were reminiscent of Scriabin as well in their tonal ambiguity, if not in their playfulness.

A Schubert Allegretto in A-flat Major, No. 6 of Moments Musicaux, Op. 94 (D. 780), demonstrated what Staknys could do with a more relaxed and thoughtful approach. It was gorgeous, especially the certainty of voices in the ever-modulating chords.

The encore was a set of improvisations on “Over the Rainbow,” with a reference to “My Country, ’Tis of Thee” appropriate to Inauguration Day. The occasion may have influenced attendance, but there should have been many more in the hall. A fine concert, crepes and wine at intermission and champagne and conversation with the artist afterward. What could be better than that?

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

The Sea and Chopin at Portland Symphony

Portland Symphony Orchestra
Merrill Auditorium
Jan. 15, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

If every member of the overflow audience at Sunday’s Portland Symphony Orchestra concert tells a friend about the experience, there should be no problem selling out classical music events in the future. The program had something for everyone, from arch-Romantics to Maine seafaring types.

The orchestra was in good form and enthusiastic, under the direction of guest conductor David Neely.

The first two works were Benjamin Britten’s Four Sea Interludes from “Peter Grimes,” (Op. 33a), and Debussy’s “La Mer,” two of the finest depictions of the sea in all her moods since Rimsky-Korsakov’s “The Sea and Sinbad.”

Both are spectacular in different ways. Debussy’s imagery is pantheistic. Man is merely a witness to the dialog of wind and wave. Britten, on the other hand, is supreme in his sketches of the ocean in relation to the shore and its inhabitants.

Even the reverberation of the Sunday bells, in the seaside village of his opera, has something moving and fluid about it. The irregular knocking of choppy seas on the hull can never be bettered, and the final descent of Grimes’ boat into the depths reminds one of Turner’s stormy seascapes.

Britten’s use of orchestra color is astounding, and always effective. Neely and the orchestra made the most of it. One minor shift in the pitch of the timpani spoke volumes, instantly altering the mood like a sudden fog bank.

While Britten’s Interludes are vignettes, Debussy takes a longer view, sometimes teasing,  in building up the sparkle of small wavelets and the “breeze that will be whispering at all hours” into a glorious crashing climax, which must have made every surfer long for Hawaii, or at least Costa Rica. Another argument, if one is needed, for the primacy of live music.

Pianist Diane Walsh’s sensitive performance of the Chopin Concerto No. 2 in F Minor (Op. 21) was a throwback to a salon concert of the 1800’s. Somehow tuner Matt Guggenheim made the Steinway sound like a Pleyel, or maybe it was just Walsh’s touch in the high treble. I could listen to her string-of-pearls portamento scales and passage-work forever.

The pianist’s independence reminded me of harpsichordist Wanda Landowska—‘You play Bach your way and I’ll play it his way.” She demanded space for her interpretation and got it. For the most part, the orchestra in a Chopin concerto is an accompaniment, but it sometimes asserts itself in surprising ways. A horn call in the third movement jolted people out of their seats, like a racehorse hearing the post, and the climax got a bit muddy, but who cares? It was a magical transportation back in time, complete with an encore of Liszt’s “La Campanella,” which I never thought to hear again in my lifetime.

Both concerto and encore got a well-deserved standing ovation.

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

Renaissance Voices a Christmas Gift

Renaissance Voices
Cathedral Church of St. Luke
Dec. 17, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

The Renaissance Voices Christmas concerts, conducted by Harold Stover, have become so popular over the years that the large Cathedral Church of St. Luke was still about half full on Saturday night, in spite of snow and bitter cold that cancelled other events.

Those who braved the elements were treated to a warm, traditional selection of a cappella vocal music from around the world and across the centuries, interspersed with readings from poets as diverse as Carl Sandburg and Rainer Maria Rllke. Wintery works by Rilke and Heinrich Heine were read in German, followed by English translations.

The word traditional is appropriate because even the modern works on the program were modeled after Renaissance and Baroque music.  beginning with “Hail, Lady. sea-star bright,” (Ave, maris stella) by English composer Kathryn Rose (b. 1980), sung in Latin and built around a bass line that sounds like Gregorian chant, but more melodious. The higher voices weave a tapestry of sound around this solid foundation. It was compared to another Ave Maria by Jacobus Clemens non Papa (1510-1556), and held its own very well.

Two German composers who seemed almost mirror images of each other were Hugo Distler (1908-1942) and Johannes Eccard (1553-1611). The choir alternated between the two, and just when one thought a recognizable style had been established, another of the five motets would blur the line. Some were lively, some were like chants and some were almost fugal in their polyphony, but all were musical and deeply felt.

The first half of the program ended with a rapid, rhythmical “Facta est cum angelo,” by Italian composer Girolamo Baglioni (c, 1575-1608).

Opening the second half was “Come ye lofty, come ye lowly” by Gustave Holst (1874-1934), another imitation, this time of a medieval English Christmas carol, that couldn’t be told from he original.

An American work, “The angel’s carol,” by Crys Armbrust (b. 1957), sets a text by Nahum Tate (1625-1715) using the early shaped-note technique of choral singing,  in which the shape of the written notes dictates the harmonies to decorate a hymn tune,

The result is sometimes strange, like shifting northern-lights veils of sound, but always effective.

The program ended with a triumphant “Hodie Christus natus est” by Dutch composer Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck (1562-1621). Following a standing ovation, the choir sang an encore of three verses of “Silent Night” in the original German,  wrapping up a fine and appropriate Christmas gift.

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

The Thinking Man’s Christmas Concert

St. Mary Schola
Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception
Dec. 14, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

Since its founding in 2008, St. Mary Schola, under the direction of Bruce Fithian, has become so widely appreciated for its performance of music from the medieval, Renaissance and Baroque eras that it has outgrown its place of origin, the Church of St. Mary in Falmouth.

One of its three Christmas concerts this year, on Dec. 14, was held in the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, in the chapel, not the huge main building.  I had not been to a concert there before,  but the more intimate setting, and less echoing acoustics, were well suited to the Schola’s music, and to the volume of the antique instruments that accompanied it.

When period instruments were first introduced at the concerts, where much of the singing was a cappella, they seemed to be primarily for the purpose of authenticity. On Tuesday night, however, they made a significant musical contribution as well, blending in perfectly (without the problems of equal temperament tuning), providing appropriate interludes and reinforcing the polyphonic lines.

The recorders were particularly striking in the ritornellos of a Dutch 15th Century” In Dulci Jubillo.”

The Schola approached modernity with “Os Justi” by Anton Bruckner (1824-1896), but can be forgiven,,since the composer was trying, successfully, to write in the Lydian mode . The Romantics liked to imagine a simpler, less worldly time, but the music still gives away its 19th Century origin.

Concerts of ancient music might be well advised to stay away from Bach. One is going along pleasantly, enjoying the atmosphere of ancient days, and all of a sudden a lightning stroke of genius startles the ear. At least that was the case with “Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland” (BWV 36), from the Cantata No. 36, sung by Andrea Graichen and Molly Harmon, with cello accompaniment by Philip Carlsen.

A work that approached its level of polyphonic sophistication ended the fist half of the concert, a wondrous “Praise Our Lord, all Ye Gentiles,”  by William Byrd (1543-1623).

There was nothing to interrupt the joyous mood of the entire 17-part Christmas Cantata of Marc-Antoine Charpentier (1643-1704) that followed intermission. “In Nativitatem Domini canticum (H. 416) balances male soloists with the higher voices of the choir, plus instrumental preludes and impressionistic descriptive interludes such as “Night,” and “Awakening of the Shepherds. Tenor Martin Lescault sounded equally fine as an angel and a shepherd.

The cantata has a clever conceit near the end, when the extremes of the Child’s crying, need and cold are equated with the power of HIs love for mankind. Its final verse seemed particularly appropriate this Christmas: “Justitia regnant in terra rostra, et pacis non erat finis.”

The readings in Latin and Middle English, by Stephen White and Rachel Keller, were excellent, but Keller could have read Chaucer’s text a little more slowly, for those of us who are less fluent. As usual, the good program notes and complete texts obviated any problems with translation.

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

A Traditional “Magic of Christmas”

Portland Symphony Orchestra
“Magic of Christmas”
Merrill Auditorium
Dec. 9, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

Perhaps it’s the world situation, but the Portland Symphony Orchestra’s “Magic of Christmas” concert, on Friday’s opening night at Merrill Auditorium, seemed more movingly traditional than usual, emphasizing the orchestra and chorus, with a remarkable soprano, Elizabeth Marshall.

It was the first time I had seen the new assistant conductor, Andrew Crust, who did an admirable job as master of the Magic of Christmas Chorus, and in alternating as orchestral conductor with music director Robert Moody.

Tania Holt and Alexander Fedorchev, of Cirque de la Symphony, held the audience spellbound with their athletic feats on silk fabric 30 feet above the stage. Their duos were romantic enough to provoke a comment from Moody to the effect that the audience would either rush out to take gymnastic lessons or buy a Harlequin Romance.

As usual, the arrangements of Christmas favorites were a mixed bag, ranging from pedestrian—Anderson’s Christmas Festival Overture— to superb —the Rutter/Adam “O Holy Night,”—marred only by an unnecessary modulation in the second verse.

I would go to this concert again (December 10, 16, and 17 at 2:00 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., Dec. 11 and 18 at 1:00 p.m. and 5:00 p.m.) just to hear Marshall’s sweet but powerful voice hitting the high notes of “O Holy Night” without effort.

She also appeared in another French traditional song, “Quelle est cette odeur agréable?” with the Magic of Christmas Chorus, and in the Rouse arrangement of “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” I prefer the more common tune, whether original or not, but will accept the alternative if it leads to another soprano solo over massed chorus and orchestra.

An unexpected combination of voice and orchestra was especially effective, pairing a section from Ravel’s “”Ma merè l’Oye,” “The Enchanted Garden,” with a contemporary Life of Christ read dramatically by Mathew Faberge.

Crust’s work with the chorus was outstanding, although the large, traditional group of 108, still needs a few more good bass voices. It was particularly good in an up-tempo “Hallelujah” chorus, for which the American audience stood like good subjects of King George.

The desire of that audience for some old-fashioned Christmas cheer was apparent in the concluding Christmas Carol sing-along, which was enthusiastic, with some audible evidence of part singing.

Judging from the reaction of the children seated near me, this year’s production holds attention very well, even without Santa Claus.

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

In Memoriam Elliott Schwartz

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One of my most treasured possessions is a birthday greeting from Maine’s pre-eminent composer, Elliott Schwartz, who died on Wednesday at the age of 80, surrounded by family, friends and former students of Bowdoin College, where he taught for many years.

The greeting is six bars of piano music in 4/4 time, marked “Slow, stately.” Elliott played it at my party, and I have returned to it many times since. In these few bars are contained some of the qualities that made Elliott a great musician and an even greater man.

The piece exemplifies Elliott’s long-term interest in the alphabet and numerology as sources of motifs for his compositions. His lectures on hidden codes in music are legendary, and in the greeting he uses the letters of my name, my date of birth and the date of the birthday party to build both melody and harmony. The only letter for which there is no musical equivalent is “Y”. The player has to shout out this syllable at the appropriate time, leading to the title of the work: “The Answered Question.”

Following that theme, the work progresses from relative dissonance to a satisfying tonic-sounding conclusion, even though there is no key signature.

“The Answered Question” illustrates Elliott’s characteristic musical inventiveness, and his ability to combine disparate elements into a satisfying whole.

It also contains a bit of psychological acuity,  a great deal of generosity, and considerable humor. It tells a story without words.

I first met Elliott at the beginning of my tenure as classical music critic for the Portland Press Herald. I interviewed him about his “Bellagio Variations,” but the conversation continued for well over an hour, covering a wide range of topics, end ended with his giving me R. Murray Schafer’s seminal book, ”The Soundscape.” It was the beginning of a long friendship with Elliott and his beautiful wife, Deedee, who died in 2014.

Although Elliott was in considerable pain after an automobile accident that almost took the lives of both him and Deedee, I never saw him in anything but a good humor. When I wrote disparagingly about Ralph Vaughn Williams and Edward Elgar, about whom Elliott was the acknowledge\d authority,  he merely remarked that there might be something in them after all and suggested a few recordings.

Perhaps there was a little synchronicity involved in the relationship. At one dinner party we had invited the late poet Henry Braun and his wife, Joan. She and Elliott were surprised at meeting (again). They had both attended the same high school in Brooklyn, at the same time, and had not seen each other for about 40 years.

On another occasion, two noted violinists, my wife Judy and I, and Elliott and Deedee, spent an hour after dessert playing a sextet on wine glasses.

I saw him at a concerts and festivals in recent years, but I recall most vividly a lecture he gave at Thornton Oaks, where he spent the last years of his life. It ended with one of the most spectacular recordings ever of the Rachmaninoff Third Piano Concerto, with a photograph of Vladimir Horowitz displaying a rare smile after the performance. I wondered “Where does he find such people?”

Where will the State of Maine,, the nation, and the world, find another Elliott Schwartz?

Christopher Hyde, Pownal, Maine. Dec. 8, 2016

Sunday in the Park with Brahms

Portland String Quartet
Woodfords Congregational Church
Dec. 4, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

One of the high points of my musical experience was hearing the Bolivar Symphony Orchestra under Gustavo Dudamel, play Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” at the Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires. The young musicians, graduates of Venezuela’s El Sistema, not only played as well as any major symphony orchestra in the world, but brought an entirely new level of dedication and excitement to the work. No one has ever performed it better.

Thus I was looking forward to hearing violist Jesus Alfonzo, a founding member of El Sistema, play the Brahms String Quintet No. 2 in G Major, Op. 111, with the Portland String Quartet, which has had a close relationship with the Venezuelan program since its beginning.

I was not disappointed. The musicians seemed inspired by the presence of Alfonzo to breathe new life into one of the most popular works in the chamber music repertoire.

Every movement threw off sparks. My notes on the first included “starlight in the park, with distant fireworks,” and an exclamation point about how much Richard Strauss had learned from Brahms.

In the second, Adagio, there was a pianissimo moment when every musician seemed as intent upon listening to the others as a cat in front of a mouse hole. Pardon the simile, but I could think of nothing else having such an immediate physical intensity.

The valse triste of the Poco Allegretto inspired not only Sibelius, as mentioned in the program notes, but also the slow movement of the Ravel piano concerto for the left hand.

The final movement emphasized the surprise occasioned by a ferocious gypsy dance tacked on to the penultimate bars of a relatively decorous development section-—almost as if Brahms had said to himself “This is going to be my last work, so the hell with it. I’ll include a fragment in memory of my misspent youth.”

I have complained about almost everyone’s interpretation of Brahms. This was a notable exception.

Whether intentionally or not, the PSQ coupled this work, by a composer who never wrote an opera, with a quartet by Verdi, who wrote just one purely instrumental work, and the Lyric Quartette (1960) of William Grant Still (1895-1978) an African-American composer who wrote both.

Unfortunately, I missed the Still quartet, but arrived in time for the Verdi String Quartet in E Minor (1873). It still seems more of a curiosity than a serious piece of music, almost a pastiche of tunes held together by a slight framework (rather like an opera?). The exception is the final Scherzo-Fugo, Allegro assai mosso, in which the composer proves, like others before him, that he can write a classical fugue, but then manages to turn it into a rather savage practical joke. As was the case with the Brahms, the PSQ made the most of it.

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

Sibelius Fifth Fails to Rise

Portland Symphony Orchestra
Merrill Auditorium
Nov. 20, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

A work that almost becomes a horn concerto was a fitting tribute to principal hornist John Boden, who will be retiring at the end of 2016 from the Portland Symphony Orchestra, after a career spanning 35 years.

Sunday affernoon’s concert began with a fine performance of Richard Strauss’ “Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche,” Op. 28, in which the hero is introduced, and sometimes portrayed by, a horn motif. Till is everyone’s lovable rascal, and his “merry pranks” contrast some of Strauss’ most elegant and noble melodies with slapstick orchestral carryings on.

When the law eventually caches up to Till and sentences him to the gallows, the scene-—perhaps a parody of Berlioz” “March to the Scaffold” in Symphony Fantastique—- is transformed from tragedy to comedy by a silly little tune on the flute, like the dropped handkerchief final bars in “Der Rosenkavalier,” indicating that all is well and his spirit lives on.

The Strauss was followed by Prokofiev’s Concerto No. 1 in D Major for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 19, in a brilliantly realized rendition by Benjamin Beilman. I couldn’t detect a single missed note in the fiendishly rapid and difficult score, which includes some really unusual dissonant double stops. More importantly, the young violinist realized the emotional content in some of the most lyrical passages Prokofiev ever wrote. The final extended note that concludes the work was pure magic, earning Beilman one of the rarely well-deserved standing ovations bestowed by a full house at Merrill Auditorium.

Prokofiev’s genius shines through every bar, but his use of the harp’s metallic, bell-like sound, against the sostenuto of the violin, was something I had never heard before, once again illustrating the necessity of live performance.

After two well-played masterpieces,, the orchestra’s performance of the great Sibelius Symphony No. 5 in E-flat Major, (Op. 82) was a disappointment.

It began well, with a first movement full of the composer’s northern pantheism and the pedal point of the forest. (Sibelius liked Niagara Falls for its really low notes.). In contrast the second movement was cheerful, in its playful handling of a five-note motif on plucked strings.

The final movement, although it had some high points, was a failure. It is one of the longest and most glorious crescendos in orchestral history, and its gradual, almost imperceptible increase in volume portrays the great awakening of Nature. Perhaps conductor Robert Moody wanted to try something different from the traditional reading, but under his direction the gradual ascent to Olympus became more of a sine wave of ups and downs, totally dissipating the effect of the climax. The overlong rests in the concluding bars were icing on a fallen cake, completely over the top.

It, too, received a standing ovation.

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

True Virtuosity at the Franco Center

Igor Lovchinsky
Franco Center, Lewiston
Nov. 11, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

A detour caused by a traffic accident on Route 9 made us late getting to Lewiston’s Franco Center for a recital by Russian-American pianist Igor Lovchinsky. I was sorry to have missed his performance of two popular works by Ravel, but if his interpretation of other masters is any indication, the Ravel must have been spectacular.

Lovchinsky has the bravura technique of Horowitz, without the attitude. What other young concert pianist is about to receive his doctorate in physics from Harvard?

He was introduced to the Franco Center’s piano concert series when he joined Matthew Graybil for the New England premiere of Walter Piston’s Concerto for Two Pianos Solis.

Although Lovchinsky can spin cascades of notes with the best of them, his technique is at the service of an innate musicality. This was particularly evident in his rendition of the Prokofiev Sonata No. 4 in C Minor, Op. 29, in which the development of the themes was always audible through the thunder and lightning. Prokofiev’s unique voice, in which he sometimes seems to be mocking the virtuoso tradition, came through loud and clear, with echoes of both “Peter and the Wolf” and his piano suite “Visions Fugitives.”

After intermission, the pianist showed why he has become a noted interpreter of Chopin, winning the National Chopin competition of the Kosciuskko Foundation at the age of 19. His renditions of the Nocturne No. 20 in C-sharp Minor (Op. post.) and the Impromptu in A-flat Major, Op. 29, were intimate, without taking overly Romantic liberties. As Chopin recommended, the left hand always marched, no matter the rubato of the right.

The great Ballade No. 4 in F Minor, Op. 52, demonstrated both overwhelming power and perfectly timed development toward the climactic measures. (Both of them.).

I mentioned Horowitz at the beginning because of Lovchinsky’s programming of two fiendishly difficult works by Mily Balakirev (1837-1910) — “The Skylark,” based on a song by Glinka, and his Oriental Fantasy “Islamey.” They reminded me of similar impossible show pieces (played by Horowitz) by Alkan or Godowsky.

The difficulty of “Islamey,” which has been adopted by many famous pianists, can be gauged by the fact that Scriabin injured his hand practicing it.

It is based on three Circassian themes which sound strangely like Alexander Borodin, but decorated so lavishly that they almost disappear. That they were perceptible among Lovchinsky’s coruscating fountains of notes, is a greater accomplishment than being able to execute the ornaments themselves.

Having been to concerts of this series in the past, I was not surprised by the caliber of the music but by the relatively small size of the audience. Where else in Maine can one experience world-class performances, for a very low ticket price, in a fine concert hall, have delicious crepes at intermission and share a glass of champagne with the artist afterward? Unfortunately, the next event in the series won’t be until January 20, with Maine pianist Christopher Staknys.

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

Bluebeard’s Triumph

Portland Symphony Orchestra
Merrill Auditorium
Nov. 1, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

Tuesday night’s concert of the Portland Symphony Orchestra, under Robert Moody, was a study in contrasts.—two works of supreme genius. one a breathtaking accomplishment in modern orchestration and the other an example of how much can be accomplished with minimal resources.

The Bach Concerto in D Minor for Two Violins and String Orchestra (BWV 1043), with soloists Amy Sims and Sasha Callahan, must have been one of his favorite works, since he transcribed it for two harpsichords as well. It could be described as a vehicle for showing off the virtuosity of the composer and his sons if the soloists did not have so much fun playing it.

Sims and Callahan exchanged lines, phrases and ideas, and then combined them with pure delight, accompanied by just the right amount of basso continuo and with enough difference in sound quality to maintain their individuality. The result was heaven on earth, and all too short.

Sims is assistant concertmaster of the PSO, and Callahan a member of the violin section. Both have extensive experience in solo and ensemble playing with major orchestras and chamber music groups throughout the U.S.

Bartok’s early opera, “Duke Bluebeard’s Castle,” (Opus 11), while it ends badly for the new wife, Judith, sung by soprano Michelle DeYoung, is not a tragedy. Bluebeard has not murdered his three former wives, as she suspects, but merely sequestered them in his mental library—the seventh door— from which, as a poet, he can recollect them in tranquility.

Bluebeard, sung by bass-baritone Alan Held, loses his hopes for a soul-mate, but seems quite aware of how the story would end. Judith is the gentle darkness, following wives representing morning, noon and twilight. Bluebeard praises all of them in his dramatic closing lines.

Both protagonists were perfect for their parts: Judith, at first demanding and finally resigned, and Bluebeard exuding power and hope without hope. The opera requires acting as well as voice to carry the action forward, and the duo had ample amounts of both, plus a feeling for the philosophical framework of the libretto.

Had the drama been even more desolate, the opera still could not be termed a tragedy, since the orchestra is triumphant throughout, with some of the most brilliant writing ever committed to a score, and that includes Rimsky-Korsakov and Stravinsky. The music that accompanies the triumphant opening of the door upon Bluebeard’s domains is sui generis, a paean to Bartok’s love of country even as its clouds rain blood.

The complex orchestration that produces the magnificent effects of the opera has best been described by composer Ned Rorem (on the music of the “Lake of Tears” door): “Yes, I see on the staves that one flute and one clarinet repeatedly rise and fall at great speed in close harmony backed by three other flutes flutter-tonguing, while one harp glissandos and another arpeggiates in close harmony with a celesta backed by muted strings divided into a thick A-minor triad—-all of this pianississimo. But could I have guessed that the simultaneous hollow soughing stems from the sustained intoning of two low horns a fifth apart, doubled by a kettledrum chord and a large gong? Fifty separate human players produce his pale whisper…”

Try to hear that on a recording.

All in all a tremendous performance and a daring one, totally effective, even without staging. Its 55 minutes, like those of the opening Bach concerto, passed by all too rapidly.

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

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