Oratorio Chorale’s “Prodigies” Does Not Disappoint

Oratorio Chorale
Woodfords Congregational Church
Nov. 21, 2015
by Christopher Hyde

The Oratorio Chorale’s “Prodigies” concert, Saturday night at Woodfords Congregational Church, examined many aspects of that vexed question, while presenting each in the best possible light. Director Emily Isaacson has mastered the art of combining chorus and orchestra, and the Maine Chamber Ensemble sounded the best it has in years.

The program opened with a work by a child prodigy, Henry Purcell, (1659-1695), written, however, when his genius had fully matured. His “Oh Sing Unto the Lord,” (1688) often sounded like Handel, but more complex (and a little better written). The vocal part is extremely difficult, with the chorus treated as an orchestra, offering varied instrumental combinations. It was written in a day when British households entertained themselves by singing seven-part madrigals.

The orchestral “symphony” itself is also brilliant, both at setting off the choral and recitative sections, and solo, with fugal writing that seems to come as easily to Purcell as to Bach.

It was followed by a premiere of “The Window,” a setting of a poem by Conrad Aiken, written by Christopher Stacknys (b. 1997) of Falmouth, now a sophomore at the Juilliard School. The composition was quite professional in its cycling from harmony to dissonance and back.

His musicality, however, was called into question by a performance of the first movement of the Chopin Concerto No. 1 in E minor. After a lovely opening by the string orchestra, the piano came in like a bull in a china shop, Stacknys apparently overcompensating for the acoustics of an unknown venue.

The performance was brilliant, too fast, and technically flawless. The music got lost in a cloud of notes. A concerto is always a contest between the soloist and the conductor; in this case, Isaacson lost the battle for control of tempo. The large audience loved it.

The two anthems by Mendelssohn (1809-1847), which followed intermission, “Jesu meine Freude” (1828) and “Christie, du Lamm Gottes” (1827) were delightful, lively and perfectly balanced. Any resemblance to the work of J.S. Bach, which the 18-year-old composer had been studying intensely, was purely intentional.

Isaacson saved he most astounding feat for last, a “Te Deum” (1769) written by Mozart when he was 13. He could orchestrate, write fugues, and invent choral harmonies which neither Bach nor Purcell would have disowned. He is one of the great composers whom we can honestly regret losing at an early age.

The concert will be repeated today (Sunday, Nov. 22) at the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Brunswick, at 3:00 and 6:00 p.m.

Prodigies at the Oratorio Chorale

The Oratorio Chorale’s concert, on Nov. 21 at Woodfords Congregational Church, will be devoted to youthful music by three child prodigies: Mozart, Mendelssohn and England’s greatest composer, Henry Purcell (1659-1695).

The Purcell anthem selected by music director Emily Isaacson, “O Sing Unto the Lord,” is thought to have been composed when he was 14, although it is difficult to date many of Purcell’s compositions. (Even the name of his father is in dispute.)

Purcell died at the age of 46, Mozart at 35 and Mendelssohn at 38. There is a Romantic tendency to associate early death with musical genius; think of Schubert, Schumann, Chopin, as well as the above, but I’m not sure the facts bear that out.

In Purcell’s time, when people married at 12 and became admirals in the British Navy at 14, (those of Family, with good connections at Court) 46 was a ripe old age. Life expectancy was about 35. Mozart may well have been poisoned, and Mendelssohn worked himself to death, perhaps overcompensating for the death of his beloved sister, Fanny.

Schubert, like Beethoven and Schumann, died of syphilis, and Chopin of tuberculosis. Perhaps, as some have suggested, we owe a large number of masterworks to disease.

Neither is early genius a predictor of early demise. St.Saêns, who could play all of the Beethoven sonatas from memory before he was a teenager, is one example. A Renaissance man, he started composing at age 6 and died at 86.

It is customary to lament what might have been, had composers not departed this earth so soon, but I’m not sure that we have lost that much. Perhaps they had already said whatever was on their minds. Music channeled from the beyond by various mediums generally leaves something to be desired.

On a more serious note, it is quite possible that the quality of their compositions might have declined with age. I’m thinking of the Romantic poet Wordsworth, who, unlike Keats and Shelley, lived to be 80, writing more and more pedestrian boilerplate after a brilliant youth.

The Oratorio Chorale concert will include Henry Purcell’s, “O Sing unto the Lord,” the Felix Mendelssohn Chorale: “Jesu meine Freude,” written when the composer was 16, a Mozart Te Deum, written when he was 13, and Christopher Staknys’ “The Window,” a premiere of his newly written choral work. Staknys, who recently entered Juilliard, is already known as a piano virtuoso. He will play Chopin’s Concerto No. 1 in E-minor with the Maine Chamber Ensemble.

The concert will be repeated on Sun., Nov. 22, at 3:00 p.m. and 6:00 p.m. in the Seventh-day Adventist Church, Brunswick.

Won’t You Join the Dance? PSO Performs Del Tredici’s “Alice” Symphony

Portland Symphony Orchestra
Merrill Auditorium
Nov. 10, 2015

A story going around music schools a long time ago concerned the oriental potentate who was introduced to a symphony orchestra for the first time. When asked what he liked most on the program he said: “The first piece.” The orchestra repeated it, but the Sultan shook his head. “No, before that…”

He was referring to the tune-up , begun by the oboe on “A” 440, which composer David Del Tredici uses as a motif signifying the dull real world at the beginning and end of his “Alice” Symphony, played Tuesday night at Merrill Auditorium by the Portland Symphony Orchestra.

“Alice” is a quirky and marvelous work, but its musical intricacies, such as counterpoint among massed instruments and canons at the 16th, were obscured by a ballet based on the Lobster Quadrille.

I loved the ballet, brilliantly choreographed by Roberto Forleo and danced superbly by members of the Portland Ballet. It was even more erotically charged than the company’s “Carmina Burana,” with poses that seemed based on the paintings of Egon Schiele, Balthus and Dorothea Tanning.

The Queen of the Lobsters, danced by Erica Deisl, was a dominating presence, the lobsterman in yellow overalls, danced by Derek Clifford, subtly menacing, and Alice herself, played by Kaitlyn Hayes, the picture of gawky adolescence, torn between resistance and desire, as in “Will you, won’t you, will you, won’t you, won’t you join the dance?”

The problem with a ballet so well done is that it rivets the attention, making the subtle effects of the music sometimes go unnoticed. In that way, the symphony was the reverse of a ballet suite, such as the symphonic Prokofiev “Cinderella” Suite No. 1 (Op.107) that preceded it. Perhaps the answer would be to shorten the symphony into a ballet version.

That said, the orchestra, under music director Robert Moody, did an excellent job with a difficult score, aided by soprano Margaret Carpenter Haigh, who is able to sing sweetly, bark like a yapping dog through a megaphone or read nonsense verses with equal aplomb. Del Tredici’s folk band, including mandolin and accordion, also worked effectively, as did an appropriately spooky Theremin.

The performance received a reluctant standing ovation from an audience that didn’t quite know what to make of it, gaining in applause as Del Tredici himself mounted the stage.

The program before intermission was equally good, with a powerful and atmospheric “Cinderella” Suite and an intimate, well-nuanced Haydn Symphony No. 69 in C Major (“Laudon”).

(In the program, the “Cinderella Suite” Pas de Châle (shawl dance) was mis-translated as “Cat’s Dance” (Pas de Chat?) which I mention only because it did sound like a cat dancing. exemplifying the power of suggestion.)

VentiCordi Program Sparkles

VentiCordi Chamber Music
Woodford’s Congregational Church
Nov. 8, 2015
by Christopher Hyde

There are few chamber music concerts without dead spots, but VentiCordi managed that feat on Sunday at Woodfords Congregational Church, under the auspices of the Portland String Quartet. Every piece on the program sparkled, or, in the case of Schoenberg’s “Ein Stelldichein” ( A Rendezvous) glowed like a black opal.

The Schoenberg, unfinished at 77 measures, comprises an entire dark world of loss and sorrow, and transfigures it. A companion piece to the more famous “Verlklarte Nacht,” also based on a work by Richard Dehmel, it goes further in the direction of atonality.

The composition does not follow the poem directly but creates a similar atmosphere, in which “The foliage hangs silently on the wet shrubs as if the leaves had drunk poison…”
It was lovingly performed by Kathleen McNerney, oboe, Kristen Finkbeiner, clarinet, Dean Stein, violin, Andrew Mark, cello, and Bridget Convey, piano.

The score has too many beauties to enumerate in a review, but I was particularly impressed by the winds and strings (VentiCordi) feeding on the overtones of massive piano chords, reminiscent of Brahms. The piano also managed cascades of falling leaves.

The work preceding it, “Fragments for Oboe, Clarinet and Cello,” by Robert Muczynski (1929-2010), also had its moments of sadness, but cheerfulness kept breaking through. The second fragment, “Solitude,” allowed the oboe to describe ripples on a black lake, a la “The Swan of Tuonela,” while the “Reverie” sounded like Copland in an introspective mood. The final “Exit” ended on a surprising tonic chord, like a Bach prelude.

A Trio for Clarinet, Violin and Piano by “Saber Dance” composer Aram Khachaturian (1903-1978) came as a surprise for its professional finish. Written when the composer was still a student, it contains all of the elements of his later work, with ethnic melodies and driving rhythms plus steppes music straight out of Borodin. The interweaving of the three voices was masterful. Either Khachaturian’s talent sprang full-blown or he developed little after his student days.

Eight Duos for Violin and Cello, Op. 39, by Reinhold Glière, were charming, especially to those brought up on his tutorial piano pieces. They too were lessons in form, melodic but exact. The second one, a Gavotte, sounded entirely authentic, as if the composer were writing in the 18th Century. Where his contemporary, Prokofiev, would have parodied it somehow, Glière plays it straight, which is somehow refreshing.

From a compositional standpoint, the only work on the program comparable to the Schoenberg was a Quartet for Piano, Oboe, Violin and Cello, by Bohuslav Martinû.(1890-1959). Written when the composer was recovering from a serious accident, it is nevertheless entirely upbeat, except for a somewhat brooding adagio. The final Poco Allegro, which could have been written by Stravinsky, is a scherzo, with a joke phrase that sounds like “a tisket, a tasket.” If anyone needs an accessible entree to “modern” music, the quartet has it all.

VentiCordi, founded by Stein and McNerney in 2009, deserves our thanks for bringing these delightful works to life. The performance of neglected music is unusual; to have it done so well, without any flavor of academia, is rare indeed.