Renaissance Voices Lift Christmas Spirits

Renaissance Voices
The Cathedral Church of St. Luke
Dec. 20, 2015
by Christopher Hyde

Renaissance Voices’ Christmas concert, conducted by Harold Stover since 2001, just continues to get better. It covers centuries, from the 12th to the 21st, but each selection fits exactly into the whole, like a facet of a highly polished jewel.

The a cappella choir has always been noted for its part singing, marked by precise intervals unobtainable with keyboard accompaniments. The bonus this year was its sheer power. After a plainsong-like “Tota pulchra es Maria,” by Angelina Figus (b. 1957) the fortissimo stanza of “Alma redemptoris mater,” by Felice Anerio (1560-1614) came as a complete (and delightful) surprise.

Most of the first half of the concert was devoted to works praising the Virgin Mary, including an earthy reading from Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) and a lively and melodious “Laetatus sum” by Alessandro Scarlatti (1660-1725).

The final set before intermission illustrated the musical development of a different theme– the opening of the heavens to allow God to descend to earth– also spanning centuries, from early plainsong, through a hymn of 1666, to the great “O Heiland, reiß die Himmel auf “(Op. 74, No. 2) of Brahms. Renaissance Voices is as much at home in the high classical as in vocal works on a smaller scale.

Following intermission, the choir opened with a lively, joyful rendition of “Jubilate deo” by Cipriano de Rore (c.1515-1565), followed by a mystical poem: “The Beginning of Speech,” by Syrian poet Adunis (b. 1930). The translation, well read by Kirk Read, depicts the confrontation of the poet with his boyhood self, and his wondering what they should talk about.

A set of carols by British composers, “Now may we singen” by Cecilia McDowall (b. 1951), “The birth of the Saviour” by Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) and “There is no rose of such virtue,” by John Joubert (b. 1929), introduced a more “Christmasy” element. I particularly liked McDowall’s deceptively simple setting of Middle-English verses, with its effective use of melodic voices over a drone in either the soprano or the bass section. The basses also stood out in “The birth of the Savior.

In conclusion, the power of the choir filled the cathedral in the “Hodie Christus natus est” of Silvio Marazzi (fl. 1570). The encore, following a standing ovation from the large audience, was Robert Shaw’s arrangement of the British carol “The Angel Gabriel.”

In this last review before Christmas, may I wish everyone Peace on Earth, Good Will to Men.

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

A Good Year for “Magic of Christmas”

Portland Symphony Orchestra
“Magic of Christmas”
Dec. 11, 2015
by Christopher Hyde

This year’s “Magic of Christmas” concert at Merrill Auditorium. the Portland Symphony Orchestra’s contribution to the holiday season, promises to be a hit with kids—short, with familiar carols, a large Magic of Christmas Chorus, under the direction of assistant conductor Norman Huynh. and best of all, fantastic acrobats and dancers from the Cirque de la Symphonie.

Santa also made a couple of appearances, impersonated by tap dancer Liz Pettengill..

Children (and some adults) are fascinated by the instruments of the orchestra and the unusual sounds they make, and they were front and center from the first number, a medley of tunes from “Christmas Fantastique” by Todd Hayen.

The arrangements take more than customary liberties with the tunes, and also feature unusual orchestration,and instrumental solos. Another part of the set, played later in the program, included a version of “The Little Drummer Boy,” with strangely middle-eastern harmonies in the brass section.

The instrumental opening was followed immediately by a stunning gymnastic display by Marco Balestracci to the “Dance of the Tumblers” from “The Snow Maiden” by Rimsky-Korsakov. Balestracci manipulated a large cube of glowing pipes with graceful ease, ending with it spinning by one corner, high above his head. His feats elicited a gratifying number of gasps and spontaneous applause, which were well deserved.

A funny parody of “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” “The Twelve Days After Christmas,” detailing the disposal of the gifts, was given a lively and clearly enunciated performance by the Magic of Christmas Chorus.

What really brought down the house was the last act before intermission, the Pas de deux from “The Nutcracker,” danced by Sagiv Ben Binyamin and Gana Oyunchimeg. The two gymnasts performed a series of jaw-dropping lifts and contortions that seemed like the normal choreography squared. It wasn’t ballet, but nevertheless a form of art, with Oyunchimeg’s (she’s Mongolian) fun-loving personality shining through.

The duo joined Balestracci later for a delightfully unbelievable dance trio to the “Parade of the Wooden Soldiers.”

The traditional works on the program included the popular “Sleigh Ride” of Leroy Anderson, complete with costumes and horse laughs, a full orchestra and chorus reading of the “Hallelujah” Chorus from “Messiah,” and good audience participation in the holiday carol sing-along.

The final work on the program, “I Heard the Bells” was, as PSO music director Robert Moody pointed out, a hopeful end to a Christmas concert in bleak times. Longfellow wrote it during the height of the Civil War, in 1863. John Baptiste Calkin later set the poem to music, which is the version I grew up with. Johnny Marks, infamous for ”Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” set the poem to music in the 1950s and some choruses, notably Fred Waring’s, have used this version.

There is only one problem with the Marks version. It’s terrible, tuneless and virtually un-singable, unless you’re an 80-voice ensemble. In an attempt at a glorious conclusion, the composer resorts to burlesque show drumbeats-—va va va voom. I have no idea why a competent arranger, such as Christopher Rouse, would have used it, or why the Magic of Christmas chose it, when Calkin’s setting is better known and better music.

However that may be, if the choice of one piece of music is the only quarrel with Magic, it’s a very good year. The next performances are on Dec. 12, 18 and 19 at 2:00 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., and Dec. 13 and 20 at 2:00 p.m. and 5:00 p.m.

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

Music Appreciation 101

George Bernard Shaw, one of my inspirations as a music critic, once observed that music appreciation classes had it all backward. One has to love the music first, and the history, biography and musicology will follow out of a desire to know more about the object of affection. No one ever came to enjoy a Chopin etude because of its masterful enharmonic modulations.

Shaw was lucky enough to have grown up in a musical family. exposed to the classics at an early age, before the development of a recording industry. That still works today, in some instances, but how is an adult to find his or her way into that rewarding and sometimes ecstatic world? All the guides to listening that I have read have done little to enhance my enjoyment and would be virtually useless to anyone looking for that first spark.

I thought of this ancient problem a while ago when the DaPonte String Quartet played the String Quartet No. 8 of Australian composer Peter Sculthorpe. This is certainly a “modern” work (1969), but even traditionalists in the audience told me how much they enjoyed it..

The tragic opening, played by the cello, draws one in immediately. After all, who doesn’t love a cello song, even if it includes some surprising bumps. The musical imagery of the rice harvest continues the fascination, with its blurring of the line between sound effects and written music. The driving rhythm propels the listener from bar to bar.

Then there is the almost subliminal remembrance of ancient work songs, followed by the shock of recognition when the cello song reappears and is repeated by the other instruments.

The way the quartet is organized and the development of the theme are straightforward enough to satisfy even a casual listener, without banality. It left me wanting to hear more.

The first prerequisite to real enjoyment of music is performance. Find the best performance, of anything, that you can. Even the greatest masterpieces are dead on arrival without an equivalent realization. If one doesn’t work, keep looking. You will be surprised. Sometimes an unknown orchestra and conductor capture the essence, at least for me, better than Herbert von Karajan and the Vienna Philharmonic.

The second is repetition. The recording industry has a lot to answer for in its treatment of classical music, but it does offer the opportunity to hear a specific work again and again, which eventually, with luck, will lead to an “aha” moment; what psychologists call the relaxation response and others call shivers up and down the spine. The test of great music is the one Robert Graves suggested for poetry: it should make the hair stand up on the back of your neck.

Another way in is rhythm, which is built into our bodies, and which everyone enjoys in one way or another. I first started listening to Bartok because of his complex and powerful rhythms, and eventually developed a taste for his modal style. This is also a good path from popular to classical.

Imagery is derided by musical purists, but it has led multitudes toward more abstract music. Think of “Peter and the Wolf,” “The Swan of Tuonela,” “The Four Seasons,” or “La Mer,” all of which are great music in themselves.

Recognition, even the vaguest kind, can also lead to enjoyment, as in the work songs of the Sculthorpe quartet. We don’t know their specifics, but the style is universal. This also applies to hymns or marches, as in Charles Ives’ music, or references to popular tunes, as in Bach’s “Goldberg Variations.”

An historical approach sometimes works, but there may be a chasm between a composer’s approachable work and his later output that requires a leap of faith. A good example is Shoenberg’s “Verklarte Nacht” and his later 12-tone music. Another is the early Chopin-like preludes of Scriabin and his later, monstrous tone poems.

Seeing how the mechanism works, as described in the listener’s guides, can also be fun in an intellectual way, but all too often I can’ t hear, in a live performance, what the writers are talking about.

Finally, there are various unmusical ways to acquire a love of music. Many students have used Mozart to improve their grades and come to love him. The greatest motive of all is snobbery. After all, classical music is an aristocratic form that requires a refined sensibility to appreciate. I really don’t care. Anything that gets people to attend concerts or listen to recordings is good — and may transform a life or two.

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

“Today’s Light” Is a St. Mary Schola Christmas

St. Mary Schola
First Parish Church, Brunswick
Dec. 8, 2015
by Christopher Hyde

Fine art is something no longer associated with Christmas. The exception is classical music, and the a cappella choir, St. Mary Schola, this year presents a veritable Uffizi Gallery of masterpieces from the early Renaissance to the Baroque. It is called “Today’s Light” (Lux Hodie).

Christmas doesn’t get any better than this, and music director Bruce Fithian has assembled a selection of choral works, accompanied by period instruments, that is ravishingly beautiful, entertaining, thought-provoking, and easily accessible to the modern ear.

The first of the three-concert series was performed Tuesday night at Brunswick’s First Parish Church. The second will be Friday, Dec. 11, at 7:30 p.m. in the Cathedral Church of Saint Luke in Portland, and the third at the Episcopal Church of St. Mary, Falmouth, on Sunday, Dec. 13, at 4:00 p.m.

If you want to be imbued with the true Christmas light in dark times, these, and the Renaissance Voices concerts at St. Luke’s, Dec. 19 and 20, are the ones to attend. St. Luke’s might be the best bet for the Schola; last year it was difficult to get a seat for the St. Mary’s performance.

I think that even children would be enthralled by this concert, especially if they are the slightest bit musical. The program begins with three selections from the 13th Century “Mass of Fools” in northern France, in which a donkey accompanied the officiant at the altar. After each stanza of “Orientis partibus” (in Eastern lands), the congregation chants “Hez, sir asne, hez!” (“Get up, sir ass, get up!”).

The first half of the program emphasized the joyous nature of the holiday. It is hard to single out individual selections from the wealth of musical offerings, but two pieces by William Byrd (c. 1539-1623) were especially notable. The first was an enchanting duet by Erin Chenard and Andrea Graichen: “An earthly tree, a heavenly fruit,” and the second “The day Christ was born,” a motet in which the voices reach heavenly heights.

The most modern composer on the program was J.S. Bach (1685-1750), represented by the duet “Ruft und fleht den Himmel an,” (“Call and pray to heaven”) sung by Abra Mueller and Martin Lescault, a delightful waltz that exemplifies the line “Come you Christians, come to dance!”

It was followed by “Stein, der über alle Schätze” (“Rock, superior to all gems”), sung by soprano Molly Harmon, accompanied on the recorder by Scott Budde.

Fithian saved the best for last—-two works by French composer Marc-Antoine Charpentier (1643-1704). The first, “In navitatem Domini continuum,” depicts the shepherds at the Nativity.

The second, “Magnificat à trois voix sur la même basse avec symphonie,” with Fihian at the Positif Organ, featured the entire choir, soloists Christopher Garrepy, countertenor, John Adams, bass, Martin Lescault, tenor and a “symphonie” composed of Mary Jo Carlsen, violin, Jon Poupore, viola, Katherine Sytsma, viol da gamba, Philip Carlsen, cello, Scott Budde, recorder, and Timothy Burris, theorbo.

It was astoundingly good, not only in harmony and counterpoint, but also in its dramatization of the various sections. On the strength of this work, I was about to commit heresy and declare Charpentier a better composer than Bach, a generation earlier, but I’ll have to wait for more evidence of the kind supplied by St. Mary Schola.

The evening’s music was interspersed with appropriate readings of poets from Milton to Richard Wilbur, by Andrea Myles-Hunkin, who even managed a middle English accent on the last of the Milton excerpts.

The program came full circle, from the topsy-turvey mass of fools to the similar world of the Magnificat, in which “He hath filled the hungry with good things. And the rich He hath sent empty away.”

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

Welcome Back, Maine Gay Men’s Chorus

The Maine Gay Men’s Chorus
First Parish Church, Portland
Dec. 6, 2015
by Christopher Hyde

It’s good to have the Maine Gay Men’s Chorus back for Christmas. The chorus, which disbanded in 2012, has regrouped under the direction of Larry Jackson, and gave its first Holiday concerts Friday, Saturday and Sunday at the First Parish Church in Portland.

As in the past, the program was a mixture of traditional Christmas carols, humor and classical music.

The high point of Sunday afternoon’s concert was a performance of arias from Handel’s “Messiah” by tenor Martin Lescault. I have never heard better readings of “Comfort Ye My People,” and “Every Valley Shall Be Exalted,” technically or dramatically. Lescault sang these extremely demanding works without strain and with deep feeling.

As if embarrassed to be seen on these classical heights, the chorus immediately launched into a parody of the “Hallelujah” by the Sisters of the Immaculate Deception. Having taken a vow of silence, the sisters nevertheless wanted to perform the great chorus, and lined up on stage with large cue cards containing all the syllables of the text, which they displayed at appropriate beats in the score. It was a difficult feat to get the timing right, but also hilarious, especially with deliberate confusion at the end. Some of the nuns attempted to achieve a fortissimo by holding the cards higher.

Lescault was heard again as soloist in “My Grown Up Christmas List” and the encore, “Night of Silence,” by Daniel Kantor. I normally regard “Silent Night” as hallowed ground, not to be disturbed in any way, but Kantor’s eloquent and subdued descants over the tune sung by the entire chorus, seem an exception to the rule.

A second guest soloist was Jennifer Miller, who was instrumental in getting the chorus back together. She sang a pop version of “O Holy Night,” with accompanist Sarah Phinney on piano.

The show also included some of the gay parodies for which it has become known: “Walking in Women ’s Underwear,” to the tune of “Walking in a Winter Wonderland,” “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” by two guys, one of them bald, leading to the punch line “Your hair looks swell,” and “Christmas Toys for Girls and Boys,” exploring stereotyped gender roles. “Dance of the Toy Flutes” included both innuendo and two bear-like dancers, one in a tutu.

The traditional pieces were well done, especially the opening “Canon of the Bells” and “O Tannenbaum,” which I haven’t heard sung in German since World War II.
Eric Smith was fine as soloist in a soulful version of “Who Is She That Travels.”

As is the case with (almost) every chorus, the Gay Men’s needs more basses. Who knows, they could eventually rival the Red Army Chorus.

Clarity at Christmas in the Cathedral

Christmas in the Cathedral
Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception
Dec. 5, 2015
by Christopher Hyde

“For now we see as through a glass darkly; for we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when that which is perfect is come, that which is in part shall be done away.”

I thought of these verses from the King James Bible at the beginning of the Choral Art Society’s’ Christmas in the Cathedral Saturday night, under the direction of Robert Russell.

The women’s voices in 13th and 14th Century Latin carols, “Angelus ad Virginem,” and “Verbum caro factum est,” had an angelic clarity, rather like that of a boy soprano, which is too rare in choral music. They retained it even in the latter work, which has more complex counterpoint.

They were joined by the tenors and bases in the processional, which has become a tradition at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception: “Personent hodie voices puerulae” of 1582. It gets better every year.

The Christmas concert rose to that level again after intermission, when soprano Sarah Bailey and mezzo-soprano Andrea Graichen sang an “Ave Verum” by Welsh composer Karl Jenkins (b. 1944), which was absolutely ravishing. It was accompanied by a piano obligato, played by Dan Moore, which was unable to reduce the perfect intervals of the voices to the “tempered” compromises of the keyboard.

The Portland Brass Quintet was in good form, with the trumpets ringing from the high vaulted ceiling, especially in the rapid ornamentation of “Rejoice and be Merry,” and the joyful pagan dance of the “Gloucestshire Wassail.”

Following their three solos, they took part in an experiment on Handel’s “Messiah,” a work that has become a little too much of a Christmas tradition, having been intended for Easter. The experiment was to replace the orchestral parts of four sections, including the “Hallelujah Chorus,” with a brass quintet.

To paraphrase Dr. Johnson’s comment: ”Sir, a woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.” The transcription was amazing, and generally well played, but it was an impossible task to begin with.

After intermission came two choir director specials, “Intrada” by Alfred Reed (1921-2005) and “Welcome all wonders,” by Richard Dirksen (1921-2003). The former was distinguished by an organ fanfare by Dan Moore, and the latter by a gradual segue into what sounded a little like a variation on “A Mighty Fortress…”

It was good to hear Gustav Holst’s “Christmas Day,” the ultimate holiday carol arrangement. It is actually composed, building upon familiar themes, instead of being thrown together in the usual pastiche.

Of course no Christmas concert would be complete without the thoroughly awful, a heavily amplified version of a gospel song, “He Never Failed Me Yet,” arranged by Robert Ray, in which the soloist drowned out the chorus. I ordinarily abide by my grandmother’s admonition–“If you can’t say anything nice, say nothing at all,” but the audience loved it, so it should be mentioned.

You can make up your own mind today (Sunday, Dec. 6). The matinee is sold out, but there are still tickets left for the evening performance at 7:30.