A Valentine from the Portland Symphony Orchestra

Portland Symphony Orchestra
Merrill Auditorium
Jan. 26, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

There’s always a spike in the birthrate nine months after the dead of winter, but October 2016 might show more fecundity than usual, due to the Portland Symphony Orchestra’s erotic tribute to Richard Strauss, Jan. 26 at Merrill Auditorium.

The program opened with the Beethoven Symphony No. 8 in F Major, Op. 93, part of the orchestra’s three-year Beethoven cycle. This was great music, well played, except for a bit of distraction at the opening of the Tempo di menuetto, but after intermission it was easy to see where the players’ hearts really lay.

Music director Robert Moody, after requesting no applause between selections, played four works by Strauss as if they were movements of a Romantic symphony, a conceit that worked quite well. The four, which portray various forms of eroticism, built up to a thunderous climax, with a brilliant performance of the final scene of “Salome,” sung passionately by soprano Patricia Racette.

The four were all closely related by Strauss’ unique sound–one of the marks of greatness–and by echoes of other works. The scoring of the final act of “Salome,” for example, recalls another image of despised love, in “Der Rosenkavalier,” but this time without the slightest hint of resignation. It is just Eros vs. Thanatos, and Thanatos wins, or does he? After Salome’s ferocious consummation, there’s nowhere else to go.

(Incidentally, I object to the slur on “Der Rosenkavalier” in the program notes. No, it isn’t Mozart, but something entirely different, and equally a work of genius.)

The first movement was the Prelude to Act. 1 of Strauss’ first opera, “Guntram,” (Op. 25). Influenced by Wagner and the ideal of the Teutonic knight, it has the sensual frisson of “Tristan und Isolde,” but better orchestrated and controlled.

The second, the love scene from “Feursnot,” is probably the world champion musical description of sex. H.L. Mencken would have proclaimed that it should not be played in polite company. It was perfectly (should I say lovingly?) rendered, down to the last high trumpet note.

Returning to the preliminaries was the “Dance of the Seven Veils” from “Salome,” (Op. 74), delightfully seductive, down to the falling whisper of the final garment. This is a work that used to be played more often. It runs counter to the modern predilection for instant gratification.

Racette was seductive, vicious, willful and wistful, clad in brown velvet, as Salome, triumphantly making love to the head of John the Baptist. Her voice, always clear and true, carried over the fortissimos of the orchestra effortlessly, and her portrayal of the various stages of emotion in the doomed heroine was mesmerizing. She and the orchestra received a well-deserved sanding ovation.

As Samuel Pepys used to say: “And now to bed.” Because “Music and woman I cannot but give way to, whatever my business is.”

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

Pianist Anastasia Antonacos Offers Varied Program at USM

Pianist Anastasia Antonacos
Corthell Hall, USM Gorham
Jan. 22, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

Pianist Anastasia Antonacos’ recital, Friday night at Corthell Hall, was doubly daring. She led off with two Preludes by contemporary composer Elena Ruehr (b. 1963) and continued with two of the most well-known works in the repertoire, inviting comparison with every great pianist of the 20th Century.

The Ruehr preludes—“…solitary figure at water’s edge…” and “…a storm approaches land…” (sic), were effective in an imagist way, the first characterized by dry treble sforzandos, like points of light, punctuating the overtones of lower chords, and the second by rapid rhythms and stormy passagework. Both reminded me of the “Poems for Piano” of Vincent Persichetti, with whom Ruehr studied.

In opening remarks, Antonacos suggested that the famous “Le Tombeau de Couperin” might have been influenced by Ravel’s fascination with “The Last Domain” by Alain Fournier, a chronicle of lost youth which may account for the deep underlying emotional content of what is supposed to be a compendium of early French music.

These emotions were explored in Antonacos’ technically flawless performance of what is one of the most difficult of piano scores, especially the unbelievable concluding Toccata. The fortissimo of the Menuet infuses that stately dance with all the tragedy of World War I.

If I had any quarrel at all with Friday night’s interpretation it would be with one of the pianist’s virtues, an almost metronomically precise rhythm.

This was a minor problem in the Ravel but took center stage in the performance of the Four Impromptus, D. 935 (better known as Opus 142) of Franz Schubert.

It was noticeable in No.1, in F Minor, not allowing the supremely lyrical theme of the work to breathe freely, but I was more interested in the unusually dark tone that Antonacos gave the piece, alluding to the tragedy of Schubert’s last years.

It was a disaster, however, in No. 2 in A-flat Major, a deceptively simple work that requires legato chords. To achieve this effect in perfect rhythm, it was necessary to slow down the tempo to a snail’s pace. That proved tedious, because of all of the repeats, and spoiled the melodic effect of the central passage.

The third Impromptu, variations on the “Rosamunde” theme, was more successful, due to the recognizable nature of the theme under all the rapid filagree, and turned out to be delightful in the uncharacteristic No. 4 in F Minor. This gypsy-like composition, with its dramatic effects, has virtually no melody at all. It seems to have come from another planet than the first three.

Friday’s recital was the first in the USM Faculty Concert series. On Feb. 26, John Boden, French horn, will be featured in “Horns Aplenty,” with pianist Martin Perry. and Maine horn players Scott Burdditt, Nina Miller and Sophie Flood.

Midcoast Symphony Changes the Climate

Midcoast Symphony Orchestra
Orion Center, Topsham
Jan. 16, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

It takes a Northerner to really appreciate Spanish music. The Maine residents who play in the Midcoast Symphony Orchestra must have a really passionate desire to experience warmer climes, or at least to re-create them among the snowdrifts. How else to explain the almost miraculous performances of de Falla, Ravel and Chabrier that conductor Rohan Smith elicited from the band on Sunday afternoon at Orion Center for the Performing Arts?

The final works on the program, two suites from Manuel de Falla’s ballet, “The Three Cornered Hat,” resulted in a rare standing ovation from a near capacity audience. It was well deserved. I have never heard the Midcoast perform as well in all its 15-year history. Everything–tempo, dynamics, orchestral color and elaborate rhythmical pulses–came together perfectly. The exciting orchestration sounded at times like that of Rimsky- Korsakov.

The woodwinds were particularly striking, sometimes rolling down the scale from flute to bassoon and back again. It was de Falla as he is never heard on a recording. It made me re-think my opinion of him as a minor national colorist.

All three of the Spanish-flavored pieces, two of them by Frenchmen, are often selected by top-notch orchestras to display their virtuosity. The Midcoast outdid them all, if not in technical perfection then in contagious enthusiasm.

Another superb advertisement for live music came in the form of Ravel’s “Alborada del Gracioso,” which began life as one of that composer’s fiendishly difficult piano pieces. One knows how complex the polyrhythms are when even a highly accomplished percussionist can be seen counting. Ravel never wrote anything trivial–and that includes the Bolero–but the Alborada is often performed like an insignificant piece of atmospheric writing.

Nay, not so, but far otherwise. It is musical to a fault, exploring the far reaches of contrasts, with brass sforzandos like lightning bolts through a cane jungle of pizzicato. Smith, in opening remarks, characterized it as both grotesque and mysterious. As played by the Midcoast it was both of these, and more.

The program opened with Emmanuel Chabrier’s well-known “España,” which concerned me a little. It was together, lively and up-tempo, but some of its striking brass accents were slightly off the mark. Maybe the players’ fingers and lips were cold, since the work improved vastly as it went along.

The orchestra really came into its own with the next offering, the Beethoven Symphony No. 1 in C Major, Op. 21. The Portland Symphony Orchestra recently performed this work as part of its three-year cycle of all Beethoven’s symphonies, and I must confess that I preferred the Midcoast’s version. The so-called minuet, which is actually a scherzo, was appropriately wild, and the beauty of the finale was enough to bring a tear to one’s eye.

Technically, the Beethoven, in its use of sforzando-like strong accents, resembled enough of the Spanish works to make it fit right in with the rest of the program.

Schopenhauer once questioned why we denigrate those who practice an art out of love —amateurs— while praising those who do it for money —professionals. Why indeed?

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

Eroticism in Music

Classical Beat Column
by Christopher Hyde

The Portland Symphony Orchestra’s “Beethoven and Strauss” program, Jan. 24 and 26 at Merrill Auditorium. in addition to Beethoven’s shortest and most unusual symphony, the Eighth, includes some of the most erotic works in the repertoire: Richard Strauss’ Prelude to Act I of “Guntram,” Love Scene from “Feursnot” and the famous “Dance of the Seven Veils” from “Salome,” with guest artist soprano Patricia Racette.

It was reported a few years ago that scientists at the Montreal Neurological Institute have discovered that music activates the same reward centers of the brain as food and sex.

Some pieces of music activate better than others, but the effect has nothing to do with content. Overt or hidden erotic messages, as in the pieces programmed by the PSO, may help, but Beethoven and Bach affect the same pleasure centers as “Der Rosenkavalier.” What other areas they stimulate–memory, discovery, aesthetic beauty or rational intellect–is an entirely different question. (See Oliver Sacks’ “Your Brain on Music.”)

There are a couple of Bach cantatas that have the same erotic effect—Christ as the immortal beloved— as the Bernini sculpture of the Ecstasy of St. Teresa. “Wann kommst du, mein Heil?” from the Cantata No. 140 is one.

Music director Robert Moody has selected two leading candidates for the most erotic piece of music, at least according to some informal surveys on the internet.

Richard Strauss has the largest number of mentions, including “Der Rosenkavalier,” which is full of hidden risque meanings, “Salome” and even the “Domestic Symphony” and the “Four Last Songs.” Strangely enough, no one mentioned “Die Frau Ohne Schatten,” which is about nothing but eroticism.

A Ravel work, the “Bolero,” also had several mentions. I find it quite similar to the “Liebestod” in its gradual build-up to an overwhelming climax, in the case of the Wagner a union of Eros and Thanatos, and in the Ravel, appropriately enough, a change of key.

Among the moderns are, of course, Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” and Schoenberg’s “Pierrot Lunaire,” plus John Adams’ “Harmonium.” Since Adams is one of Moody’s favorite composers it would be interesting to hear this some time near Valentine’s Day.

There was also considerable discussion of Luciano Berio’s tape “Visage” for voice and electronic sounds, although to my mind this one and Pierrot seem more weird than erotic.

One work that I was not familiar with was Karol Szymanovski’s Symphony No. 3. Szymanowski, a friend of pianist Artur Rubinstein, was openly homosexual when that was taboo, and the symphony is supposedly full of homoerotic messages.

I have always wondered exactly how erotic images could be conveyed in music, but an analysis of the images in the Third Symphony told me much more than I wanted to know. The treatise is one of the most abstruse pieces of musical analysis I have ever encountered, having to do (I think) with chordal analysis and progressions, as well as rhythm.

Many of the selections on the internet were equally puzzling, at least to this reader. Scriabin’s grandiose “Poem of Ecstasy” was right up there, but I find it more embarrassing than erotic. His early Chopin-like Preludes are more realistic and Romantic at the same time.

On the subject of eroticism in music one has to fall back on the old dictum about pornography: “I know it when I see it.”

In the meantime, “If music be the food of love, play on.”

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