Bach and Beer

Bach and Beer

The news that Lewis Kaplan, co-founder of the Bowdoin International Music Festival, is collaborating with Emily Isaacson, Bruce Fithian, and internationally known soloists to present a major new Bach Festival this June in Portland was welcome in itself (more on the festival and its musical content in a later column). That Isaacson is thinking of concluding the affair with a Bach and Beer party at a venue near the shore reminded me of H.L. Mencken’s story about how Bach’s Mass in B Minor saved him from death by thirst. (“Heathen Days” (1943))

Mencken and his publisher and friend, Alfred Knopf, were attending the famous Bach Festival in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, during Prohibition, (1920-1933) and discovered to their horror that every speakeasy in town was closed due to the sighting of “agents” some days previously.

He writes: “This seemed strange and unfriendly, for it is well known to every musicologist that the divine music of old Johann Sebastian cannot be digested without the aid of its natural solvent (malt liquor).”

They barely made it through the last concert and on their way to the train discussed how soon they could get a bootlegger to meet them at a station before New York.

Their taxi driver took pity on them and drove to a warehouse-like building with the telltale sign “Sea Food” above the door.

“We rapped on the door and presently it opened about half an inch, revealing an eye and part of a mouth. The ensuing dialog was sotto voce but staccato and appassionata. The eye saw that we were famished but the mouth hesitated.

‘How do I know,’ it asked, ‘that you ain’t two of them agents?’

‘Agents!’ hissed Knopf. ‘What an idea. Can’t you see us? Take a good look at us.’

The eye looked but the mouth made no reply.

‘Can’t you tell musicians when you see them?’ I broke in. ‘Where did you ever see a Prohibition agent who looked so innocent, so moony, so dumb? We are actually fanatics. We came here to hear Bach. Is this the way Bethlehem treats its guests? We came a thousand miles, and now—‘

‘Three thousand miles,’ corrected Knopf.

‘Five thousand,’ I added, making it round numbers.

Suddenly I bethought me that the piano score of the B minor mass had been under my arm all the while. What better introduction? What more persuasive proof of our bona fides? I held up the
score and pointed to the title on the cover. The eye read:

J.S. Bach
Mass in B Minor

The eye flicked for an instant or two and then the mouth spoke. ‘Come in, gents,’ it said. As the door opened our natural momentum carried us into the bar in one leap, and there we were presently immersed in two immense Humpen….

It was a narrow escape from death in the desert, and we do not forget all these years afterward that we owed it to Johann Sebastian Bach, that highly talented and entirely respectable man, and especially to his Mass in B minor.”

I don’t know if Emily Isaacson has heard that story, but I’m sure Mencken would have approved of her idea and the plethora of micro-breweries now gracing the City by the Sea.

More on the festival soon and the Maine premiere of a newly reconstructed Bach concerto.

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

Midcoast Symphony Excels at Pops

Midcoast Symphony Orchestra
Orion Performing Arts Center, Topsham
Mar. 20, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

Finally, a real pops concert; popular favorites from the classics, rather than the usual uncomfortable combination of rock band and symphony, in which both sides lose.

It took the Midcoast Symphony Orchestra, under guest conductor Eric Hewitt, to do it right, and judging by the capacity crowd Sunday at the Orion Performing Arts Center, the audience is there for it. There was not a parking place within a half mile of the hall.

The afternoon got off to a shaky start, with some sour notes in the andante opening of Rossini’s “William Tell” Overture, but by the time the Lone Ranger theme came along, the players had caught fire and never looked back. During the finale, Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture,” they sounded like the Vienna Philharmonic, but with more brio.

The theme of the march, deliberately or not, gave the program continuity. The Napoleonic quick march (I forget the name of it), appeared in the Berlioz “March to the Scaffold” from his Symphonie Fantastique, as well as the “1812 Overture,” while more standard military versions were heard in the Radetsky March of Johann Strauss the Elder, and in Gounod’s “Funeral March of a Marionette.” The latter included some fantastic work by the woodwinds.

The obligatory nod to movie music came in the form of Gershwin’s “An American in Paris,” and John Williams’ Overture to “The Cowboys.”

The more I hear the “1812,” (with or without cannons) the more I marvel at how good it is. It transcends the categories of occasional and commissioned work by light years, and is one of the most well composed of Tchaikovsy’s works as well as the most inspired.

Its use of anthems, hymns and folk music to characterize the French and Russian adversaries before Moscow is masterful and can be appreciated as well by a first-time listener as by the most experienced musical professional.

From the warm, intimate cello hymn at the beginning to the frantic pealing of the bells of Moscow in the wind-driven flames, the orchestra was superb. It well deserved a resounding ovation and conductor Hewitt his bouquet from two charming little flower girls.

Let’s do this again soon.

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

A Craggy Rachmaninoff Third

Portland Symphony Orchestra
Merrill Auditorium
March 13, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

Overheard as the capacity audience left Merrill Auditorium on Sunday afternoon: “That was the best concert I’ve ever heard here.”

Well, not quite, but close. Music lovers jammed the hall to hear pianist Andrew von Oeyen Play the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 3 with the Portland Symphony Orchestra.

They were not disappointed, but it was music director Robert Moody’s programming of two unusual works before the concerto that made for a near-perfect afternoon.

The first was a mysterious agglomeration of eight works made sometime after 1956 by Dmitri Shostakovich, entitled Suite for Variety Orchestra No. 1. Some are straightforward marches and dances, with typical Shostakovich surprises and strange instrumentation..

Others are parodies of conventional waltzes, German bands and circus music. All are thoroughly delightful, but the waltzes take the cake, piling musical cliche on cliche until one expects the entire edifice to collapse under the weight of schmaltz. It doesn’t, and Shostakovich writes it all with a straight face, as if he were honestly trying to outdo Emile Waldteufel. One of them reminded me of Tom Lehrer’s “Weinerschnitzel Waltz,” with unlimited orchestral resources.

The orchestra obviously enjoyed it as much as the audience and its virtuosity at rapid tempo was little short of amazing.

Kurt Weill’s use of hackneyed forms, in his Suite from “The Three-Penny Opera,” was equally imaginative, but in the service of a darker vision. It was equally well played, especially the false fugue of the Overture and the flute and violin solos in “Polly’s Lied.” I had just written about Nico Muhle’s “Bright Mass with Canons,” and Weill’s concluding piece, “Kanonen,” with the same double meaning, was pure synchronicity.

Andrew von Oeyen’s rendition of the Rachmaninoff Concerto No. 3 was exciting and extremely forceful. His power, however, has both advantages and drawbacks. In the first movement the piano was often in danger of drowning out the orchestra, and a dynamic range starting at mezzo forte doesn’t leave much room for a crescendo. Fortunately, the pianist’s fortissimo is so strong that the climaxes still work.

On the plus side, von Oeyen worked well in some of the more delicate dialogs with other instruments, while his volume —and some idiosyncratic emphases— brought out passages obscured in most readings of this work. He also has the quick wit to get out of trouble unnoticed. The passion in the closing bars was palpable and brought tears to the eye and the audience to its feet instantaneously.

Then he spoiled the whole thing with an encore. An encore to the Rachmaninoff Third is bad enough, like putting catsup on foie gras, but the piece he chose had enough schmaltz to make Shostakovich proud. I wish guest artists wouldn’t do that, ruining the after effects of a masterpiece, but the practice seems to be becoming more widespread.

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

Oratorio Chorale Misfires, Then Hits the Mark

Oratorio Chorale
Woodfords Congregational Church
Mar. 5, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

I like to listen to new music, but sometimes I have to remind myself that, like all music ever composed, 99.9 percent of it is ephemeral. Not merely fleeting in time, but rather easily forgettable.

I was looking forward to hearing the revitalized Oratorio Chorale, under Emily Isaacson, perform Nico Muhly’s “Bright Mass with Canons,” (2005), but alas it was no “1812 Overture.” That’s a joke, son. The canons refer to a simple sort of fugue, like “Row, Row, Row Your Boat,” that pervades the mass. Why it is called bright, I have no idea, except that it sounds good on paper.

The opening night was at Woodford’s Congregational Church, and there will be two performances today (Mar. 6) at the Seventh Day Adventist Church in Brunswick.

Muhly, born in 1981, is a sort of compositional wunderkind who, in addition to other feats, had an opera of his (“Two Boys”) performed at the Met, which then commissioned another one, to be staged in 2019-2020, based on the Hitchcock movie “Marnie.”

The mass has some nice atmospheric touches, like the imitation of flowing water in the Sanctus and Benedictus, but essentially, in the composer’s own words, it “(creates) a flurry of sound to fill the space in the sanctuary.” Some of it is actually irritating, like the low pedal points on the organ that made one wonder if something was wrong with the heating system.

The organ was Muhly’s primary mistake. If the object is to imitate early English polyphony, the mass has to be sung a cappella. Otherwise the precise intervals at the juxtaposition of melodic lines cannot be heard at all.

The chorus and soloists gave it their best shot, but the cannons misfired.

The lovely Dvorák Mass in D, Op. 86, was a different matter entirely. The organ works well in what is essentially a homophonic composition, although the composer breaks into a fugue every time the concatenation of voices suggests it.

Its beauties are too many to list, but the quartet at the end, with the individual voices entering one by one, was a high point, set off by the gentle conclusion of the “dona nobis pacem.” One could almost hear the voices of Dvorák’s friends and family in the country chapel for which it was written. The entire work is a hymn to Pan, the “Piper at the Gates of Dawn.”

The soloists, Deborah Selig, soprano, Margaret Lias, mezzo-soprano, Gregory Zavracky, tenor, and John David Adams, bass baritone, were uniformly excellent, with enough volume to fill the large expanse of Woodfords Church. They should sound even better in Sunday’s smaller venue.

The chorale was more enthusiastic in the second half of the program, with a full range of dynamics, but not quite enough power in the bass line. The latter is still hard to do in Maine, whose Russian community is too far from Portland.

The Dvorák made the evening more than worthwhile, and the program was short, about an hour in length, with 40 minutes of that time filled with melody, leaving time to caucus.

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