Celebration at Back Cove Honors Elliott Schwartz

Back Cove Contemporary Music Festival
Woodfords Congregational Church
April 8, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

There are several reasons to attend today’s concerts of the Back Cove Contemporary Music Festival, 3:00 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. at Woodfords Congregational Church.

One is to celebrate the 80th birthday of Maine’s pre-eminent composer, Elliott Schwartz.

Two is to hear a wide selection of the best contemporary music, which, no matter what you think of it, is unfailingly interesting, even to children.

Three is to obtain a copy of an Elliott Schwartz Festschrift (celebration writing), which contains 30 short musical scores by a Who’s Who of modern composers, many of them playable by any moderately accomplished pianist, and some by anyone with no musical skills whatsoever. At $10.00 it is an absolute steal.

All of the miniatures in the book, based on a tone row built from the letters of the composer’s name, are being premiered at the festival, now in its 8th annual session under the auspices of the Portland Conservatory of Music.

The opening night of the festival, on Friday, offered a highly varied selection of works, from improvisations on “Daphnis and Chloe,” through some characteristic Elliott Schwartz compositions, to the latest in audio-visual and electronic music.

It began with a pensive “Blue Prelude” on the organ by Harold lStover, evoking the Art Deco era of New York, and sometimes proving, like Fats Waller’s work, that the ponderous instrument can dance.

It was followed by an appropriately soothing (and sometimes growling) Lullaby for contrabass and piano, played by the composer, Joshua DeScherer, and pianist Jesse Feinberg, calling up images of waves and swaying grass.

Feinberg returned with pianist Gregory Hall for Improvisations on “Daphnis and Chloe,” which floated on a veritable cloud of notes, using “templates” published by Hall. The templates are like a jazz pianist’s cheat sheets written by Einstein. They contain information about melodies, keys, scales and chord progressions, among other indications, and enabled the two musicians to coordinate their playing perfectly. I am not a fan of electronic pianos, but in this case the contrasting sounds of a keyboard and a concert grand provided sonic variety in a virtuoso performance.

“Cycles” by Jonathan Hallstrom, combined projected images of emerging biomorphic forms with an electronic score that made one think of alligators in a swamp with peep frogs—delicious—as was Bill Matthews’ totally acoustical “Island” for stereo loudspeakers, a perfectly executed tribute to the soundscape of the Maine coast.

“small hands”(sic) by Frank Mauceri, digital video generation, and Macief Walczak, saxophone and digital signal processing, concluded the program on a somewhat disturbing note, whether or not the piece refers to a subject of the recent political debates. The composers describe it as a depiction of “the collective anxiety of living in a society organized in contradiction to our needs.”

Schwartz himself was represented by two characteristic works, his Prelude, Memorial and Aria, written for the memorial service of his friend, Ezra Lamdin, and “Dialog No. 1,” composed circa 1970 for bass player Bertram Turetsky.

Both are masterpieces, in different ways. The first, for cello and piano, begins as a cello solo interrupted by the piano, which eventually takes over, progresses through an interlude based on Lambdin’s age, (Nine by Nine), and ends with a waltz that although abbreviated, ranks with Ravel’s. The piece progresses from an unembellished “modern” style to end in a comforting tonality. It was lovingly played by Feinberg and Philip Carlsen, cello.

The composer’s noted sense of humor comes out in “Dialog No.1,” played by DeScherer. The dialog is between the musician and his instrument, and involves shouts, muttering, drumming, slaps and physical contortions, as well as some virtuoso playing, until the two resolve their differences.

What one will come away with from any of the concerts is an expanded awareness of what is happening in music today, and a better sense of Schwartz’ contribution to almost every aspect of the art.

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