Piano Series Ends on a High Note

Pianist Jean-François Latour
Gendron Franco Center, Lewiston
May 27, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

Serendipity. I was talking with Lewis Kaplan the other day about the new Bach festival he is organizing for Portland next month (June 19-24) and learned that he would be playing the famous Bach Chaconne from the Partita No 2 in D minor (BWV 1004) for solo violin. I mentioned that I loved the Bach-Busoni piano transcription. He thought it too florid and virtuosic and recommended the version by Brahms for the left hand alone,

I downloaded the music and was reading it when I learned that pianist Jean-François Latour would be playing the Brahms version on May 24 at the Gendron Franco Center (formerly the Franco-American Heritage Center) in Lewiston. Coincidence? I don’t think so; once one begins something, other events seem to fall in line.

Unfortunately, I thought the concert was at 7:30 rather than 7:00, so I missed some of the Chaconne. I did hear enough, from a very fine musician, to agree with Kaplan. Transcribing the piece for the left hand imitates the difficulties of the score for a violinist, without adding to or subtracting from anything of its character.

Bach, who liked to transcribe his own works for other instruments, would have approved.

Latour’s recital was the sixth and final one of this season’s piano series at the Franco Center. The recitals, which attract outstanding talents from all over the world, are too little noted outside Lewiston-Auburn, and well worth the drive from Portland. Besides, there’s cake and champagne with the artist after the performance.

Most of the program was devoted to Brahms, including, in addition to the Chaconne, three Intermezzi, Opus 117 and the 16 Waltzes of Opus 39. For a French-Canadian pianist (He was born in Trois-Rivières, Quebec, and studied at Peabody and the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto) Latour shows a remarkable affinity for Brahms, adding a brilliance to the works that is too often lost in four-square or overly Romantic interpretations. He called the waltzes a necklace of diamonds, and they were.

What is most remarkable about his readings is their emphasis on inner voices, sometimes two or three at once. In Brahms at his best there is sometimes a high-pitched secondary melody that hovers over the work like a bright cloud. The only thing close to it is the treble voice that seems to appear out of thin air in Tuvan throat singing, or the overtones of a didgeridoo. Latour evokes it better than most pianists I have heard.

The program concluded with three posthumous Schubert Impromptus (D.946), which demonstrated an affinity as deep as that for Brahms. Schubert’s mercurial mood (and key) changes came and went like fair-weather cumuli in a summer sky, and no one has decoded the complex rhythms of the final Allegro with more clarity.

My favorite has always been the second Impromptu. I remain convinced that it is the origin of the famous song “Lilly Marlene,” but better composed and less obvious. Latour received a well-deserved standing ovation for his performance of all three.

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

DaPonte’s Respighi a Home Run

DaPonte String Quartet
Unitarian Universalist Church, Brunswick
May 22, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

Two out of three ain’t bad. The theme of the DaPonte String Quartet’s most recent series was “Dino’s Hit List,” three of the favorite compositions of quartet violinist Ferdinand Liva. Of course, hit list has another connotation as well.

Before Sunday’s concert, at the Unitarian Universals Church in Brunswick, Liva did not say why he had selected Mozart’s String Quartet in B-flat Major, KV 589, a work composed for the King of Prussia, who was an ardent cellist, not a violinist.

The late work, frankly, is not one of Mozart’s best. The DaPonte cannot play anything badly, but the writing seemed a little thin at times. It was improved by a fine cello melody during the Larghetto and in the final Allegro assai, a scherzo-like movement which reminded one of what Beethoven did with the traditional minuet.

What followed, however, was truly amazing-—the Quartetto Dorico, Op. 144 of Ottorino Respighi. The Dorian mode corresponds to a scale consisting of the white keys on a piano from “D” to “D”. It has also been called “Russian minor,” and Respighi may have encountered it during his studies in orchestral color with Rimsky Korsakov.

Respighi is best known for his atmospheric landscape portraits, such as “The Pines of Rome,” composed around the same time as the Quartetto. He was a member of string quartets and the Op. 144 uses his knowledge to great effect. The writing is orchestral, and the DaPonte was able to express it perfectly, raising the volume a notch or two without pushing the limits of the instruments.

The initial theme, played in unison, appears repeatedly, in transformation after transformation, ending in a triumphant fugue. In between, the feeling is pantheistic, like the music of Janacek, impressionistic, like Ravel or his own “Pines of Rome,” and sometimes archaic, like his “Ancient Airs and Dances.” But the quartet is by no means a pastiche. It holds together beautifully.

Respighi, a genius who deserves to be better known, seems to have devised a “third way” of advancing the art of composition without resorting to atonality or serialism. The quartet is full of magical effects; at one point the violin enters with a high-pitched bird whistle over a rustle like wind in trees, with absolutely startling clarity.

Just when you thought it couldn’t get any better, there came a masterful account of the Beethoven String Quartet in E Minor, Opus 59, No. 2.

The other day, I was entranced by what Beethoven could do with the “V for Victory” motif of the Fifth Symphony. The E Minor Quartet shows what genius can do with a simple interval, also stated at the very beginning.

As just one example, the interval is treated as a heavily accented iamb on the first violin, serving as an accompaniment to the melody, and it is ravishing. The Russian folk song in the Allegretto, with its off-kilter rhythms, has been immortalized, and the quick march of the presto somehow evolves into a galloping horse.

The playing was spectacular and led to a rare standing ovation for the final concert of five throughout central Maine.

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

MIdcoast Symphony Presents a Truly Operatic Verdi “Requiem”

Midcoast Symphony Orchestra
Verdi “Requiem”
Franco Center, Lewiston-Auburn
May 14, 2016

Producing Verdi’s “Requiem” is aways a major undertaking, but the Midcoast Symphony under Rohan Smith, the Oratorio Chorale, Vox Nova and a fine cast of soloists carried it off in great style Saturday night at the Franco Center in Lewiston.

The full-length mass was sung without intermission before a full house, the largest audience I have seen for a Midcoast concert at this venue. The performance rightly emphasized the operatic nature of the work.

What never ceases to surprise me about the Midcoast is the caliber of soloists it attracts with regularity. Saturday’s vocalists, who play a star role in the operatic Mass, were no exceptions. They were Rachele Schmiege, soprano, Rebecca Ringle, alto, Kevin Ray, tenor, and Gustav Andreassen, bass. (Really good basses must be named Gustav or Boris.)

All were outstanding, but Verdi’s favorite in this work is the soprano, who gets all the good parts after the final Dies Irae, often seeming to be arguing successfully with God. Schmeige has the power and clarity to soar effortlessly above the full orchestra and two of Maine’s best choirs.

Speaking of choirs, it often appears to be a waste of talent to write the score for two; it is so difficult to distinguish the parts that the composer might as well have specified one large chorus. That is until the great fugue (also after the Dies Irae) in which Vox Nova and the Oratorio Chorale plainly distinguish themselves as separate voices. It makes the whole thing worthwhile.

For the other choral sections, it might help to separate the choirs physically, but that doesn’t seem possible within the limited stage space at the Franco Center.

The orchestral part of the Requiem is ideal for an amateur ensemble, but the Midcoast sounded anything but. The balance of forces was near-perfect. The visions of Hell in the Dies Irae were effective, as were the trumpet calls from the rear of that hall in the Tuba mirum, which startled some of the audience members. One child put his hands over his ears like the young Mozart at the sound of a trumpet.

The pause half-way through, to allow orchestra members to re-tune, was a mistake. It broke their concentration and there were a few sour noes afterward, but only for a measure or two.

All-in-all, it was a grand effort, surpassing a professional performance here a few years ago, and well deserved its standing ovation and curtain calls.

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

Portland Bach Festival Coming Soon

Portland Bach Festival
June 19-24, Portland, Maine
by Christopher Hyde

The new Portland Bach Festival, (June 19-24) featuring internationally known artists, the Oratorio Chorale, St. Mary Schola, period instruments, a Bach and beer party at Ocean Gateway, and the Maine premier of a Bach concerto for three violins, is coming up soon, and ticket sales are brisk, according to festival artistic director Lewis Kaplan. Since the venues are intimate—St. Mary’s Church in Falmouth, and St. Luke’s in Portland— it would be advisable to purchase them soon.

The festival is the brainchild of Kaplan and Emily Isaacson, director of the Oratorio Chorale. Kaplan, a prominent violinist and teacher (at Juilliard), recently resigned as artistic director of the acclaimed Bowdoin International Music Festival, which he co-founded over 40 years ago.

While there is always interest in Bach, regarded by many as the pre-eminent composer of all time, the festival also fills in a (relatively) empty time slot, between the regular concert season and the beginning of summer music festivals throughout the state.

Kaplan believes that it will be well attended by local audiences, and also serve as an incentive to music lovers to visit the state. “Concerts in the round, with period instruments, will give audiences an authentic experience of Bach. I’ve played in concerts around he world, and I want people attending these in Maine to feel that the musicians are playing just for them.”

As for the premiere of the Bach Concerto for Three Violins, here is what violinist Ariadne Daskalakis, who will be playing the work, wrote to me about it:

“It is surmised that Bach originally composed a Concerto for 3 Violins in D Major (sometime around 1716 – in which case we would have a 300th year anniversary!) which he then transcribed for 3 harpsichords. (It was a common practice to transcribe pieces for different instruments and to reuse material as necessary.) In the meantime only the autograph of the version for 3 harpsichords survived – known today as the Concerto for 3 Harpsichords in C Major BWV 1064. Various scholars have used that piece to reconstruct the version for 3 violins – now known as the Concerto for 3 Violins in D Major BWV 1064R. At the Portland Bach Festival in June we will perform a reconstruction of this piece by the German musician Sebastian Gottschick (who happens to be my husband). The music is all original Bach, and the score has been reconstructed with the intention of capturing all the voices in a manner suitable for the instrumentation.
It is a substantial 3 movement work. The 2 outer movements are quite festive and the slow middle movement is plaintive and lyrical. The 3 solo violins have significant individual roles throughout the piece, and sometimes they play together as a group within the ensemble.”

The concerto will be played at the final concert of the festival, at St. Mary’s Church, on June 24. The program also includes my favorite Brandenburg Concerto, Number 5, with its glorious harpsichord part, to be played by Arthur Haas on a harpsichord by R.G. Regier of Freeport.

Other highlights, in chronological order, include the Cello Suite No. 6, played by the award-winning cellist Beiliang Zhu, on a baroque five-string cello, the Trio Sonata for Flute, Violin, and Continuo in C Minor from “A Musical Offering” – BWV 1079 and the famous Chaconne from the Partita for Violin in D Minor – BWV 1004, played by Kaplan.

Chorale works will include the Cantata, “Wachet Auf” – BWV 140, and the Cantata, “Der Herr denket an uns” – BWV 196, sung by the Oratorio Chorale, and the Motet, “Singet Dem Herrn”­­ – BWV 225, by St. Mary Schola,

Each concert will be preceded by a half-hour exposition of the music, free and open to the public. Children’s events are also free and will include a special concert and an instrument-making workshop.

A complete schedule and information about the artists is at www.portlandbachfestival.org.

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

Portland Symphony Plays a Memorable Fifth

Portland Symphony Orchestra
Merrill Auditorium
May 3, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

Are there any undiscovered masterpieces? There may be, but if so, they are few and far between. The vast majority of music vanishes after its first performance, if any, and is relegated to the archives, where it languishes until “rediscovered,” only to vanish again.

These unoriginal musings were prompted by the performance at Merrill Auditorium Tuesday night of Erich Korngold’s Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D Major (Op. 35) by the Portland Symphony Orchestra under music director Robert Moody,

Korngold is best known as an Oscar-winning composer of movie music, although he began his career as a child prodigy turned composer in Moravia (now part of the Czech Republic).

The orchestra gave the work its best effort, and the soloist, Christoph Koncz, knows film music inside and out, having played the hero in “The Red Violin.” Still, through the entire performance, I was picturing scenes from “Schindler’s List.”

Was it merely association of the composer with cinematography? Doesn’t all music conjure up images of some kind?

Not necessarily. (See Beethoven’s Fifth below.) Korngold, however, seems to be playing to the audience and calculating the effect of the scene, rather than letting the music speak for itself. One result is a lack of passion and self-assertiveness in the violin part.. It was beautifully played by Koncz, but its primary characteristic was a kind of wistful sweetness, pleasant enough, but wearing after a while.

I think it was Rilke who cautioned against journalism if one wanted to be a poet. The former rubs off too much on the latter, and the same thing seems to have happened to Korngold.

Tuesday’s program began with Smetana’s “Bartered Bride” Overture, one of my favorite compositions, played a little too fast and without enough attention to its striking effects. It could be that opera and abstract music don’t mix either.

I have purposely left Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony for last because nothing in the world remains to be said about it. It is a towering masterpiece that never loses its freshness, even after being played as a theme song on “Judge Judy.” One begins by admiring all the permutations of the “V” for Victory motif and ends in absolute awe and sometimes transfiguration.

As in all of its performances so far of the Beethoven cycle, the orchestra played above itself in every respect, earning a tumultuous standing ovation.

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

USM Singers Excel in “Coronation of Poppea”

“The Coronation of Poppea”
USM School of Music
Corthell Hall, Gorham Campus
April 30, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

Claudio Monteverdi’s final opera, “The Coronation of Poppea,” (1643) seems strangely relevant today—a dissolute court indulging in trivial, illicit affairs while Rome burns, a pre-eminent poet and philosopher “half in love with easeful death,” and an amoral, petulant child in charge of an empire. “So, Marcus, what else is new?”

Sunday afternoon’s production of the opera, by Ellen Chickering, with the entire cast, save one, undergraduate students at the USM School of Music, was remarkable. It was accompanied by Tina Davis, harpsichord and Scott Wheately, ritornello, who admirably filled the role of the baroque instruments indicated by the composer.

The plot involves the seduction of the Emperor Nero by Poppea, circa 100 AD, and her coronation after the disposal of Nero’s former wife, Ottavia. The thesis, stated in the prologue, is the triumph of the god, or goddess of love, Amor, over both fortune and virtue.

Nora Cronin, with fake wings and ability at Karate, was excellent as the mischievous Amor, who protects Poppea from an assassin, Ottone, her former lover, sent by Ottavia in a futile attempt to save her marriage. (Amor quickly disarms him of a dagger and threatens to call down the lightening.)

The role of Poppea, sung by Cathryn Mathews, was well matched by Rhiannon Vonder Haar as Nerone, with just enough difference in timbre and pitch to contrast delightfully in their final duet, the most famous of the opera. A good actor as well, she manages to seem ambiguous about the balance between love and ambition, gazing at the golden crown rather than her lover in the finale

Vonder Haar managed to portray the young Nero as a spoiled but sometimes affectionate brat, who turns in an instant against his tutor, Seneca, and has no compunction about setting his wife adrift in a wooden boat. Ottavia was sung with an admixture of sadness, desperation and the viciousness of a cornered rat by Helena Crothers-Villers.

The opera could equally be entitled “The Death of Seneca,” since it comes alive when Seneca, played by bass-baritone Matthew LaBerge, says farewell to his friends and disciples. Their trio—Teremy Garen, Logan MacDonald and Thomas Hanlon—is one of the high points of the opera.

LaBerge has a powerful, deep voice and the ability to hit the lowest of low notes on “for” in “The death I long for.” His pitch was a little off at times in the intricate ornaments Monteverdi loved, which become more difficult the further down the scale one goes. I would like to hear him as the Hermit in “Der Freischutz,” or anything by Mussorgsky.

The secondary roles were also well sung, often stealing the show. Rachel Shukan as Drusilla, Lady-in-Waiting to Ottavia and Ottone’s former lover, was radiant in her joyful aria welcoming Ottone back. As for aiding him in a little murder, no problem.

James Brown, as Amalta, Poppea’s frumpy nurse, was the epitome of practicality, trying to discourage her charge from overly ambitious plans. Their duet, when Poppea sings “Fighting for me, the God of Love,” over Amalta’s cautions, was another high point in the performance.

And one can’t forget Kiersten Curtis, playing the Goddess of Fortune in the prologue and the Goddess of Premonitions, Pallade, who appears to Seneca before his death, looking like Whistler’s “Study in White,” and singing the way one imagines a goddess would.

If I were producing “The Coronation of Poppea” tomorrow, I would try to cut the exposition a little, and would have it sung in Italian. Little of the meaning would be lost and the music would match the phrasing of the language more exactly. The English translation sometimes led to unintentional humor, or maybe it was just the youthful high spirits of the performers. They earned a standing ovation with flowers.

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