A Musical Farewell

Portland Bach Festival
Episcopal Church of St. Mary, Falmouth
June 26, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

The Portland Bach Festival closed on a high note Friday, at the Episcopal Church of St. Mary in Falmouth, with stunning performances of three major works and a cameo appearance by Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling, who happens to have studied at Juilliard, majoring in drama. The Mayor emphasized the importance of the arts, especially classical music, in creating a vibrant city.

The concert included a world premiere of Bach’s Concerto for Three Violins BWV 1064R, reconstructed by Sebastian Gottschick. His wife, violinist Ariadne Daskalakis, was one of the soloists in Friday’s performance.

I am familiar with the version for harpsichords, apparently transcribed by Bach from a now lost three-violin concerto. It has virtuoso parts for each of the solo instruments and for the concertino as a whole, and was apparently written as a showpiece for Bach and two of his sons.

The violin version, artfully performed by Daskalakis, Renée Jolles, and Yibin Li, with the Festival Orchestra, works even better than the keyboard arrangement. Each violin (and its player) has a distinctive sound and style, making it easier to separate the voices and appreciate their combinations.

Either version is amazing when performed well, and Friday’s performance was as good as it gets. I must confess that as a youngster I agreed with Berlioz, that most of Bach was boring. I now share the opinion of festival founder Lewis Kaplan, that Bach is simply the greatest composer in the Western Classical Music pantheon. I was misled by somber, academic performances, and in any music, performance is (just about) everything.

The myriad cantatas are a case in point. The program began with Cantata No. 196, “Der Herr denket an uns.” written to be performed at a betrothal. As sung by Sarah Bailey, soprano, Jonathan Woody, bass-baritone, and Jason McStoots, tenor, with the festival orchestra and the Oratorio Chorale under Emily Isaacson, it was enough to make one want to go to church every Sunday in the year. Pure joy.

Its high point was an unusual duet for tenor and bass, which repeats the phrase “more and more” from “May the Lord bless you more and more, you and your children.” eleven times. Bach had 20 children, 10 of whom survived into adulthood.

The evening concluded with the Brandenburg Concerto No. 5, BWV 1050, with Jolles, violin, Emi Ferguson, flute, and Arthur Haas, harpsichord, with the Festival Orchestra.

I used to like the piano version, as played by Glenn Gould, since the keyboard part stood out, but the harpsichord, under Hass’ touch, wins the contest. unifying the structure and spinning out the intricate solo like a string of understated pearls. The combination of flute and violin, contrasting with the tone of Rob Regier’s harpsichord, was ravishing.

After the final note, and a long standing ovation, the audience didn’t want to go home. Kaplan and Isaacson plan to do it again in 2017. Better get your tickets now.

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

(Note: I was receiving so much spam that I had to cut off the comment section of my web site. I would like to hear your thoughts and am working on a way to include legitimate comments.)

Portland Symphony Excels at Norwegian Music

Portland Symphony Orchestra
Merrill Auditorium
June 21, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

Mainers love their Grieg. Merrill Auditorium was sold out Tuesday night for a performance by the Portland Symphony Orchestra of his “Peer Gynt” suites 1 and 2, plus modern Norwegian music of note.

Music Director Robert Moody was called away for personal reasons and assistant conductor Norman Huynh filled in admirably, both in the Grieg pieces and in supporting violinist and composer Henning Kraggerud.

The “Peer Gynt” suits are arguably the best known of classical music, right up there with “The Moldau” and the “1812 Overture.” They are charming, melodic, sad and ferocious, and the PSO played them as if they were brand new.

Like the “1812 Overture,” “In the Hall of the Mountain King,” from Suite No. 1, surprises every time by the inspired craftsmanship of its composition. It builds perfectly and uses orchestral color like Rimsky-Korsakov in one long, and tremendously exciting, crescendo. The last work on the program, it brought the audience to its feet.

The program began with the premier of an orchestration of Ola Gjeilo’s “Meridian” by Delvyn Case Jr. A highly rhythmic piece, it is an ostinato, built on a repeated musical phrase, like Ravel’s “Bolero,” which is directly quoted at one point. The ostinato, introduced by the piano, becomes submerged in the orchestra, which initially plays the melody over it, and finally transforms everything into itself.

The work is tonal, hypnotic and well orchestrated, and was given an enthusiastic response by listeners who had come to hear Grieg.

Kragerrud opened his violin performance with a lovely, and virtuosic, waltz by his great grandfather, Christian Sinding, a Norwegian composer and friend of Grieg who deserves to be better known. His work is certainly romantic, but it also has a cutting edge.

It was followed by excerpts from Kraggerud’s recent composition, “Equinox,” for violin and orchestra. To quote from a jacket blurb: “Equinox comprises four concertos – Afternoon, Evening, Night and Morning – each of which consists of six postludes, making 24 in all. These postludes are written in 24 keys and depict 24 hours and 24 time zones, taking the listener on a kaleidoscopic tour across the world and time, and journeying musically through the circle of fifths, beginning in C major. The postludes are by turn joyful, mournful, effervescent and heart-wrenching.”

They are all of that, and as inventive as Bach in “The Well-Tempered Clavier.” I don’t know which ones he played (there was no mention of “Equinox” in the program) but there was a long line at intermission waiting to buy a CD of the complete set.

At one point Kraggerud turned his back to the audience and presided over the violin section with the loudest notes I have ever heard emanating from that instrument. In an encore, the muted violin played over strumming from every section of the strings, sounding rather like a Balalaika orchestra.

One take-away from the concert-—every composition showed the influence of
Greig in some way or another. It was as if dissonant or 12-tone music had never existed. Which was fine with this audience, and perhaps many others.

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

Bach Festival Sets New Standard

Portland Bach Festival
St. Luke’s Cathedral
June 20, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

In Phillip Glass’ new autobiography ”Words Without Music, “ he makes a good case for music as a trinity in equal collaboration—composer, performer, audience —(even if the audience is also the performer.)
The second concert of the new Portland Bach Festival, Monday night at St. Lukes’s Cathedral in Portland, had all three in abundance. It also had another sine qua non— fine instruments, including an Amati cello and one of Rob Regier’s magnificent harpsichords, made in Freeport, Maine.
The Bach Sonata for Violin and Basso Continuo in E Minor, BWV 1023, played by Ariadne Daskalakis, violin, Arthur Haas, harpsichord, and Beiliang Zhu, cello, was played at a pitch used by Bach (“A”-415), slightly lower than the modern “A”-440.
The next work, the Brandenburg Concerto No. 6, BWV 1051, was played at the modern pitch, and all Haas had to do was push a lever on the harpsichord to switch over. Before that I was wondering if Regier, who was in the audience, would have to retune the entire instrument between numbers, or wheel in a new one.
Technicalities aside, the concert made me think I had been away from New York for too long. Nothing is perfect, or the world would come to an end. Still, the Bach Festival, like its predecessor in Bethlehem, Pa, sets a new standard.
Having the concerts in the round, like last night’s in the small rotunda at the back of the cathedral, gives them an authentic intimacy, to say nothing of improved acoustics. The final Brandenburg No. 6, played by a concertino of two violas. Nicholas Corda and Danielle Farina, with a small chamber ensemble, had exactly the right volume and tempo.
Every detail was clear, and the rapport between the musicians, who were obviously enjoying themselves, was a delight to behold. This was virtuosity as play, in a genre that is often taken much too seriously. Bach can be a joy to hear without being any less profound.
Even the pauses between movements would have fascinated John Cage. No rustling, no coughing. You could have heard a pin drop. And there was that tiny fermata after the last note, and before the standing ovation, that signifies a truly musical experience.
The contrast between the concerto and the preceding sonata, played at a lower —and very satisfying— pitch, was a stroke of programming legerdemain. The interplay of violin and cello in the sonata gave a new meaning to the form of basso continuo.
The program began with the Cello Suite No. 1 in G Major, BWV 1007, played by Nicholas Canellakis, sounding like an entire orchestra. In spite of dramatic leaps and sudden changes in tonal color, his reading was both relaxed and melodic, setting the tone for what came after.
It was followed by the Trio Sonata from “The Musical Offering,” BWV 1079, by Renée Jolles.violin, Emi Ferguson, flute, Zhu, cello and Haas, harpsichord. I should have been listening for all the appearances and transformations of the tune Frederic the Great gave Bach to improvise upon. Instead, I was watching Emi Ferguson on the baroque flute, looking like a musician from a mosaic uncovered at Pompei.
(I’m sorry I won’t be able to attend the Bach and Beer Festival this afternoon. I hope someone has thought to brew some Bock.)

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

Something About Grieg

Something About Grieg
by Christopher Hyde

The Portland Symphony Orchestra will conclude its 2015-2016 season with an all- Norwegian concert on June 21, ending with Edward Grieg’s two “Peer Gynt” Suites—incidental music to Henrik Ibsen’s play of the same name.

Greig’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King” from “Peer Gynt” Suite No. 1, was the first piece of music I can recall hearing. I played the 78-RPM record until it wore out. The music was so exciting that I ran around the house screaming (in a good way). Then an older girl introduced me to a dual recording of Greig’s Piano Concerto in A Minor, coupled with Schumann’s concerto in the same key, (Dinu Lipatti?) and I never looked back. My own small-size 33-1/3 of the concerto, in a heavier plastic than vinyl, pictured Danish pianist Victor Schiøler on the red cover, smoking a cigarette. (This was shortly after World War II, when virtually everyone smoked.)

Grieg (1843-1907) was in the forefront of the nationalist movement in music, although he preferred to think of himself as a composer in the universal classical tradition. He referred to one of his folk-loreish works as “redolent of cow flops.” In fact, many of his best compositions, such as the Piano Sonata and the Ballade, are no more Norwegian than Schumann’s are Germanic. As well as I can remember, the concerto never conjured up any visions of fiords, either, nor did trolls appear during “The Hall of the Mountain King.”

A long time later, when acting in “Hedda Gabler,” I read the script of “Peer Gynt,” and was surprised by what Ibsen had done with the fairy tale. The title character is much like Thomas Mann’s confidence man, Felix Krull, always running away from any sort of commitment. The play is surrealistic, combining dreams and stark reality, and in the last scene Peer encounters the button molder, who proposes to melt him down and start over again. The anti-hero is saved by the intercession of his mother, Aase, whose death scene, as portrayed by Grieg, is one of the high points of the suite.

The concert will feature Norwegian violinist Henning Kraggerud in selections from his own composition “Equinox,” 24 Postludes in all keys for violin and orchestra. He will also appear in a violin suite by Christian Sinding, a Norwegian composer known to all budding pianists for his “Rustle of Spring.”

The program will open with “Meridian,” orchestrated by Delvyn Case specifically for this performance. It was composed originally for wind by contemporary Norwegian composer Ola Gjeilo. “‘Meridian’ comes very much out of my love for ostinato or groove-based music,” said Gjeilo. I haven’t heard the orchestration, but the original is a pleasant tonal melody over a striking piano ostinato, Keith Jarret, the king of improvisation, would love it. It might be even easier listening than the Greig.

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