Gamper Festival Never Fails to Entertain

Gamper Festival of Contemporary Music
Studzinski Recital Hall, Bowdoin College
July 30, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

Every time I go to the Gamper Festival of Contemporary Music (July 29, 30, 31 at Bowdoin’s Studzinski Recital Hall) I wonder about the number of empty seats. Here is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to hear the best of 20th and 21st Century music, played by some of the world’s finest musicians, and it’s absolutely free!

Is it because of a generalized dislike of contemporary music? Saying you don’t like “modern” music is like saying you don’t like cheese. With several thousand varieties to choose from, the opinion is fatuous at best.

And what about the kids? People are always advocating things, like Sunday School, for the betterment of children, which they don’t do themselves. And here is something that they might actually like. Grandchildren pester me to play Bartok because it goes against the rule of not banging on the piano.

Saturday night’s program, as usual, had something for everyone to love or hate. It gave new meaning to “contemporary,” since all the composers, except for Luke DuBois, (b. 1975), whose installation, “A Jupiter Portrait,” greeted early arrivals, are deceased.

“Jupiter” is a large, high-definition video with close-ups of musicians playing a work composed for the recording—a nice amuse bouche, creating a hushed museum-like atmosphere instead of the usual seating bustle.

The imagery theme carried through with “Les citations,” by Henri Dutilleux (1916-2013), and “From My Garden,” by Ursula Mamlok (1923-2016). Both are in the Impressionist tradition, while Mamlok also uses a 12-tone row for her pointillist scene, described by solo violist Jing Peng.

The Dutilleux was notable for its unusual combination of timbres— oboe, percussion, harpsichord and double bass.

It was followed by a clever homage to Bach, Steven Stucky’s (1949-2016) “Partita-Pastorale, after J.S.B,” most successful when the imitation was closest.

The mercurial Alfred Schnittke (1934-1998) was represented by “Hymn No. 4.” I don’t know why it was entitled “Hymn,” except for the chimes, added to a heady combination of bassoon (lovely low notes), harp, cello, double bass, timpani and harpsichord, under the baton of Luke Rinderknecht. It is easy to see why Schnittke is one of the most popular contemporary composers, with over 50 CDs to his credit. The piece has an hypnotic drive and the unusual combination of instruments provides some wonderful effects.

The high point of the evening was the finale, the “Quintet for Clarinet and Strngs” of William Albright (1944-1998), played by Derek Bermel, clarinet, Renée
Jolles, violin, Janet Sung, violin, Phillip Ying, viola and David Ying, cello.

The Quintet is a long work, consisting of an introduction, a theme, and 12 variations on a long, intricate and baroque heme with seemingly no possibilities whatsoever. Albright then proceeds to surprise us, pleasantly, with variations that are sometimes musical in-jokes, sometimes moving, and sometimes spectacular, such as the Klezmer Fantasy that ends the piece. Bermel is a fantastic clarinet virtuoso and gave the fantasy his all.

The haunting “Night Music” variations are the equal of Bartok’s efforts at creating the same atmosphere.

I’m sure that tonight’s concert will be equally entertaining, moving, detestable and unfailingly interesting. Bring the kids.

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

PORTopera Delivers a Landmark “Carmen”

PORTopera “Carmen”
Merrill Auditorium
July 27
by Christopher Hyde

Bizet’s “Carmen” can be summed up by a well-known pornographic postcard from the composer’s Paris, in which a beautiful young woman accepts a bouquet from a Romantic lover. A drapery or curtain conceals her lower half, which is receiving the intimate attentions of a well-endowed brute.

In PORTopera’s new production, premiered Wednesday night at Merrill Autditorium, artistic director Dona D. Vaughn has elevated the love-lust dichotomy into to a tragedy worthy of “Macbeth.”

She is ably abetted by a fine orchestra, conducted by Stephen Lord, a cast like that of the Metropolitan Opera, and a set, with its sometimes solid and sometimes broken adobe walls, that mirrors the tragedy. The setting and authentic costumes, from Franco’s Spain of the 1930’s, also make a substantial contribution to Vaughn’s characterizations.

To take just one example, the bullfighter Escamilio’s absurd suit of lights emphasizes his role as Carmen’s ticket out of the gypsy life. He is not an heroic figure but the handsome boy next door, strutting his bravado but totally unsure of himself. Carmen can wrap him around her little finger. unlike Don José, who even wins a knife-fight with the toreador. The role is played with appropriate nonchalance by bass-baritone Edward Parks

If there were ever a mezzo-soprano perfectly suited to sing Carmen, it is Israeli-born Maya Lahyani, who combines a voice to die for with acting ability, beauty and stage presence. She is one of the few Carmens I have seen who makes Don Jose’s and Escamillo’s infatuation entirely believable.

After setting the stage, the tragedy begins when Carmen, uncharacteristically, waits for Don José because he has gone to prison for her. She is trying to break out of the flirtatious, man-killing pattern she has set, but after seducing Don José to join the bandit troop, she begins to regret her decision. Still, she stays with him longer than any other man in her life, until she finds herself outgunned by the traditional world, in the person of Micaëla, allied with Don José’s mother.

Tenor Adam Diegel, as Don José, has just the right mixture of passion and conventionality as the deeply divided anti-hero.

Soprano Amanda Woodbury is spectacular as Micaëla, whose seeming timidity and religiosity disguise a will as strong as Carmen’s and more sure.

Like Macbeth, Carmen consults an oracle about her future, always a bad idea, and finds nothing but death, impossible in the full Tarot deck (I think), reflecting her own subconscious knowledge that she is losing her youth and beauty.

She refuses to give in, and takes up with Escamillo, either as a last fling or an anchor against old age. In the final act we see her and her delightful friends Mercédes, mezzo-soprano Sahoko Sata, and Frasquita, soprano Maeve Höglund, dressed in the 1930s version of Spanish ladies of fashion. Carmen’s wild hair is in a bun, and she is dressed in an outfit that seems sedate, at least for her.

In the final confrontation with Don José, she could easily have diverted his wrath, but decides once more to tempt fate, and defies him, while addressing her persona in the third person: “Carmen never gives in.” It is this hubris that precipitates the tragedy.

After the stabbing, Carmen’s body is surrounded by a squad of soldiers, all with their rifles pointed at her body, and incidentally, her murderer Don José. The scene returns us to the beginning of the opera, in which Carmen is flirting with the same soldiers.

In my rewrite, there’s a happy ending. Don José gets a suspended sentence for a crime of passion, (It’s Spain after all) marries Micaëla and lives happily ever after, his mother having recovered from her terminal illness due to joy at seeing her son again.

Seriously, this version of “Carmen,” the third in the history of PORTopera, will stand as a landmark. Every part of the world’s most popular opera is there, down to the last syllable, through four acts, two intermissions and a pause, but it is riveting throughout. Every role is almost perfectly sung and acted, and the crowd scenes with the children’s chorus set off the tragedy by their sheer exuberance. There are a few seats left for Friday’s performance, and this is an experience worth having, no matter how far up in the balcony one has to sit.

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

Bowdoin Festival’s Piazzolla Doesn’t Bite

Bowdoin International Music Festival
Wednesday Upbeat! concert
Studzinski Hall
July 20, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

Throughout my career as a critic, I have advanced the idea that performance is all when it comes to classical music. Perhaps I should also have pointed out that it is a necessary but not sufficient condition. Arturo Michelangeli can make the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 1 sound good, but even he might fail with a lesser work.

I attended the Wednesday Upbeat! concert at Studzinski Hall primarily to hear Astor Piazzolla’s “L’histoire du Tango,” written around 1980. It portrays the evolution of the tango from the bordellos of Buenos Aires through cafes and night clubs to the concert hall. It does exactly that but is more satisfying in an historical than a musical sense
.
The work was originally written for guitar and flute, but on Wednesday was transcribed for violin and marimba, played by Susie Park and Luke Rinderknecht respectively.

Maybe Piazzolla was getting old, or maybe he wanted his history sanitized for music students, but each tango in the set of four lacks the bite of his earlier work. A true Piazzolla tango is full of dark passion with a black hole of nihilism in its center, around which the dance revolves.

The history is, well, pretty, and never catches fire until it is almost over, with tributes to Bartok and Stravinsky.

Park and Rinderknecht played the transcription very well, but the violin cannot imitate the timbre of the flute, and a little bit of marimba goes a long way. The latter iinstrument is incapable of despair, in which the guitar is right at home.

The high point of the concert was its beginning– the Beethoven Sextet in E-flat Major, Opus 81b, which is not a sextet at all, but a concerto for two French horns, in the style of Mozart. It is indeed written for six instruments, but the strings, for the most part, accompany the horns, played with virtuosity by Stewart Rose and his student at the Festival, Jason Friedman. The two made an outstanding pair.

The final work on the program was the Schumann Piano Trio No. 3 in G Minor, Opus 110. also known as “no rests for the weary” or “the forsaken fermata.” The piece is so densely written, in a waterfall of notes, without a single empty space, that it soon became tiring, in spite of the best efforts of Nelson Lee, violin, Rosemary Elliott, cello and Elinor Freer, piano.

The piece is so driven in nature that it appears symptomatic of the mental illness that would soon claim its composer. It has redeeming features, however, such as echoes of the humorous but triumphant march of the Davidsbundler. It received a standing ovation from the near-capacity audience.

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

A New Star in the Bowdoin Festival Heavens

Bowdoin International Music Festival
Festival Friday
Crooker Theater, Brunswick High School
July 15, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

Gabriela Lena Frank, whose “Tres Homenajes, Compadrazgo,” was performed Friday night at the Festival Friday concert of the Bowdoin International Music Festival, may be our new Bartok.

The work in question, three tributes to the Latin American spirit of brotherly love, inspired by ethnic Peruvian music, is a masterpiece. While it stems from the ethnomusicology of the composer, the folk motifs and rhythms are the starting point for inspired music in a distinctive and universal classical style. It is what Astor Piazzolla did for the Argentine tango, but carried to an even higher level and capable of being appreciated across cultural divides.

Its rapid, driving rhythms and abrupt changes of pitch and volume are a challenge for any group, but the Ying Quartet, and pianist Tao Lin, conquered its awesome chasms like mountain goats (if you’ll pardon the analogy.).

The three movements depict the windswept northern plains of Peru, a desolate island in Lake Titicaca and T’inku, a ritual combat between village heroes, now symbolic but previously a matter of life and death. (Both victor and vanquished share in the good harvest resulting from the conflict.)

While the composer’s images may have been her inspiration, listeners are free to imagine what they will. There are no overt references or musical imagery. The slow second movement, to me, would make a fantastic score for Pablo Neruda’s great poem about Machu Picchu.

Frank is a composer in residence at this year’s festival. They are fortunate indeed to have her.

If I were not exclaiming over Frank’s work, I would have begun with Robin Scott, first violinist of the Ying Quartet, who deserves some kind of Iron Man award. He appeared first in a charming rendition of Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante in E-flat Major (K. 364/320d), with a virtuoso cadenza, then in the extremely difficult Frank work, and finally in Gabriel Faure’s Piano Quartet No. 1 in C minor (Op. 15).

The Fauré, while not exactly a lollipop, is a rich late-Romantic piece with delicious twilight harmonies and soothing melodies. The slow movement is said to depict an unhappy broken engagement to the daughter of famous singer-composer Pauline Viardot.

The official biography says no to the story, but the evidence is there for anyone with an ear to hear. (Some musicologist must have checked references to Viardot’s scores in the quartet.) In fact, the sweet cheat appears as a spirit in the Allegro Molto, like a fountain of light. Unfortunately Fauré doesn’t know what to do with her and cobbles together an ending with the piano, superbly played by Elinor Freer, as the lone hero.

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

PORTopera Offers Major New Production of “Carmen”

“Carmen”
Merrill Auditorium
July 27 and 29
by Christopher Hyde

PORTopera’s 2016 production of George Bizet’s “Carmen” promises to be a landmark in the company’s long history in Maine. It was first performed 22 years ago at the State Theater, 11 years ago at Merrill Auditorium, and this year in a fully staged version at Merrill, with lead singers from the Metropolitan Opera.

Dona D. Vaughn has directed all three productions, and, as usual, has a surprise in store for audiences. She won’t say what it is, but it occurs in the third act. “Carmen” is scheduled for two performances at Merrill Auditorium: Wednesday, July 27 and Friday, July 29, and there are still a few tickets left. Maestro Stephen Lord will conduct a full orchestra, an auditioned adult chorus is being rehearsed by Robert Russell, and a children’s chorus by Sarah Bailey.

Why “Carmen” (again)? “It’s the most popular opera in the repertoire, surpassing “La Boheme” and ”Madame Butterfly,” and every time you see it, you find something new,” said Vaughn.

The opera has appeared in many guises, including the movie “Carmen Jones” with Harry Belafonte. Vaughn’s version will be traditional, sung in French with English supertitles, but set in the 1930’s around the time of the Spanish Civil War.

“Google is wonderful for authenticity,” Vaughn remarked. “You want Spanish wine bottles or rifles from the Franco era, and there they are. There’s no guesswork.”

The period sets were designed by Judy Gailen. “Just the change in style makes a difference in stage direction,” Vaughn points out. “The actors move differently in different costumes.”

The cast of the new production is a blend of Met singers and audience favorites from previous PORTopera presentations.

Maya Lahyani, mezzo-soprano, will sing the role of “Carmen.” The Israeli opera singer is a 2010 grand finalist of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions and the recipient of an Adler Fellowship at San Francisco Opera. Highlights of Lahyani’s 2015-2016 season include performances at the Metropolitan Opera as Maddalena in “Rigoletto,” and Lola in “Cavalleria Rusticana.” “She not only has a wonderful voice, but is also a good actress and an artist passionately devoted to her role,” said Vaughn.

Adam Diegel, tenor, returns to PORTopera as Don Jose. This season, Diegel will also perform as Pinkerton in “Madama Butterfly” at Opera San Antonio, a role in which he was greatly admired a few seasons back by PORTopera fans.

Amanda Woodbury, soprano, will sing the role of Micaëla, in which she made her professional debut at LA Opera in 2013.

Ed Parks, baritone, will sing the role of Escamillo. Parks sang in Metropolitan Opera productions of “La Bohème,” “Die Zauberflöte,” and “Don Carlo” in the 2014-2015 season. This is his third time singing with PORTopera Previously he played Marcello in “La Bohème” and made his debut as Sharpless in “Madama Butterfly,”

Kenneth Kellogg, bass, will sing the role of Zuniga. .

Sahoko Sato, mezzo soprano, will sing the role of Mercédès. She is a native of Tokyo and grew up in Japan, Germany and the US.

Robert Mellon, baritone, returns to PORTopera to sing the role of Le Danca. He performed with PORTopera as Marullo (“Rigoletto”), in the title role in “Gianni Schicchi,” as Prince Yamadori (“Madama Butterfly”), as the Corporal (“La fille du régiment”) and as the Man (“Café Vienna”).

Lucas Levy, tenor, returns to PORTopera to sing Le Remendado while covering the leading role of Don José. In the summer of 2015, Levy joined PORTopera as a Young Artist, singing Spoletta in “Tosca” and the trio tenor in “Trouble in Tahiti.” Previously, Lucas appeared as Borsa in “Rigoletto” and Gherardo in “Gianni Schicchi.”

The role of Morales will be sung by Jorelle Williams and Maeve Höglund will sing Frasquita.

While we’re on the subject of PORTopera, the company’s Young Artists production of Gian Carlo Menotti’s “The Medium,” can be seen tonight (Friday) at the St. Lawrence Theater in Portland, and at Ocean Park in Old Orchard Beach on Sunday.

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

A Wild and Crazy Night at the Bowdoin International Music Festival

Bowdoin International Music Festival
Monday Showcase
Studzinski Hall
July 11
by Christopher Hyde
The Bowdoin International Music Festival (BIMF) is to be commended for bringing some of he world’s finest string quartets to the Monday Showcase concerts at Studzinsky Hall. It is not very professional, however, to omit program notes for such concerts, as was the case on July 11.
As far as I can determine. and I searched he website and program exhaustively, there were no printed nor internet notes available. Such notes are a lifeline for the average music lover, and should never be omitted in hopes that concert-goers will look up the works on the internet before attending.
The Haydn Quartet No. 63 in B flat major, Op. 76, No. 4, is nicknamed “Sunrise,” due to the rising theme over sustained chords that begins the first movement. Something for the audience to listen for.
Knowing how late the work is in Haydn’s opus would prepare the listener for its dense texture, thorough composition and almost contemporary feel. It is also a bit academic for my tastes, but the Ariel gave it everything they had, making it sound better than it is.
It might help to know that Bartok’s first string quartet, Sz 40, resulted from an unhappy love affair with a violinist. And what is that bullfrog ostinato plucked on the cello strings all about?
“Bartók’s finale has several recurring motifs, the most important being an eighth-note ostinato, heralding a similar episode in the celebrated Allegro barbaro for piano solo (1911) and which in some form recurs in each of the composer’s subsequent quartets, and – climactically – a quotation of the Hungarian folksong “Fly, Peacock, Fly” (the subject also of Kodály’s later “Peacock” Variations). The song’s theme is the liberation of the spirit: a program which, it may not be fanciful to suggest, applies as well to this entire, liberating work.” (note by critic Halsey Stevens.)
Even without that synopsis, one could revel in the intricate counterpoint of the first movement, which rivals Bach in its complexity and inventiveness. The Ariel took that very seriously, but lightened up in later sections, especially those in which Bartok imitates Debussy.
They completely let their hair down, with pianist Elinor Freer, in a delightful rendition of the Shostakovich Piano Quintet in G Minor, Op. 57. It has a wonderful fugue, straight out of Shostakovich’s 24 Preludes and Fugues for piano, after Bach’s “Well Tempered Clavier.” The Scherzo, however, pushes the limits of classical music in its rollicking craziness, complete with a tonic section that sounds like Liszt on a bad day.
It won the Stalin Prize in 1941 and has been popular since its introduction.
Freer is a natural with Shostakovich. I’d like to compare her rendition of the preludes and fugues to that of jazz pianist Keith Jarrett.

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