How Do You Know When to Stand Up? A Short History of the National Anthem

“Whoever plays, sings or renders “The Star Spangled Banner” in any public place, theater, motion picture hall, restaurant or cafe, or at any public entertainment other than as a whole and separate composition or number, without embellishment or addition in the way of national or other melodies, or whoever plays sings or renders “The Star Spangled Banner” or any part thereof as dance music, as an exit march, or as part of a medley of any kind shall be punished by a fine of not more than one hundred dollars.”

I came across this gem of Boston law while reading articles on Stravinsky during the centennial of “The Rite of Spring.” It seems appropriate today with the controversy over an athlete sitting out the Star Spangled Banner because of its racist overtones. (The offending verses are usually removed from the text, as they were in my grade school songbook.)

My first thought was eureka! now we’ve got them, all the singers at baseball and football games who like to show off just how much they can “embellish” the song while still retaining a slight vestige of its original melody. It has gotten to the point where anyone who sings the tune straight is regarded as a novelty. It would be different if the pop artists (and even opera stars) were trying to make it more compelling, but they’re not. Maybe it’s just that they’re trying to disguise wrong or unreachable notes in a difficult composition.

Unfortunately, it seems that there has been only one instance of the ordinance’s application–against Igor Stravinsky on Jan. 15, 1944, about the time I belted out the song from the balcony before a performance of “Oklahoma” in New York. (My father told me that it was on opening night, but that would have been in 1943.)

I mention that incident only to illustrate the unreliability of hindsight, which has perpetuated the myth that Stravinsky was actually arrested, complete with a mug shot (taken of a look-alike criminal four years earlier).

In reality, Stravinsky wrote his arrangement of “The Star Spangled Banner” in token of his appreciation of his adopted country. It includes contrapuntal counter-subjects and a modulation into the subdominant by means of a “blue note”–a passing seventh. (The original version has been recorded.)

After the first performance with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, a concerned citizen phoned the police to complain and they attended the second performance, on the 15th, en masse. Stravinsky, however, had been tipped off and played the work straight. The 14 policemen are said not to have remained for the rest of the concert, which included some of Stravinsky’s latest compositions, including the “Circus Polka.”

Stravinsky’s reaction to the peculiarities of his adopted country has not been recorded. It probably took the form of an extra vodka martini.

The composer’s musical taste, in this instance, leaves something to be desired, since he referred to “The Star Spangled Banner” as “a beautiful sacred anthem.” The tune, of course, is that of a risque British drinking song, “Anacreon in Heaven,” which doesn’t even fit slave-holder Francis Scott Key’s verses very well.

It caught on after 1865, when it was played at the restoration of the flag to Fort Sumter (not Ft. McHenry) and later was taken up by John Philip Sousa, who made it popular. It was named the official anthem of the United States by Congress in 1931, just before Sousa’s death.

A phrase from the anthem,”In God is our trust,” inspired Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase to put “In God We Trust” on the dollar bill during the Civil War.

So next time the Patriots play in Gillette Stadium, I expect a phalanx of Boston’s finest to be present, with copies of the original score and a paddywagon.

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

Surprise at the Portland Chamber Music Festival

Portland Chamber Music Festival
Hannaford Hall, USM Portland
Aug. 20, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

The final concert of the Portland Chamber Music Festival, Saturday night at Hannaford Hall, achieved something unprecedented in musical history—an avant-garde piece of electronic music that was pleasantly bland. Varèse must be turning over in his grave.

The work in question was entitled “Self Destruct,” by Jeremy Flowers (b. 1979) and “was conceived as a companion to stress and failed time management.” (Composer’s notes.)

He continues: “The first movement begins with a germ of an idea sneaking in softly, followed by a rash (sic) of excitement. After a period of crippling self-doubt, the melodic lines in the strings come together to state the fully realized melodic idea that was borne (sic) from the germ at the beginning.

“The second movement is slower, more representative of the moments of serenity one can find in seeming chaos. We return to the initial germ from the first movement heard again over a slowly writhing electronic ostinato. If the first movement’s development of this idea is by brute force, here it’s a much more tender realization.”

The notes state that the piece is in three movements, but the third seems to have disappeared. (Maybe that’s the one that self-destructed.) It is scored for electronics, operated by the composer, viola, two cellos, marimba and piano.

There seemed to be an element of improvisation involved at first, as the composer sampled the timbres of the real instruments and transformed them in various ways, including some interesting reverberation and glass harmonica effects. There was a good common-time rhythmic pulse throughout.

One could follow the construction pretty well, but the final result of the combined forces was a repeated, harmonic and tonal phrase that came dangerously close to elevator pop. It was all pleasant enough, but more perpetual motion than self-destruction. Perhaps it was intended as an antidote to negative feelings. The audience liked it, and gave performers and composer a standing ovation.

The contemporary composition was balanced by two well-played crowd pleasers: the Mozart Piano Quartet No. 2 in E-flat Major (K. 293) and, as a finale, the Dvorak String Sextet in A Major (Op. 48).

It was good to hear Portland’s own Henry Kramer at the piano in the Mozart quartet, which is basically a miniature piano concerto without the overt display. He didn’t have much to do in the Flowers opus, however. The Dvorak was an ideal finish to the season, ending on an upbeat Czech dance that brought cheers from a large audience.

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

Salt Bay Season Ends on a High Note

Salt Bay Chamberfesst
Darrows Barn, Round Top Center, Damariscotta
Aug. 19, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

The Salt Bay Chamberfest ended its 22nd season on a high note Friday night, with three outstanding performances by the Brentano String Quartet, with soloists Thomas Sauer, piano, and Romie de Guise-Langlois, clarinet. As usual for the last several seasons, Darrows Barn, at Damariscotta’s Round Top Center, was filled to overflowing.

It is rare in Maine to be able to compare performances of the same work by different artists during the same season, but such was the case with the String Quartet No. 2 (“Intimate Letters”) by Leoš Janáček. The Portland String Quartet showcased the work in April (see review “Intimate Letters”) It was second on Friday night’s program by the Brentano Quartet.

The PSQ version tended to emphasize its new cellist in the role of the composer in this love affair with a married woman 38 younger than he. The Brentano had a more balanced approach, in which lover and beloved were treated with equal passion.

Written in the last year of Janáček’s life (1928), when he was 74, the quartet should nevertheless be X-rated. It depicts every aspect of the long-lasting liaison, using letter keys, numerology and speech patterns to tie incidents to specific times and places and leit-motifs to code specific actions.The official line is that the affair was platonic, but the music says otherwise.

Maybe it was just the second live hearing of the work, but I found the Brentano’s version somewhat more compelling, in an earthy rather than intellectual way.

Speaking of earthy, the opening work on the program, commissioned in 2016 by the Brentano from Israeli composer Shulamit Ran (b. 1949) was named “Stream” . The three movements, for string quartet and clarinet, can depict a stream becoming a river, like Smetana’s “Moldau,” or a stream of consciousness progressing from fragmentary images to firm resolution.

Whatever the chosen program, the quartet is a vehicle for overwhelmingly fluid virtuosity on the clarinet, matched by and complementing its partnership with the strings. Heard live, it was marvelous.

The evening ended with more virtuosity than seems possible for a 15-year-old composer: the Mendelssohn Piano Quartet in B minor, Opus 3. It doesn’t yield much, if at all, to the later piano concertos, in terms of solid construction, inventiveness and pure excitement.

The young composer seems to have just discovered the possibilities of triplets (from Scarlatti?) and purely revels in them. The whole quartet is a sort of tarantella, While the members of the Brentano, absent the second violin, were able to hold it together as a quartet for the first three movements, they had to throw up their hands in the final Allegro vivace, and yield the stage to Sauer, who turned in an astounding performance with seeming nonchalance. It was remarkable for a pianist at the height of his powers. For a teenager it must have seemed the work of the devil.

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

VentiCordi: Food for Thought

VentiCordi
Unitarian Universalist Church, Brunswick
Aug. 17, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

VentiCordi (Winds and Strings), is one of Maine’s hidden treasures. Founded by violinist Dean Stein and oboist Kathleen McNerney seven years ago, it is devoted to presenting the repertoire of chamber music written for winds and string instruments. In the process it uncovers a few masterpieces, some unknown works and some very strange ones. All are extremely well played by musicians who love them, and all are fascinating.

At the penultimate concert of the season —the last is tonight at South Congregational Church in Kennebunkport—they were joined by Bridget Convey, piano, Laura Jordan, percussion, and Gary Gorczyca, clarinet, in a selection of works that were primarily contemporary but always accessible. The opening piece, “Tangling Shadows” by Nathan Daughtrey, based on a poem by Pablo Neruda, was tonal, light and romantic. The duo of oboe, MacNerney, and vibraphone, Jordan, was a marriage made in heaven.

Lou Harrison (1917-2003) was an eccentric composer who studied with the equally iconoclastic Henry Cowell. His “Varied Trio,” for Violin, Piano and Percussion, is an eclectic romp that can be enjoyed by anyone. Its percussion effects, which include pitched rice bowls filled with water (not Sake), plucking on the piano strings and hypnotic drum patterns, were especially effective, and his “Rondeau in Honor of Fragonard” also honored Ravel, whose “Tombeau de Couperin” it rivals.

Even more unexpected was the Suite for Violin, Clarinet and Piano, Op. 157b, by Darius Milhaud (1892-1974) which has everything. The other day I disrespected the marimba as being incapable of tragedy. Its bass notes in the suite’s Divertissement proved me wrong, being lugubrious in the extreme, followed by a joyous fete in Jeu, and a totally jazzy Introduction and Final.

After intermission, the “Schilflieder” (Reed Songs) for oboe, viola and piano, of August Klughardt (1847-1902) sounded like Brahms after too many beers—sentimental, showing off gloriously obvious harmonies, and a florid piano accompaniment full of sturm und drang, giving Convey a real workout. It is easy to see why Klughardt was extremely popular in the last days of German Romanticism.

The composer, Stephen Michael Gryc, introduced his “Dream Vegetables” for voice, clarinet, violin and marimba, based on poems by Maggie Anderson, which depict not dreams OF vegetables, but BY vegetables, including exposure, falling, nightmare, insomnia, recurring and flying.

The poems are whimsical, and so are the sometimes minimalist settings, which nevertheless capture dream states unerringly. The bass marimba makes its appearance again in underground sequences. They were dramatically read by McNerney. In case you were wondering, it is the radishes who have insomnia, pacing up and down in their red and white pajamas.

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

Salt Bay Chamberfest: Then and Now

Salt Bay Chamberfest
Darrows Barn, Round Top Center, Damariscotta
Aug. 12, 2016

“If you build it, they will come.” Twenty two years ago, when I first reviewed a concert at the Salt Bay Chamberfest, the founder. cellist Wilhelmina Smith, was happy to have Darrows Barn half filled. But word gets around. On Friday, in spite of a heat wave, it was standing room only, and that is now typical.

The secret is quite simple—-everyone is satisfied with the best. The festival offers the finest in classical and contemporary music, played by outstanding musicians who devote just as much attention, and affection, to new music as to the classics.

Imaginative programming doesn’t hurt either. On Friday, Haydn’s last quartet (Opus 103) was paired with the early Brahms Sextet for Strings in B-flat, Opus 18. In the middle was some quite fiendish new music by Marc Neikrug (b. 1946), Philip Glass, (b. 1937), Zosha Di Castri (b.1985) and Julia Wolfe (b. 1958). The audience loved it all.

I had visions of Haydn spending his last days playing his favorite tune, the Kaiser Hymn. Instead, he was occupied with a final string quartet, the form that he practically invented and passed on to Mozart and Beethoven. What Opus 103 lacked in cheerfulness it made up in invention. An unusual amount of chromaticism led to unexpected developments. Only two movements were completed, but they show that the old dog could still learn new tricks.

The composers mentioned above were each commissioned by violinist Jennifer Koh, a Chamberfest regular, as part of a project she calls “Shared Madness.” It was. I won’t describe each of these short works, but all explored some aspect of contemporary virtuosity, pushing the violin to extremes, but without resorting to ancillary devices such as drumming on the wood.

One bow-shredding piece came close to being impossible, a melody played on one string while a second produced a sort of growling wolf note. Another explored overtones in registers at the limit of human hearing. One hopes that Koh will soon have enough madness in her collection to produce a CD.

Before intermission came the premiere of a new work by Marc Neikrug, entitled “Ruminations,” commissioned by the Chamberfest. As lovingly rendered by a string trio of Jennifer Koh, violin, Hsin-Yun Huang, viola, and Wilhelmina Smith, cello, it is one of the few “modern” works that appeals to the senses on first hearing. Going by the title, it seems composed of random musical thoughts that eventual;lay coalesce, like clouds into a tornado or leaves into a tree (depending on your mood). The process is satisfying, musically and intellectually.

There was nothing unexpected about the Brahms Sextet, except perhaps for its genius. The young Brahms knows exactly where he’s going with every theme and its development, all of which seems ineveitable— once you hear it. One could see the musicians smiling as the drama unfolded, now in its predictably glorious way. One thing the youthful Brahms has over Mendelssohn at the same period in his life; he is not afraid of being obvious.

There’s more to come at Salt Bay, August 16 and Aug.19. The latter concert includes the (very) early Mendelssohn Piano Quartet in B Minor, Op. 3.

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

A Preview and a Premiere by the DaPonte String Quartet

DaPonte String Quartet
Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens
Aug. 10, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

Is the DaPonte String Quartet spreading itself too thin? In the 25 years of its notable residence in Maine, its mission has been to bring great music, live, to underserved areas of the state. In recent years, however, it has vastly increased its range and the number of venues in which it plays, including those whose acoustics leave something to be desired.

The concert I attended last night, at Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens, was the sixth in a series of seven throughout the state. Add to that a heavy teaching schedule for the quartet’s members and work on a new CD, and it is no wonder that the players seemed a little tired at times.

They began with the holy grail of counterpoint, Bach’s “Art of the Fugue” (BWV 1081). The first Contrapunctus showed the quartet’s characteristic passion, but the second and third succumbed to the academic chill inspired by the presence of greatness. It was a nice historical touch to include the last of the series, left unfinished at Bach’s death, but from a musical standpoint, a climax would have been more satisfying.

I had gone to the concert to hear the premiere of Rocco Havelaar’s String Quartet No. 3, composed in 2015. (Disclaimer: Havelaar is the former husband of Lydia Forbes, who alternates with Ferdinand Liva as first violin of the DaPonte.)

Since I had never heard the work before, it is impossible to critique the performance, but the balance seemed a little off at times, and more could have been made of the composer’s use of motifs to tie the work together.

The quartet is very serious, its opening movement reminding one of Bartok’s visions of nature at night—susurrations and nightingale song punctuated by distant lightening. At the beginning of the Rondo:Scherzo second movement, a dog started to bark. (It was the ringtone on someone’s cell phone.) I thought at first that Havelaar had decided to liven things up, adding to his musical references Chopin’s remark to a badly playing pupil: “Did I just hear a dog barking?”

Alas, it was not to be, and the quartet took the second movement from the top. The entire quartet is too long, but it did catch fire at moments, especially when a theme was presented over a driving ostinato, a la Phillip Glass.

The final adagio is a funeral march without march rhythm, expect for a related pattern from one of Beethoven’s works in that genre. More could have been done with that little motif, but instead, the piece dies away sadly. This is the usual cop-out, but I really would like to hear the piece again, to be able to better follow its developments, whose precision, Havelaar hopes, imitates that of Brahms.

The DaPonte was back to its usual form in the concluding work of the evening, the Mendelssohn String Quartet No. 2 in A Minor, Opus 13, written when he was 19 and recovering from a depression brought on by the rejection of his first and only opera.

It is lovely music, melodic and Beethoven-esque (the DaPonte plays it on the new CD) with all the virtues and vices of youth. Its primary drawback, like the Havelaar quartet, is a dread of appearing obvious, to the extent that Mendelssohn could not think of a novel way to end it, and just quit, leaving the audience unsure whether or not to applaud, especially after all the false cadences the young composer had borrowed from the late Beethoven.

The fugues are miraculous for a 19-year-old, bringing the evening back to the first work on the program.

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