Time Travel at the Early Music Festival

Portland Conservatory of Music
Early Music Festival
Woodford’s Church, Portland
Oct. 30. 2016
by Christopher Hyde

The Portland Conservatory of Music’s Early Music Festival (Oct. 28, 29 and 30), now in its fifth year, continues to attract talented performers and ever larger audiences. Its Sunday afternoon concert, featuring Monteverdi’s “Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda,” and music from the court of Henry VIII, exemplified both trends.

“To whose more clear than crystal voice the frost had joined a crystal spell.” I thought of Leonie Adams’ line during soprano Anna Schwartzberg’s singing of “I love, loved,“ by Robert Fayrfax (1464-1521). But everything attempted by the Bowdoin Chamber Choir, under Robert Greenlee, was well sung, by both soloists and full chorus.

Amour seems to have been the principal pastime of both the monarch and his court, if the songs from that era are any indication. Like Shakespeare’s in-jokes, they are full of double entendres that now reveal themselves only to scholars but were probably common parlance at the time.

The first song, “Pastime with Good Company,” written and set to music by Henry himself, can be read two ways; an encomium to a good husband is interrupted by clucking chickens, and even the long and lively final work, “El Fuego,” about the Virgin providing water to put out the fires of sin, has its sly moments.

Greenlee has worked with the singers to clearly deliniate parts in the polyphonic works, and to clarify diction enough to make verses understandable. The dynamics were impeccable.

The instrumental accompaniments and interludes were also outstanding, with sufficient volume to balance the choir.

The Monteverdi “Combattimento” was equally well sung and played by members of the St. Mary Schola under Bruce Fithian, who directed a chamber orchestra of period instruments from the harpsichord.

The drama, which is a masque rather than an opera, was the first major work to use music to describe action, in this case the combat between a crusader, Tancredi, and a Muslim knight, Clorinda, who happens to be a woman. She loses the battle and is saved by baptism as she expires. The primary singing role is that of the narrator, or Testo, sung by Martin Lescault. Tancredi, Paul McGovern, and Clorinda, Molly Harmon, have relatively minor singing parts, but mime the scenes described by the narrator.

The action is carried forward by the instrumental music. It is hard to believe that sixteenth notes, depicting swords striking steel, were considered revolutionary at the time. That is the primary obstacle to overcome in hearing the masque: putting ourselves in the role of an audience hearing the piece for he first time. Unless the intended feelings can be conveyed, the exercise becomes more educational than emotional. The battle scenes seem tame to modern ears attuned to movie scores, but the tenderer moments, as when Tancredi discovers his true love under his opponent’s visor, still have magic, as does Tasso’s poetry.

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

VentiCordi Explores the Unusual

VentiCordi
Studzinsky Recital Hall, Bowdoin College
Oct. 29, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

While the musical avant garde set off in various directions, some rewarding and some not, many composers continued to write good, solid and interesting music in traditional forms, while also taking advantage of what Schoenberg called “the liberation of the dissonance.”

Last night’s concert by VentiCordi (wind and strings) at Bowdoin’s Studzinsky Hall, provided substantial proof of just how rewarding this style of music can be. All of the works were thoroughly enjoyable and some broke new ground with old tools, like St.-Saens. It is doubtful that anyone in the audience had heard these works before, but they were all readily accessible, beginning with a fine Trio for Flute, Oboe and Piano by British composer Madeleine Dring,(1923-1977) who wrote it for her husband.

It explores (very) close harmony between the woodwind instruments, and their subtle differences in timbre. One sometimes felt that the oboe became less “reedy” in close collaboration with the flute. It was given an outstanding performance by Bridget Convey, piano, Sarah Brady, flute and Kathleen McNerney, oboe.

McNerney appeared again, with noted double bass player William Blossom, in “Three Songs for Oboe and Double Bass, after poems by Pablo Neruda,” by Andrea Clearfield (b. 1960). The combination of instruments, as unusual as it is, was ideal for exploring the interplay of male and female as portrayed in Neruda’s erotic poems: “Body of a Woman,” “The Light Wraps You,” and “Every Day You Play.”

Erwin Schulhoff (1894-1942), who died of tuberculosis in a Nazi concentration camp, was once known for a relatively few works and the tragedy of a career cut short. Now that more of his compositions have been uncovered, he seems rather like Prokofiev, both daring and playful. As VentiCordi co-founder, violinist Dean Stein, said in opening remarks, Schulhoff wrote a piano piece consisting entirely of rests and indications, long before John Cage’s “4-33.”

His Concertino for Flute, Viola and Double Bass, played by Stein, Brady and Convey, sounded a bit like Prokofiev, without the Russian influences, especially in the comically quick-step Rondino that ends the work, in which the flautist switches to a piccolo for the final squeak.

I had heard the “Schilflieder” (Songs of the Reeds) for Oboe, Viola and Piano of August Klughardt (1847-1902) once before and remarked that it sounded like Brahms after one too many steins at the Red Hedgehog. Convey muted the piano part a bit this time, for a better balance of the parts, and a more lyrical, less bombastic, feel. No matter how interpreted, it is a thoroughly enjoyable piece of late Romanticism, full of Brahmsian harmonies and gentle melancholy.

The Trio for Flute, Violin and Piano (1958), that ended the program, was a virtuosic tour de force by Nino Rota, composer of the first two “Godfather” scores. Not very emotionally moving, without the images on the screen, but exciting throughout, concluding with a fantastically rapid Allegro vivace con spirito.

The program will be repeated Sunday, Nov. 6, at 2:00 pm. at Woodfords Congregational Church in Portland.

“Duke Bluebeard’s Castle”

“Duke Bluebeard’s Castle”
by Christopher Hyde
Oct. 25, 2016

“Behind every great fortune is a crime.” I used to repeat that quote from Balzac to get a rise out of my friends in New York, who were utterly convinced that great wealth was an outward sign of inner virtue. But that was long ago and in another country, and besides, the wench is dead. Today the quote is a truism, and I thought of it only in connection with the Portland Symphony Orchestra’s production of “Duke Bluebeard’s Castle” on Nov. 1, a daring must-see presentation if there ever was one.

Volumes have been written about the opera, Bartok’s earliest stage work. (The final version was written in 1921.). Like Brahms, he found it difficult to summon up the requisite stupidity. It is most probably an allegory of the artist’s relations with the world, the castle being his mind, and his final wife the public. Bartok was feeling very alone at the time, striking out in new directions that were not very well received, if at all. In a letter to his mother he stated his belief that he would be alone forever.

In the opera, every door that the new wife, Judith, opens, reveals something beautiful but awful—the jewels are stained with blood and the lake is composed of tears. The last chamber, which contains the wraiths of former wives, holds nothing but darkness. The dark secrets behind each door are portrayed by a minor second chord.

Intellectually, the blood represents the pain and struggle of the composer to realize his visions—something he wishes to conceal from his audience, as an artist destroys his preliminary sketches.

There is another reading, however, that also makes sense. Bartok was becoming increasingly alarmed by the rise of fascism in Hungary and wanted to show, on some level, that all of its promises, and the great fortunes of a few, were tainted by blood and tears, and eventually would come to nothing except destruction. As the man, Bluebeard, reveals more and more, the woman, Judith, becomes weaker and weaker, finally vanishing into the darkness, while her husband (in his vocal line) becomes ever stronger.

With its use of folk idiom to portray the tragedy, the opera can also be read as “curiosity killed the cat.” The story of Bluebeard, and woman’s frailty, is as old as the hills.

Bartok’s vision of the castle is dark indeed, but the music, which owes a great deal to Debussy, raises it to the level of Greek tragedy. In this silly season, we could all use a good catharsis.

And there is always the delightful Bach Concerto for Two Violins—also on the program— to remind us that there is still goodness on the earth.

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

Midcoast Shines in Romantic Program

Midcoast Symphony Orchestra
Franco Center, Lewiston
Oct. 22, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

As a hopeless Romantic, I went to the Franco Center Saturday night expecting to hear live performances of three of my favorite works— the “Light Cavalry” Overture, the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 2 and Brahms’ Symphony No.1 in C-minor.

What I was unprepared for was the quality of the performances by the Midcoast Symphony under the direction of Rohan Smith. They would have done credit to any well-known professional orchestra; from an “amateur” ensemble they were little short of miraculous. I urge any music lover who can get there, to attend a repeat of the program at the Orion Center in Topsham today (Oct. 23) at 2:30.

It reminded me of Schopenhauer’s paradox, to the effect that we admire those who practice an art for money and denigrate those who do it for love, calling them “amateurs.”

The von Suppé, which I believe was sometimes played on “The Lone Ranger” in addition to the “William Tell” Overture, is the epitome of a canter cross-country with some light excuse. As the general said of fox hunting; “all the excitement of war and only a quarter of its danger.” It is pure delight, with just the hint of a melancholy center to contrast with the beginning and end.

The overture, of course, is a popular war horse of the repertoire, but difficult to do well at an exciting tempo. The Midcoast’s swash-buckling rendition was well-nigh perfect.

The Rachmaninoff, equally familiar, was equally well played, with Jonathan Bass at the piano tossing off coruscating clouds of notes, matched in brilliance by the orchestra. There was a little tug-of-war about tempo at the beginning, but that only added to a suspenseful performance as the composer, knowingly aided by Smith, teased the audience with hints at the final movement’s “Full Moon and Empty Arms.”

After the Center’s traditional crepes and wine during intermission came the greatest test of any orchestra, a Brahms symphony. In this performance, Smith succeeded in conveying the composer’s debt to Beethoven (and Bach), without compromising the forward thrust of the score.

The symphony is full of pitfalls, from lush orchestration to demanding percussion parts to pizzicati by the full swing section, all of them negotiated without a hitch. What one really worries about, however, are the heavenly horn calls preceding the ode to joy of the final movement. Those of principal Carolyn Kanicki were enough to bring tears to your eyes. The other players in the all-female section are Beth Almquist, Cynthia Harkleroad and Sarah Rodgers.

Brahms may not outdo Beethoven in his own “Ode to Joy,” but he achieves the same triumphant effect without the last resort of composers—the human voice.

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

BalletX Shows the Best of Both Worlds

BalletX
Merrill Auditorium
Oct. 20, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

BalletX, which came to Merrill Auditorium Thursday under the auspices of Portland Ovations, presented one of the most unusual and satisfying dance programs in recent memory. (Disclaimer: the company originated in Philadelphia, where I was born.)

They had to overcome two prejudices of most balletomanes: combining classical ballet and modern dance, and the use (primarily) of popular rather than classical music. Both objections vanished in the face of the dancers’ enormous talent and energy, and the originality of the choreography.

The music was recorded, which robs the performance of some of the spontaneity made possible by a conductor, but the styles were so individual —from Klezmer to Bach— that it would have been impossible to produce their variety with one orchestra.

If I had to characterize BalletX in one word, it would be “erotic.” But the appeal goes much deeper than that. The poses, lifts and steps, no matter how intricate, elaborate, and athletic, stem from the natural motions of the human body. They are real life raised to a higher power, and the audience can almost feel them.

Some claim that piano playing ability improves when one’s muscles subconsciously imitate those of a pianist on stage. The same thing happens with BalletX. The audience walked more gracefully as they left the theater.

The choreographers, different for each of the four short ballets on the program, know their fine arts. There were instant snapshots of Matisse dancers, Delvaux’s mysterious women, the loneliness of Edward Hopper, and the hieratic poses of Will Barnet. They are also very conscious of the changing patterns of negative space. Multiple hand and arm gestures sometimes unfolded like the petals of a flower under time-lapse photography.

The first ballet, “Slump,” is described as “a wild, aggressive dance about courtship and the instinctual rituals of mating, set to klezmer, jazz and mambo music.” It was all of the above, and more, perfectly matched to the unique mood of klezmer.

My favorite ballet of the night was an elaborate semi-classical pas de deux, by Chloe Felecia and Richard Villaverde, set to Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” It reminded me of the line from Arnold’s “Dover Beach”—“Love, let us be true to one another…” giving each other strength in bad times.

“Gran Partita,” set to classical music by Berg, Mozart, Bach and Monteverdi, replaced “Delicate Balance,” which illustrates pattern in chaos through the use of contemporary music. It also emphasized the company’s skill at setting large unified patterns, like a living kaleidoscope.

The final work on the program, “The Last Glass,” explored the joys and tribulations of everyday street life, among them boy meets girl, boy loses girl, girl loses boy. At least the star-crossed lovers were reunited during many enthusiastic curtain calls.

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

Roman Legions Triumph at First Portland Symphony Concert

Portland Symphony Orchestra
Merrill Auditorium
Oct. 9, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

Until Sunday’s concert of the Portland Symphony Orchestra at Merrill Auditorium, complete with Kotzschmar Organ, I had never realized just how good Ottorino Respighi’s “Pines of Rome” was. It was a shining example, if any were needed, of the absolute necessity of live performance. To think that any substantial percentage of its excitement could be captured electronically is palpably absurd.

Music director Robert Moody pulled out all the stops for this crowd-pleasing conclusion to the first concert of the season—a terrific nightingale recording, off-stage trumpets, reinforced brass and the growl of the afore-mentioned organ. The entire orchestra was on its best behavior in a score that for gorgeousness of orchestral color puts even Rimsky-Korsakov, Respighi’s teacher, to shame.

All four movements of the work were superb examples of musical scene-painting. One could almost feel the warm winds blowing through the pine branches or visualize the ancient Christians chanting in the catacombs, but the final triumphant procession of the Roman legions was sui generis. Compare it to Ravel’s infinitely long crescendo in “Bolero”, the only composition that comes anywhere near to its spectacular climax. It was held to imperceptible gradations in volume by the terrific work of John Tanzer on timpani.

If there are seats left for today’s (Monday, Oct. 10)) performance, it is not to be missed. You will be able to hear it just fine from the nosebleed sections.

The program began with an excellent performance of the Beethoven Symphony No. 4 in B-flat Major (Op. 60), marred somewhat by over-attention to detail and over-blown dynamic contrasts, perhaps resorted to because the piece lacks the inherent appeal of the other eight. The details, however, such as the soaring flute solo in the adagio, posed yet another argument for live performance.

In listening to this seldom-heard symphony, I find it helps to imagine it as aspects of water, beginning with a still lake, eventually ruffled by a breeze. The Fourth doesn’t compel visions, like the Sixth, but the water imagery helps one follow its development.

The most disappointing aspect of the afternoon was a new concerto by Mason Bates (b. 1977), written for cellist Joshua Roman, who performed it as well as could be expected, accompanied by a huge orchestra with no place to go. I believe some of the instruments were used only once in three movements. Their purpose seemed to be the simulation of electronically generated sounds.

In the final movement, a kind of jazzy Irish pub improvisation that goes on forever, without even the consolation of beer, Roman resorted to a guitar pick for some involved pizzicato passages. I guess it’s easier on the fingers.
The audience gave the talented young cellist a standing ovation, but the concerto is the kind of music that would sound better on a CD.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal, He can be reached a clssbeat@nescape.net.