Sibelius Fifth Fails to Rise

Portland Symphony Orchestra
Merrill Auditorium
Nov. 20, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

A work that almost becomes a horn concerto was a fitting tribute to principal hornist John Boden, who will be retiring at the end of 2016 from the Portland Symphony Orchestra, after a career spanning 35 years.

Sunday affernoon’s concert began with a fine performance of Richard Strauss’ “Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche,” Op. 28, in which the hero is introduced, and sometimes portrayed by, a horn motif. Till is everyone’s lovable rascal, and his “merry pranks” contrast some of Strauss’ most elegant and noble melodies with slapstick orchestral carryings on.

When the law eventually caches up to Till and sentences him to the gallows, the scene-—perhaps a parody of Berlioz” “March to the Scaffold” in Symphony Fantastique—- is transformed from tragedy to comedy by a silly little tune on the flute, like the dropped handkerchief final bars in “Der Rosenkavalier,” indicating that all is well and his spirit lives on.

The Strauss was followed by Prokofiev’s Concerto No. 1 in D Major for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 19, in a brilliantly realized rendition by Benjamin Beilman. I couldn’t detect a single missed note in the fiendishly rapid and difficult score, which includes some really unusual dissonant double stops. More importantly, the young violinist realized the emotional content in some of the most lyrical passages Prokofiev ever wrote. The final extended note that concludes the work was pure magic, earning Beilman one of the rarely well-deserved standing ovations bestowed by a full house at Merrill Auditorium.

Prokofiev’s genius shines through every bar, but his use of the harp’s metallic, bell-like sound, against the sostenuto of the violin, was something I had never heard before, once again illustrating the necessity of live performance.

After two well-played masterpieces,, the orchestra’s performance of the great Sibelius Symphony No. 5 in E-flat Major, (Op. 82) was a disappointment.

It began well, with a first movement full of the composer’s northern pantheism and the pedal point of the forest. (Sibelius liked Niagara Falls for its really low notes.). In contrast the second movement was cheerful, in its playful handling of a five-note motif on plucked strings.

The final movement, although it had some high points, was a failure. It is one of the longest and most glorious crescendos in orchestral history, and its gradual, almost imperceptible increase in volume portrays the great awakening of Nature. Perhaps conductor Robert Moody wanted to try something different from the traditional reading, but under his direction the gradual ascent to Olympus became more of a sine wave of ups and downs, totally dissipating the effect of the climax. The overlong rests in the concluding bars were icing on a fallen cake, completely over the top.

It, too, received a standing ovation.

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

True Virtuosity at the Franco Center

Igor Lovchinsky
Franco Center, Lewiston
Nov. 11, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

A detour caused by a traffic accident on Route 9 made us late getting to Lewiston’s Franco Center for a recital by Russian-American pianist Igor Lovchinsky. I was sorry to have missed his performance of two popular works by Ravel, but if his interpretation of other masters is any indication, the Ravel must have been spectacular.

Lovchinsky has the bravura technique of Horowitz, without the attitude. What other young concert pianist is about to receive his doctorate in physics from Harvard?

He was introduced to the Franco Center’s piano concert series when he joined Matthew Graybil for the New England premiere of Walter Piston’s Concerto for Two Pianos Solis.

Although Lovchinsky can spin cascades of notes with the best of them, his technique is at the service of an innate musicality. This was particularly evident in his rendition of the Prokofiev Sonata No. 4 in C Minor, Op. 29, in which the development of the themes was always audible through the thunder and lightning. Prokofiev’s unique voice, in which he sometimes seems to be mocking the virtuoso tradition, came through loud and clear, with echoes of both “Peter and the Wolf” and his piano suite “Visions Fugitives.”

After intermission, the pianist showed why he has become a noted interpreter of Chopin, winning the National Chopin competition of the Kosciuskko Foundation at the age of 19. His renditions of the Nocturne No. 20 in C-sharp Minor (Op. post.) and the Impromptu in A-flat Major, Op. 29, were intimate, without taking overly Romantic liberties. As Chopin recommended, the left hand always marched, no matter the rubato of the right.

The great Ballade No. 4 in F Minor, Op. 52, demonstrated both overwhelming power and perfectly timed development toward the climactic measures. (Both of them.).

I mentioned Horowitz at the beginning because of Lovchinsky’s programming of two fiendishly difficult works by Mily Balakirev (1837-1910) — “The Skylark,” based on a song by Glinka, and his Oriental Fantasy “Islamey.” They reminded me of similar impossible show pieces (played by Horowitz) by Alkan or Godowsky.

The difficulty of “Islamey,” which has been adopted by many famous pianists, can be gauged by the fact that Scriabin injured his hand practicing it.

It is based on three Circassian themes which sound strangely like Alexander Borodin, but decorated so lavishly that they almost disappear. That they were perceptible among Lovchinsky’s coruscating fountains of notes, is a greater accomplishment than being able to execute the ornaments themselves.

Having been to concerts of this series in the past, I was not surprised by the caliber of the music but by the relatively small size of the audience. Where else in Maine can one experience world-class performances, for a very low ticket price, in a fine concert hall, have delicious crepes at intermission and share a glass of champagne with the artist afterward? Unfortunately, the next event in the series won’t be until January 20, with Maine pianist Christopher Staknys.

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

Bluebeard’s Triumph

Portland Symphony Orchestra
Merrill Auditorium
Nov. 1, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

Tuesday night’s concert of the Portland Symphony Orchestra, under Robert Moody, was a study in contrasts.—two works of supreme genius. one a breathtaking accomplishment in modern orchestration and the other an example of how much can be accomplished with minimal resources.

The Bach Concerto in D Minor for Two Violins and String Orchestra (BWV 1043), with soloists Amy Sims and Sasha Callahan, must have been one of his favorite works, since he transcribed it for two harpsichords as well. It could be described as a vehicle for showing off the virtuosity of the composer and his sons if the soloists did not have so much fun playing it.

Sims and Callahan exchanged lines, phrases and ideas, and then combined them with pure delight, accompanied by just the right amount of basso continuo and with enough difference in sound quality to maintain their individuality. The result was heaven on earth, and all too short.

Sims is assistant concertmaster of the PSO, and Callahan a member of the violin section. Both have extensive experience in solo and ensemble playing with major orchestras and chamber music groups throughout the U.S.

Bartok’s early opera, “Duke Bluebeard’s Castle,” (Opus 11), while it ends badly for the new wife, Judith, sung by soprano Michelle DeYoung, is not a tragedy. Bluebeard has not murdered his three former wives, as she suspects, but merely sequestered them in his mental library—the seventh door— from which, as a poet, he can recollect them in tranquility.

Bluebeard, sung by bass-baritone Alan Held, loses his hopes for a soul-mate, but seems quite aware of how the story would end. Judith is the gentle darkness, following wives representing morning, noon and twilight. Bluebeard praises all of them in his dramatic closing lines.

Both protagonists were perfect for their parts: Judith, at first demanding and finally resigned, and Bluebeard exuding power and hope without hope. The opera requires acting as well as voice to carry the action forward, and the duo had ample amounts of both, plus a feeling for the philosophical framework of the libretto.

Had the drama been even more desolate, the opera still could not be termed a tragedy, since the orchestra is triumphant throughout, with some of the most brilliant writing ever committed to a score, and that includes Rimsky-Korsakov and Stravinsky. The music that accompanies the triumphant opening of the door upon Bluebeard’s domains is sui generis, a paean to Bartok’s love of country even as its clouds rain blood.

The complex orchestration that produces the magnificent effects of the opera has best been described by composer Ned Rorem (on the music of the “Lake of Tears” door): “Yes, I see on the staves that one flute and one clarinet repeatedly rise and fall at great speed in close harmony backed by three other flutes flutter-tonguing, while one harp glissandos and another arpeggiates in close harmony with a celesta backed by muted strings divided into a thick A-minor triad—-all of this pianississimo. But could I have guessed that the simultaneous hollow soughing stems from the sustained intoning of two low horns a fifth apart, doubled by a kettledrum chord and a large gong? Fifty separate human players produce his pale whisper…”

Try to hear that on a recording.

All in all a tremendous performance and a daring one, totally effective, even without staging. Its 55 minutes, like those of the opening Bach concerto, passed by all too rapidly.

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