Renaissance Voices a Christmas Gift

Renaissance Voices
Cathedral Church of St. Luke
Dec. 17, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

The Renaissance Voices Christmas concerts, conducted by Harold Stover, have become so popular over the years that the large Cathedral Church of St. Luke was still about half full on Saturday night, in spite of snow and bitter cold that cancelled other events.

Those who braved the elements were treated to a warm, traditional selection of a cappella vocal music from around the world and across the centuries, interspersed with readings from poets as diverse as Carl Sandburg and Rainer Maria Rllke. Wintery works by Rilke and Heinrich Heine were read in German, followed by English translations.

The word traditional is appropriate because even the modern works on the program were modeled after Renaissance and Baroque music.  beginning with “Hail, Lady. sea-star bright,” (Ave, maris stella) by English composer Kathryn Rose (b. 1980), sung in Latin and built around a bass line that sounds like Gregorian chant, but more melodious. The higher voices weave a tapestry of sound around this solid foundation. It was compared to another Ave Maria by Jacobus Clemens non Papa (1510-1556), and held its own very well.

Two German composers who seemed almost mirror images of each other were Hugo Distler (1908-1942) and Johannes Eccard (1553-1611). The choir alternated between the two, and just when one thought a recognizable style had been established, another of the five motets would blur the line. Some were lively, some were like chants and some were almost fugal in their polyphony, but all were musical and deeply felt.

The first half of the program ended with a rapid, rhythmical “Facta est cum angelo,” by Italian composer Girolamo Baglioni (c, 1575-1608).

Opening the second half was “Come ye lofty, come ye lowly” by Gustave Holst (1874-1934), another imitation, this time of a medieval English Christmas carol, that couldn’t be told from he original.

An American work, “The angel’s carol,” by Crys Armbrust (b. 1957), sets a text by Nahum Tate (1625-1715) using the early shaped-note technique of choral singing,  in which the shape of the written notes dictates the harmonies to decorate a hymn tune,

The result is sometimes strange, like shifting northern-lights veils of sound, but always effective.

The program ended with a triumphant “Hodie Christus natus est” by Dutch composer Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck (1562-1621). Following a standing ovation, the choir sang an encore of three verses of “Silent Night” in the original German,  wrapping up a fine and appropriate Christmas gift.

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

The Thinking Man’s Christmas Concert

St. Mary Schola
Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception
Dec. 14, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

Since its founding in 2008, St. Mary Schola, under the direction of Bruce Fithian, has become so widely appreciated for its performance of music from the medieval, Renaissance and Baroque eras that it has outgrown its place of origin, the Church of St. Mary in Falmouth.

One of its three Christmas concerts this year, on Dec. 14, was held in the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, in the chapel, not the huge main building.  I had not been to a concert there before,  but the more intimate setting, and less echoing acoustics, were well suited to the Schola’s music, and to the volume of the antique instruments that accompanied it.

When period instruments were first introduced at the concerts, where much of the singing was a cappella, they seemed to be primarily for the purpose of authenticity. On Tuesday night, however, they made a significant musical contribution as well, blending in perfectly (without the problems of equal temperament tuning), providing appropriate interludes and reinforcing the polyphonic lines.

The recorders were particularly striking in the ritornellos of a Dutch 15th Century” In Dulci Jubillo.”

The Schola approached modernity with “Os Justi” by Anton Bruckner (1824-1896), but can be forgiven,,since the composer was trying, successfully, to write in the Lydian mode . The Romantics liked to imagine a simpler, less worldly time, but the music still gives away its 19th Century origin.

Concerts of ancient music might be well advised to stay away from Bach. One is going along pleasantly, enjoying the atmosphere of ancient days, and all of a sudden a lightning stroke of genius startles the ear. At least that was the case with “Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland” (BWV 36), from the Cantata No. 36, sung by Andrea Graichen and Molly Harmon, with cello accompaniment by Philip Carlsen.

A work that approached its level of polyphonic sophistication ended the fist half of the concert, a wondrous “Praise Our Lord, all Ye Gentiles,”  by William Byrd (1543-1623).

There was nothing to interrupt the joyous mood of the entire 17-part Christmas Cantata of Marc-Antoine Charpentier (1643-1704) that followed intermission. “In Nativitatem Domini canticum (H. 416) balances male soloists with the higher voices of the choir, plus instrumental preludes and impressionistic descriptive interludes such as “Night,” and “Awakening of the Shepherds. Tenor Martin Lescault sounded equally fine as an angel and a shepherd.

The cantata has a clever conceit near the end, when the extremes of the Child’s crying, need and cold are equated with the power of HIs love for mankind. Its final verse seemed particularly appropriate this Christmas: “Justitia regnant in terra rostra, et pacis non erat finis.”

The readings in Latin and Middle English, by Stephen White and Rachel Keller, were excellent, but Keller could have read Chaucer’s text a little more slowly, for those of us who are less fluent. As usual, the good program notes and complete texts obviated any problems with translation.

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

A Traditional “Magic of Christmas”

Portland Symphony Orchestra
“Magic of Christmas”
Merrill Auditorium
Dec. 9, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

Perhaps it’s the world situation, but the Portland Symphony Orchestra’s “Magic of Christmas” concert, on Friday’s opening night at Merrill Auditorium, seemed more movingly traditional than usual, emphasizing the orchestra and chorus, with a remarkable soprano, Elizabeth Marshall.

It was the first time I had seen the new assistant conductor, Andrew Crust, who did an admirable job as master of the Magic of Christmas Chorus, and in alternating as orchestral conductor with music director Robert Moody.

Tania Holt and Alexander Fedorchev, of Cirque de la Symphony, held the audience spellbound with their athletic feats on silk fabric 30 feet above the stage. Their duos were romantic enough to provoke a comment from Moody to the effect that the audience would either rush out to take gymnastic lessons or buy a Harlequin Romance.

As usual, the arrangements of Christmas favorites were a mixed bag, ranging from pedestrian—Anderson’s Christmas Festival Overture— to superb —the Rutter/Adam “O Holy Night,”—marred only by an unnecessary modulation in the second verse.

I would go to this concert again (December 10, 16, and 17 at 2:00 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., Dec. 11 and 18 at 1:00 p.m. and 5:00 p.m.) just to hear Marshall’s sweet but powerful voice hitting the high notes of “O Holy Night” without effort.

She also appeared in another French traditional song, “Quelle est cette odeur agréable?” with the Magic of Christmas Chorus, and in the Rouse arrangement of “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” I prefer the more common tune, whether original or not, but will accept the alternative if it leads to another soprano solo over massed chorus and orchestra.

An unexpected combination of voice and orchestra was especially effective, pairing a section from Ravel’s “”Ma merè l’Oye,” “The Enchanted Garden,” with a contemporary Life of Christ read dramatically by Mathew Faberge.

Crust’s work with the chorus was outstanding, although the large, traditional group of 108, still needs a few more good bass voices. It was particularly good in an up-tempo “Hallelujah” chorus, for which the American audience stood like good subjects of King George.

The desire of that audience for some old-fashioned Christmas cheer was apparent in the concluding Christmas Carol sing-along, which was enthusiastic, with some audible evidence of part singing.

Judging from the reaction of the children seated near me, this year’s production holds attention very well, even without Santa Claus.

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

In Memoriam Elliott Schwartz

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One of my most treasured possessions is a birthday greeting from Maine’s pre-eminent composer, Elliott Schwartz, who died on Wednesday at the age of 80, surrounded by family, friends and former students of Bowdoin College, where he taught for many years.

The greeting is six bars of piano music in 4/4 time, marked “Slow, stately.” Elliott played it at my party, and I have returned to it many times since. In these few bars are contained some of the qualities that made Elliott a great musician and an even greater man.

The piece exemplifies Elliott’s long-term interest in the alphabet and numerology as sources of motifs for his compositions. His lectures on hidden codes in music are legendary, and in the greeting he uses the letters of my name, my date of birth and the date of the birthday party to build both melody and harmony. The only letter for which there is no musical equivalent is “Y”. The player has to shout out this syllable at the appropriate time, leading to the title of the work: “The Answered Question.”

Following that theme, the work progresses from relative dissonance to a satisfying tonic-sounding conclusion, even though there is no key signature.

“The Answered Question” illustrates Elliott’s characteristic musical inventiveness, and his ability to combine disparate elements into a satisfying whole.

It also contains a bit of psychological acuity,  a great deal of generosity, and considerable humor. It tells a story without words.

I first met Elliott at the beginning of my tenure as classical music critic for the Portland Press Herald. I interviewed him about his “Bellagio Variations,” but the conversation continued for well over an hour, covering a wide range of topics, end ended with his giving me R. Murray Schafer’s seminal book, ”The Soundscape.” It was the beginning of a long friendship with Elliott and his beautiful wife, Deedee, who died in 2014.

Although Elliott was in considerable pain after an automobile accident that almost took the lives of both him and Deedee, I never saw him in anything but a good humor. When I wrote disparagingly about Ralph Vaughn Williams and Edward Elgar, about whom Elliott was the acknowledge\d authority,  he merely remarked that there might be something in them after all and suggested a few recordings.

Perhaps there was a little synchronicity involved in the relationship. At one dinner party we had invited the late poet Henry Braun and his wife, Joan. She and Elliott were surprised at meeting (again). They had both attended the same high school in Brooklyn, at the same time, and had not seen each other for about 40 years.

On another occasion, two noted violinists, my wife Judy and I, and Elliott and Deedee, spent an hour after dessert playing a sextet on wine glasses.

I saw him at a concerts and festivals in recent years, but I recall most vividly a lecture he gave at Thornton Oaks, where he spent the last years of his life. It ended with one of the most spectacular recordings ever of the Rachmaninoff Third Piano Concerto, with a photograph of Vladimir Horowitz displaying a rare smile after the performance. I wondered “Where does he find such people?”

Where will the State of Maine,, the nation, and the world, find another Elliott Schwartz?

Christopher Hyde, Pownal, Maine. Dec. 8, 2016

Sunday in the Park with Brahms

Portland String Quartet
Woodfords Congregational Church
Dec. 4, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

One of the high points of my musical experience was hearing the Bolivar Symphony Orchestra under Gustavo Dudamel, play Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” at the Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires. The young musicians, graduates of Venezuela’s El Sistema, not only played as well as any major symphony orchestra in the world, but brought an entirely new level of dedication and excitement to the work. No one has ever performed it better.

Thus I was looking forward to hearing violist Jesus Alfonzo, a founding member of El Sistema, play the Brahms String Quintet No. 2 in G Major, Op. 111, with the Portland String Quartet, which has had a close relationship with the Venezuelan program since its beginning.

I was not disappointed. The musicians seemed inspired by the presence of Alfonzo to breathe new life into one of the most popular works in the chamber music repertoire.

Every movement threw off sparks. My notes on the first included “starlight in the park, with distant fireworks,” and an exclamation point about how much Richard Strauss had learned from Brahms.

In the second, Adagio, there was a pianissimo moment when every musician seemed as intent upon listening to the others as a cat in front of a mouse hole. Pardon the simile, but I could think of nothing else having such an immediate physical intensity.

The valse triste of the Poco Allegretto inspired not only Sibelius, as mentioned in the program notes, but also the slow movement of the Ravel piano concerto for the left hand.

The final movement emphasized the surprise occasioned by a ferocious gypsy dance tacked on to the penultimate bars of a relatively decorous development section-—almost as if Brahms had said to himself “This is going to be my last work, so the hell with it. I’ll include a fragment in memory of my misspent youth.”

I have complained about almost everyone’s interpretation of Brahms. This was a notable exception.

Whether intentionally or not, the PSQ coupled this work, by a composer who never wrote an opera, with a quartet by Verdi, who wrote just one purely instrumental work, and the Lyric Quartette (1960) of William Grant Still (1895-1978) an African-American composer who wrote both.

Unfortunately, I missed the Still quartet, but arrived in time for the Verdi String Quartet in E Minor (1873). It still seems more of a curiosity than a serious piece of music, almost a pastiche of tunes held together by a slight framework (rather like an opera?). The exception is the final Scherzo-Fugo, Allegro assai mosso, in which the composer proves, like others before him, that he can write a classical fugue, but then manages to turn it into a rather savage practical joke. As was the case with the Brahms, the PSQ made the most of it.

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