The Avant Garde at Bowdoin, Plus Beethoven

Amernet String Quartet
Studzinsky Recital Hall, Bowdoin College
Jan. 28, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

After more than 20 years of reviewing classical music in Maine, I am still surprised by the variety and quality of the offerings here.

The concert by the Amernet Quartet, Saturday night at Studzinsky Hall, is a prime example. Here was one of the most renowned interpreters of contemporary music, playing two “modern” quartets, a transcription of the Beethoven “Pathetique” and a movement from a quartet by Vineet Shende, who teaches at Bowdoin.

I don’t know what to say about the Beethoven transcription. I play the sonata myself and its andante cantabile was one of the first “classical” works I heard on the radio, an orchestral version introducing some company’s “Symphony Hour” back in the 50’s. Anyone remember what that was, on a Philadelphia station?

At any rate, the transcription was fun to hear, bringing out some inner voices generally obscured in the piano version. What was lacking, however, was the crispness of individual chords and the dynamic range that can be achieved on a Steinway grand.

The third movement of Shende’s String Quartet No. 2, “in Raag Ahir Bhairav,” utilizes traditional Indian modes and complex rhythmical patterns in a Western classical form. It avoids “exotic” cliches to attempt an authentic fusion of East and West, rather than a pastiche.

Shende provided a brief explanation of the modes in opening remarks before the performance, pointing out that the Indian modes named in the work are more than patterns of notes. One wishes that more information could have been included in the program notes.

The same applies to the other contemporary works on the program—the String Quartet No. 1 (1998) of Manuel de Murga, and the String Quartet No. 4 (1996) of Sydney Hodkinson, although both have expressive indications before each movement, such as “slowly pulsing, smoldering,” (de Murga) or “declamando, placido, sereno,” (Hodkinson).

De Murga, who teaches composition at Stetson University, and Hodkinson, Adjunct Professor of Music at Stetson, have both used the string quartet format as a vehicle for conveying emotional states, as designated by the movement indications.

Hodkinson also ventures into character portraits of his friends, a la Elgar’s “Enigma” Variations. Some of the portraits are based upon letter and number patterns, like those of the late Elliott Schwartz. In both cases, it was enjoyable to attempt linking the music to the adjectives.

The Amernet provided the best possible renditions of these late 20th Century works, especially the dense and sometimes fugal textures of the Hodkinson Quartet.

There’s a strange phenomenon at Studzinsky: an approximately 50 percent audience decline after intermission. The hall was almost filled for the first half and half filled for the second. I thought perhaps they wanted to hear only Beethoven and a native son, Shende, but the same thing seems to happen at every concert, not just of “modern” music.

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

Pianist Excels at Franco Center Recital

Franco Center Piano Series
Christopher Staknys
Franco Center, Lewiston
Jan. 20, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

At the advanced age of 20, pianist Christopher Staknys has already performed three times at the popular piano series of the Franco Center in Lewiston. The first time, at the age of ten, he had just broken his right arm and played his own composition for the left hand alone.

Probably just a coincidence, but the young pianist’s most successful rendition on Friday evening was the Sonata-Fantasy in G-sharp Minor, Op. 19, of Alexander Scriabin, best known for his Nocturne for the left hand.

Scriabin’s early piano works are heavily influenced by Chopin, but more virtuosic. The sonata, like those of Chopin, requires a master to bring out the internal voices amidst a Russian snowstorm of notes.

Staknys was more than up to the task,  in a well-balanced performance that, in the final presto, seemed like bolts of lightning inside a dark thundercloud.

Staknys, who lives in Falmouth and is now attending Juilliard, may have been nervous at the beginning of the concert, since he attacked the Mozart Sonata No. 8 in A Minor (KV 310) like a falcon dive-bombing a pigeon.

It was fascinating to hear. No one should be able to play that fast and furious without making a single mistake. “No, he can’t possibly negotiate that passage correctly at that speed!” But he does. Miraculous, but unfortunately not Mozart.

The accelerator was slightly less depressed in three waltzes from Chopin’s Opus 34, but they still sounded like Godowsky transcriptions of Strauss. The best was No. 2 in A Minor, which demands some thoughtful melancholy.

During the first half of the program, the young pianist was most at home in “Ondine,” from Ravel’s “Gaspard de la Nuit,” with its sparkling sprays of water flicked off by the nymph of the title, who is trying to get the poet to come with her to her palace under the lake.
A little more contrast of moods, from playful through Romantic to pouting (when the poet refuses her), would have been ideal, but the entire portrait was brilliant and technically flawless.

The second half began with two original preludes, dedicated to the pianist’s mother. They were reminiscent of Scriabin as well in their tonal ambiguity, if not in their playfulness.

A Schubert Allegretto in A-flat Major, No. 6 of Moments Musicaux, Op. 94 (D. 780), demonstrated what Staknys could do with a more relaxed and thoughtful approach. It was gorgeous, especially the certainty of voices in the ever-modulating chords.

The encore was a set of improvisations on “Over the Rainbow,” with a reference to “My Country, ’Tis of Thee” appropriate to Inauguration Day. The occasion may have influenced attendance, but there should have been many more in the hall. A fine concert, crepes and wine at intermission and champagne and conversation with the artist afterward. What could be better than that?

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

The Sea and Chopin at Portland Symphony

Portland Symphony Orchestra
Merrill Auditorium
Jan. 15, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

If every member of the overflow audience at Sunday’s Portland Symphony Orchestra concert tells a friend about the experience, there should be no problem selling out classical music events in the future. The program had something for everyone, from arch-Romantics to Maine seafaring types.

The orchestra was in good form and enthusiastic, under the direction of guest conductor David Neely.

The first two works were Benjamin Britten’s Four Sea Interludes from “Peter Grimes,” (Op. 33a), and Debussy’s “La Mer,” two of the finest depictions of the sea in all her moods since Rimsky-Korsakov’s “The Sea and Sinbad.”

Both are spectacular in different ways. Debussy’s imagery is pantheistic. Man is merely a witness to the dialog of wind and wave. Britten, on the other hand, is supreme in his sketches of the ocean in relation to the shore and its inhabitants.

Even the reverberation of the Sunday bells, in the seaside village of his opera, has something moving and fluid about it. The irregular knocking of choppy seas on the hull can never be bettered, and the final descent of Grimes’ boat into the depths reminds one of Turner’s stormy seascapes.

Britten’s use of orchestra color is astounding, and always effective. Neely and the orchestra made the most of it. One minor shift in the pitch of the timpani spoke volumes, instantly altering the mood like a sudden fog bank.

While Britten’s Interludes are vignettes, Debussy takes a longer view, sometimes teasing,  in building up the sparkle of small wavelets and the “breeze that will be whispering at all hours” into a glorious crashing climax, which must have made every surfer long for Hawaii, or at least Costa Rica. Another argument, if one is needed, for the primacy of live music.

Pianist Diane Walsh’s sensitive performance of the Chopin Concerto No. 2 in F Minor (Op. 21) was a throwback to a salon concert of the 1800’s. Somehow tuner Matt Guggenheim made the Steinway sound like a Pleyel, or maybe it was just Walsh’s touch in the high treble. I could listen to her string-of-pearls portamento scales and passage-work forever.

The pianist’s independence reminded me of harpsichordist Wanda Landowska—‘You play Bach your way and I’ll play it his way.” She demanded space for her interpretation and got it. For the most part, the orchestra in a Chopin concerto is an accompaniment, but it sometimes asserts itself in surprising ways. A horn call in the third movement jolted people out of their seats, like a racehorse hearing the post, and the climax got a bit muddy, but who cares? It was a magical transportation back in time, complete with an encore of Liszt’s “La Campanella,” which I never thought to hear again in my lifetime.

Both concerto and encore got a well-deserved standing ovation.

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