Oratorio Chorale: A Bach Festival Preview

Oratorio Chorale
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Brunswick
Feb. 26, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

It would be advisable to buy tickets immediately to the Portland Bach Festival ,June 19-24. The first one, in 2016, was an immediate success, and the Oratorio Chorale’s “Bach+” concert on Sunday, a sort-of preview of the summer programs, was sold out.

As usual, director Emily Isaacson coordinated the Chorale’s chamber singers, guest artists St. Mary Schola, and a baroque trio, into one virtually flawless program. It was short, a little over an hour in length, but fully revealed the grandeur of both J.S. Bach and his predecessor, Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672).

The integration of a baroque ensemble—Bruce Fithian, organ continuo, Timothy Burris, lute and Philip Carlsen, cello— with the chorus and soloists, was particularly well thought-out. For example, in the support given bass voices by the cello.

I hesitate to point this out, once again, but no chorus in Maine has yet developed a powerful enough bass section. Perhaps our current deepening relations with Russia will improve the situation. A Chaliapin pedal point would be paradise enough.

The otherwise astute program notes did not identify soloists in specific sections, but those with individual bass voices were well balanced. Of particular note was the Schola’s artist in residence, soprano Mary Sullivan.

I came to hear the Bach “Jesu meine Freude,” (BWV 227) one of my favorites, and to learn more about Schütz and his “Musikalische Exequien,” which is said to have influenced Brahms’ “German Requiem,” coming up soon at the Portland Symphony.

But I was amazed by the longer, more operatic Schütz work, which, like most of Bach, puts to rest any notion of “progress” in music. It is a dialog between Man and God, illustrating both poetry and Biblical verses, and is unfailingly interesting in its variety of vocal combinations, never the same twice. It also builds continually in intensity to a conclusion of chorus, Seraphim and the Holy Ghost, the latter three voices emanating from the organ loft at the back of the church.

Some of the musical effects are almost tactile, as in the begging repetition of “Lord, I will not let You go except You bless me.”

Both the Bach and the Schütz proceed rapidly through the German verses, without that bane of my youthful existence, the worrying of a phrase over and over, like a dog with a bone, prompting one to mutter “Can’t we just get on with it?”

What is there to say about Bach, who combines melody, inventiveness, technical perfection and architectural elegance in one diamond-like whole? (With a little numerology thrown in for good measure.) The fugue in the middle of the motet is one of his masterpieces, interweaving four voices so that polyphony generates celestial harmony.

Could the chorale, No. 9, have been studied by Mahler, who also employs the phrase “Gute Nacht” to good effect in “Des Knaben Wunderhorn?”

Both the baroque works, which welcome a Christian death, are considerably more cheerful than most of Mahler.  Strange, when one considers that they both originate in the Lutheran tradition, which is said to have generated the aphorism: “It’s always darkest before it gets darker still.”

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

The Ghost of the Piano

Portland Symphony Orchestra
Merrill Auditorium
Feb. 14, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

The Portland Symphony Orchestra’s Valentine’s Day concert at Merrill Auditorium could have been billed as ”A Study in Black and White.” Music Director Robert Moody chose one of Beethoven’s most light-hearted (and least popular) symphonies, No. 2 in D Major, Opus 36, and paired it with Rachmaninoff’s darkly Romantic Symphony No. 2 in E Minor, the “Wuthering Heights” of music.

One doesn’t hear the Beethoven No. 2 very often, perhaps because it’s sort of a musician’s in-joke, which can’t be appreciated by the general public. It is fun to listen to, but lacks the emotion and spirituality of the others.

Some one once said to me, rather dismissively, that “music is not a religious experience,” to which I replied, as Woody Allen pointed out in another context: “It is if it’s done right.”

The orchestra gave the symphony a technically flawless performance, but they too seemed to lack passion. On the other hand, everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves, especially in that section of the Scherzo where a theme is tossed around between sections like a hot potato. The larghetto, which is more of s Spring song than a tragic reflection, was delightful, its bird calls a precursor of those in the Sixth Symphony.

A disclaimer here: the Rachmaninoff is one of my favorite works, perhaps because I first heard it performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy, which was world-famous for its string section.

Hearing it live once again, however, gave me an insight for the first time. It is not a symphony at all, but a piano concerto without piano. Anyone who plays the instrument can imagine a tremendous piano part fitting in perfectly beside or above almost every note of the score. There is even space in its heavenly length for the most brilliant and imaginative cadenzas you can invent.

The other-worldly clarinet solo in the Adagio, perfectly performed by Principal Thomas Parchman, shows where Rachmaninoff’s mind lay, although the clarinet gave him a better sostenuto than the piano to work with.

Speaking of heavenly length, the finale goes on so long that it was sometimes cut for performance. Not so this time, and one hoped it would go on forever. (Note: I have been informed that some, I hope minor, cuts were made to the original score for this performance.. Hope none of them was the real climax.)

Rachmaninoff was pre-occupied with musical climaxes, insisting that one must be found and built up to in every work, even if the composer had left it out. The finale of the symphony has at least five or six, leading the listener to wonder if he suffered, like Bruckner, from anorgasmia.

Moody chose the last one, fortissimo, leading to a standing ovation and the thanks of all the Valentine’s Day couples in the audience.

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