DaPonte Does the Three “B”s in Brunswick

DaPonte String Quartet
Unitarian Universalist Church, Brunswick
March 25, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

The DaPonte String Quartet’s program on Sunday, at Brunswick’s Unitarian Universalist Church, began with two fugues from Bach’s “Art of the Fugue,” which has been called the greatest masterwork in music, although it was written to teach rather than perform.

Cellist Myles Jordan points out, in his always perceptive program notes, that there are a number of problems with this attribution. One is Joseph Conrad’s observation that “All praise is invidious,” because it assumes that the person offering the praise is qualified to to give it.

A second is the effect on performers, which is like that on a modern sculptor given a chisel and asked to improve upon MIchelangelo’s David. It can’t be done, and the effect is near paralysis.

Of course Bach has to be performed to live at all, but one tries to approach it like any other score, without fear and trembling. The DaPonte gave it a good try, but could not seem to let themselves go, as they did with a more popular work, the Beethoven String Quartet in C Major, Op. 29.

With the able assistance of violist Katherine Murdock, they brought this melodic and sometimes quirky creature to life. It is easily accessible on first hearing, but there is some novel invention in each of the movements, just enough to delight without confusing: odd triplets in the first, huge empty rests and no resolution to the tonic in the second, a lovely canter across country, reminding one of the “Light Cavalry Overture,” in the third, and a switch from a gallop to a slower call and response, and back again, in the fourth, which also presages Beethoven’s later obsession with false cadences.

About the last work on the program, the Brahms String Quintet No. 2 in G Major, Op. 111, Jordan pointed out the difficulties in balancing the cello part, which stems from a theme for the brass section of an orchestra, with the other voices in the quintet. The disparity was unnoticeable among the lush and familiar melodies the composer spreads lavishly throughout.

Brahms, perhaps believing that this was to be his last published work, seems to have let his hair down in the quintet, which is nowhere near as durch-componiert as most of his earlier works, beginning with an opening theme that sounds strangely Wagnerian. (Pardon the German, but there’s no other way to describe what composers do who work like a painter, seeing that a dab of color in the lower left-hand corner affects something else in the upper right.)

The first two movements are perfect examples of late Romanticism. The third seems an attempt to get back to more intellectual pursuits, with a strangely off-kilter treatment of triplets and a hearkening back to the principal theme of the first.

Finally, in the fourth, Brahms says “to Hell with it all,” and brings in a gypsy melody, ending with a totally unrelated Hungarian furiant that would have made Bartok proud. It received a well deserved sanding ovation.

The size of the overflow audience at the UUC attests to the success of the quartet’s policy of extending its outreach in Maine. I still think they may be spreading themselves too thin, but music lovers throughout the state have much to be grateful for.

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

Philharmonia Quartett, Berlin

Philharmonia Quartett Berlin
Hannaford Hall, USM
March 19, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

An encore by a string quartet! The first I have heard in many years of listening to chamber music, and not a lollipop either, but the first movement of Beethoven’s Opus 18, No. 6.

The occasion was the conclusion of a Sunday afternoon concert at USM’s Hannaford Hall by the Philharmonia Quartett Berlin, one of the world’s pre-eminent ensembles, under the auspices of Portland Ovations.

The quartet had just concluded the Beethoven No. 15 in A Minor, Opus 132, to a standing ovation, when one of the members said something to the effect of : “Well, you liked that, so we’ll give you some more.”

I had been wracking my brains for what element  makes the quartet so special —balance, individualization of parts, resonance, microtone precision, passion, dynamics, what some have called “smoothness,” etc. etc., without coming to any obvious conclusion.

After the encore, I saw them entering the elevator, chatting like a group of high school students on a senior trip, and what had been under my nose during the encore, suddenly came to mind: They actually love what they’re doing. It’s what holds them together. I had seen that during the encore, but their cohesiveness was emphasized by their obvious comradery off stage.

The program itself was fascinating, beginning with a Mozart quartet, No. 8 in F Major (KV.168), that was light and lively, the composer making fun of convention with a fugue whose theme was so rapid that it defied the rules of counterpoint.

My favorite, however, was the late Shostakovich No. 15 in E-flat Minor (Op 144). There were no flies in Hannaford Hall, so I couldn’t check the validity of the composer’s dictum that the first movement should be so boring that it would make flies drop dead.

I found it fascinating, an exploration of what could be accomplished with the fewest possible notes, played sostenuto within a severely limited range of pitches. It was extremely effective in a macabre sort of way and lent itself to all sorts of Shostakovian transformations, from heart-rending shrieks to summer insects, to one of his famous sardonic waltzes, to, finally, a dirge to the tune of Happy Birthday.
One would have thought it another poke in the eye to Stalin, except that the dictator had already been dead 20 years when it was written. I think Shostakovich missed him.

I wasn’t as happy with the late Beethoven, also a No. 15, but in A Minor (Op. 132). Not because of its execution, which was well-nigh perfect, but because of my blind spot for these revered productions.

The “Holy Song of Thanksgiving to the Divinity by a Convalescent, in the Lydian Mode” (Note the comma. The movement is in the Lydian mode, not the convalescent.) goes on forever. One can imagine God saying: “Enough, Ludwig, I get the message.”

The final movement is livelier, but its false cadences are enough to drive one mad. Sorry. Mea culpa. I really have come to like the Grosse Fugue.

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

Operatic Pops Take On New Luster at MIdcoast

Midcoast Symphony
Franco Center, Lewiston
March 18, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

Mark Twain would have loved Saturday night’s concert of the Midcoast Symphony Orchestra at Lewiston’s Franco Center.

Twain famously remarked that the trouble with opera was sitting through interminable periods of non-musical scene-setting to get to the good parts. On Saturday, the orchestra, under the direction of guest conductor Eric Hewitt, played nothing but the good parts.

One striking aspect of the performance was how much the good parts are sort of a Cliff’s Notes of the opera as a whole, epitomizing , if not the plot, then the emotional atmosphere of the work. Could it be that the composer himself merely used the libretto as an excuse for whatever arias he had in mind?

The Intermezzo from Puccini’s “Manon Lescaut,” for example, tells all one needs to know about the principal character and her fate. It was lushly Romantic and tragic at the same time, played with just the right amount of reserved emotion and tragic portent.

The orchestra entered into the spirit of the works, all quite familiar, with much more enthusiasm than is characteristic of professional (by that I mean for-pay) ensembles. Their interpretation of the “Liebestod” from “Tristan und Isolde” should never have been allowed in mixed company. It is the most graphic depiction of intercourse, raised to the level of religion, ever composed. The climactic measures were earth-shattering,  the best I have ever heard, (and I dislike Wagner with equal passion).

Another aspect of these operatic works is the extreme difficulty of the orchestration. Many of them were re-composed as display pieces, poster children for the operas themselves. Richard Strauss’ Waltz Sequence No. 1 from “Der Rosenkavalier,” (Opus 139), which concluded the program, is the orchestral equivalent of a Godowski piano transcription of “The Blue Danube,” by another Strauss, quite impossible to play. The Midcoast did it anyway, and aside from a few minor glitches, managed it admirably, once again creating a perfect impression of the opera as a whole, as well as illustrating Strauss’s excessive love of the French horn.

I could hear Baron Ochs, besieged in a tavern by a flock of his illegitimate offspring, shouting “Papa. papa,” and muttering to his servant: “Leopold, wir gehens.”

The longest work of the evening was BIzet’s “Carmen” Suite, No. 2, in an arrangement by Ernesto Guiraud which includes some of the lesser-known interludes. It was also very well played, with an authentic Spanish-French flavor and virtuoso work by the trumpet and piccolo.

The regular conductor of the Midcoast, Rohan Smith, was playing in the violin section. I don’t know if he will appear at this afternoon’s concert at the Orion Center in Topsham, but it will be well worth attending in any event.

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

An English Deutsches Requiem at the PSO

Portland Symphony Orchestra
Merrill Auditorium
March 13, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

The change of date, from March 14 to March 13 to beat an oncoming blizzard, didn’t seem to affect attendance at Merrill Auditorium for the Portland Symphony Orchestra’s Lenten program.

It wasn’t billed as Lenten, but that was the impression given by three Christian religious works, played without intermission, backed by the combined forces of the Choral Art Society and the Oratorio Chorale, plus two soloists: baritone Troy Cook and soprano Twyla Robinson.

Music director Robert Moody began the program with a Bach Chorale, “Kumm süsser Tod,” transcribed for full orchestra by Leopold Stokowski. (Disclaimer: I met Stokowski once many years ago when he came to Kodak looking for a grant to stage the Scriabin “Poem of Fire,” complete with light organ to be built by us. He was turned down.)

The chorale is one of Bach’s inspired shorter works, but everything transcribed by Stokowski sounds like, well… Stokowski. Given the state of world affairs, I’m not sure that the sentiment in the title is one that should be widely promulgated.

“Come sweet death” was followed immediately by “In Paradisum,” for orchestra and chorus, by Dan Forrest (b. 1978). It was pleasant enough, well played and sung in traditional harmony, but bears the same relation to religious music as Bob Jones University (which commissioned the work) does to Christianity. It descended into kitsch with a part for handbell ringers in the aisles.

Now we come to the meat of the evening, the great Brahms “Deutsches Requiem,” one of the most profound expressions of religious sentiment ever written, by a man who wasn’t very religious himself.

Only God knows why the work was sung in English. Brahms chose the passages from the Lutheran Bible himself, and the music was written to fit them—as beloved of the Germans as the King James Bible is of us— certainly not English.

With supertitles, one can follow the text perfectly well, no matter what language is being sung. So why the translation? Incidentally, the supertitles in both the Forrest and the Brahms, were their usual ham-fisted selves, complete with misspellings.

Moody put Robinson on the balcony for the movement that was written to commemorate the death of the composer’s mother,  in which she seems to communicate with him. It was a nice touch, but the spotlighted singer could not be seen from under the left balcony overhang, and her part seemed to emanate from somewhere in the chorus. Both she and Cook have clear, well-projected voices, which would have been a delight to hear in German.

The orchestra was on its best behavior, but needed to expand its dynamic range beyond mezzo-forte to piano.

The combed choruses, under the direction of Emily Isaacson and Robert Russell, were fine, but could have been a little smaller, for better focus, and shifted toward the bass end of the spectrum.
Still, I would walk miles in the cold to hear the Requiem sung by a high school choir, and the audience agreed, giving the performance a for-once-deserved standing ovation.

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

Classics from South America, at the Franco Center

MIchael Lewin, Pianist
Franco Center, Lewiston
March 10, 2017
by Christopher Hyde
One of the finest, and most unusual, piano recitals of the year happened Friday night, Mar. 10, as part of the 2016-17 Piano Series at the Franco Center in Lewiston.

Michael Lewin, Professor of Piano at the Boston Conservatory at Berklee, after acclaimed recordings of Debussy, Scarlatti, Liszt and Charles Tomlinson Griffes, has begun to explore Latin American classical music, and his discoveries made up a large part of the program.

Lewin’s technique is astounding, but always in the service of a musical imagination which contains a refreshing amount of intellectual curiosity. One his recordings deals with musical depictions of birds, and another with music inspired by the spirit world.

The program began with the Beethoven Sonata No. 3 in C Major (Op. 2, No. 3), which is not heard very often, perhaps because its transitional nature, moving away from Mozart and Haydn into his own realm, but more of a showpiece than an expedition into new territory. It does, however, offer premonitions of more characteristic work, while illustrating why the young Beethoven was in demand as a performer.

It was followed by the fiendishly difficult Sonata No. 1, Op. 22 (1952) by Argentine composer Alberto Ginastera (1916-1983). In discussing the work after the concert, Lewin explained that he played it with the score, since he was still perfecting its performance. The work is so complex, dense and rapid that it doesn’t seem as if a score would help in playing it. Even turning the pages was a virtuoso exercise.

Like his compatriot, Astor Piazzolla, Ginastera uses Latin dance forms primarily as a framework for  complex musical ideas and imagery. In fact, these musical echoes may not even be deliberate, but part of each composer’s heritage, sounding “Latin” only to northern ears.

My favorite section of the 15-minute sonata was the Presto Misterioso second movement, with its combinations of chords and sprays of notes at the extreme ends of treble and bass.

After intermission, Lewin played shorter dance works by Erensto Lecouna and Ernesto Nazareth, and “A lenda do cobaclo” (Legend of the Native) of Heitor Villa-Lobos. Lecouna (1895-1963) is best known for “Malagueña,” but his “La conga de la media noche” shows what “The Cuban Gershwin” could do with more sophisticated musical forms and “modern” harmony.

Lewin is known as a Liszt performer, and the final works on the program were the “Petrarch Sonnet,” No. 123, and the “Mephisto Waltz,” No. 1, masterpieces of musical imagery. The encore was an early Scriabin Etude.

The Franco Center piano series remains too much of an undiscovered treasure. Its artists are the equal of any performing in Maine, the venue and its acoustics are superb, and the price is low (including champagne with the pianist). Kevin Ayesh is coming on April 21, and I urge all lovers of the piano to attend and discover what they are missing.

 

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