“Joy shall be yours in the morning…” PSO Does the Ninth

Portland Symphony Orchestra
Merrill Auditorium
April 25, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

Isak Dinesen once observed that there are three sources of joy: love, to have been in pain and be out of it, and to feel in oneself an excess of strength.. Each of these applies to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony , which ends with Schiiler’s “Ode to Joy,” gloriously performed by the Portland Symphony Orchestra under music director Robert Moody on April 23 and 25.

One suspects that people nowadays are desperate for any source of joy—witness sold-out houses at Merrill Auditorium on both days. But there is another source of joy that Baroness Blixen neglected to mention—what William James called the “oceanic” feeling— the experience of being one with the universe, or the universal brotherhood celebrated by Schiller, Beethoven and Karl Marx.

Universal brotherhood was a subversive concept during the Romantic period, with the aristocracy desperately trying to hold on to power in the face of the French Revolution. and other popular movements. Beethoven had pondered setting Schiller’s poem to music for over 30 years before he wrote the Ninth, and there is evidence that the poet originally intended his ode to be in praise of liberty, rather than joy.

Music doesn’t have to be about anything but itself, but there must have been a powerful impulse at work for Beethoven to devote all of his genius, for an extended period, to a work that he would never hear, except in his own mind.

The Ninth is such a monumental creation that it is seldom heard live. To pull it off, Moody had to recruit a quartet of fine soloists: Mary Boehlke-Wilson, soprano; Margaret Lias, alto; John McVeigh, tenor; and Philip Cutlip, baritone, willing to risk their voices in Beethoven’s impossible roles, the combined forces of the Oratorio Chorale, under Emily Isaacson and the Choral Art Masterworks, under Robert Riussell, plus the full orchestra devoted to a demanding score lasting over an hour.

Although there were a couple of strained points, inevitable in such an undertaking, Moody held everything together admirably. The soloists tackled the impossible successfully, and the combined choruses were able to hold their own against the orchestra gracefully, and to sing a monumental fugue without the muddiness that often accompanies large numbers of voices.

The result was tremendously moving, in spite of superfluous supertitles (there is not a single decent translation of the Schiller ode anywhere on the internet). After the final fortissimo the audience leaped to its collective feet instantly, with the accompaniment of cheers and foot stomping. No one wanted to leave.

In the face of the Ninth, the opening Samuel Barber Adagio for Strings seemed a little muted, at least in retrospect, but its selection to set the sombre opening mood of the Beethoven symphony was inspired programming.

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

Mozart and Gershwin at the Franco Center

Kevin Ayesh, Piano
Franco Center, Lewiston

April 19, 2017

by Christopher Hyde

On Friday night I took my grandson, nine-year-old Jordan Seavey, to hear Kevin Ayesh, in the penultimate concert of the Franco Center’s 2016-2017 piano series.

It was a good choice. Jordan is beginning to study piano seriously and Dr. Ayesh is a noted teacher and performer whose approach is musical rather than virtuosic. In my experience, Lisztian displays often do more to discourage budding musicians than to inspire them.
Jordan also happens to love the Gershwin “Rhapsody in Blue,” which was the final work on the scheduled program. (The encore was Dame Myra Hess’ transcription of the Bach “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.”)

Friday’s night’s performance marked the first time I had heard the solo piano score, written by Gershwin himself, and I liked it better than any of the versions orchestrated by Ferde Grofe, always excepting the opening clarinet glissando, which Ayesh imitated well on the piano.

Gershwin himself was a pianist and the piano must have been what he heard in the railroad noises that inspired the work. It does feel closer to the spirit of the composition, and it seems to hold together better than the concerto-with-orchestra that Leonard Bernstein deplored as fragmented.

Ayesh is as much at home in Mozart as in Gershwin, opening the program with a remarkable performance of the Sonata No. 9 in D Major, K. 311.  It seemed an almost complete realization of the composer’s intentions in  dynamic range, tempo and clear delineation of voices.

His inherently thoughtful approach was not as useful in four works by Chopin that concluded the first half of the program. The opening Nocturne in C Minor, Op. 48, No. 1, was the most successful, bringing out the unusual amount of drama in the piece.

The well-known melody of the Etude in E Major, Op. 10, No. 3, was a bit idiosyncratic, but what is a pianist to do after a few centuries of repetition? I once asked a famous virtuoso how he maintained his feeling for a composition after a few hundred performances . He replied “fake it.”

I don’t have enough Polish blood to enjoy the mazurkas as I should, and the “Heroic” Polonaise in A-flat Major, which has become display rather than music, needs more artillery power than thought.

However, I very much enjoyed Ayesh’s interpretation of the Brahms Intermezzo in A Major, Op. 118, No. 2, especially his emphasis on the triplets in the central section, and the fermata before the final “A” in that beautiful arpeggiated chord.

The Impromptu No. 3 in A-flat Major, Op. 34 of Gabriel Fauré came as a revelation, full of sparkling French fireworks and a wistful middle theme that recurs in the coda. Very appropriate for the Franco Center.

And Jordan got to meet the artist at the regular champagne reception after the concert.

The final recital of the series will be on June 9, with pianist Tamara Poddubnaya and Music Without Borders Grand Prix winner Vassily Panteleev.

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

Sweetest in the Gale’s Baroque Beauties

Oratorio Chorale
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Brunswick
April 9, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

The Oratorio Chorale’s women’s choir is named “Sweetest in the Gale,” (from the Emily Dickinson poem “Hope is a Thing with Feathers”). Sunday’s concert at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Brunswick was more like an inland breeze from the ocean on a hot day, both surprising and refreshing.

Director Emily Isaacson has a knack for choosing scores that perfectly illustrate her concert titles, in this case “Beauties of the Baroque,” and that offer something to every member of the audience. The choir she has founded and coached is little short of phenomenal, and her choice of soloists, Mary Sullivan, soprano, and Jenna Guiggey, alto, complements it very well.

Add to this a fine baroque chamber ensemble, and you have recipe for a delightful, if short (one hour) Sunday afternoon.

The opening work, Claudio Monteverdi’s (1567-1643) “Angelus ad pastors ait; Ubi Duo,” was both sweet and surprising. Sweet in the harmonies that Monteverdi achieves through counterpoint, and surprising for the contrasting lines the choir is able to obtain with female voices alone. The low altos served the essential purpose of the bass in mixed choirs that we have long been arguing for,

The second piece, “Duo Seraphim,” by Tomás Luis de Victoria (c.1548-1611), was surprising for what came after it: a setting of the same text by Caterina Assandra (c. 1590-after 1611). It is a good example for those who argue that female composers of the past may have been the equals of their male counterparts, but suppressed by societal conventions.

More evidence was offered by the sprightly and modern-sounding “Quis dabit mihi,” by Barbara Strozzi (1619-1677), which describes what seems to be a love affair between the composer and Jesus, evoking images of the ecstasy of St. Teresa as depicted by Bernini.

The second half of the program was devoted to the great “Stabat Mater” of Giovanni Batista Pergolesi (1710-1736), which describes in 12 cantos the agony of Christ’s mother beneath the cross. The narrative, which alternates between chorus and soloists, both alone and in duets, is highly operatic and ornamented to an extent that offers major challenges to the singers. There are dramatic leaps in pitch and changes in volume that must have delighted divas of the past, but tend to dismay modern singers. Not so Sullivan and Guiggey.

What is surprising about the Stabat Mater is how much musical conventions have changed. There are sections that to a modern ear sound almost cheerful, but which were intended to describe the depths of suffering. The music is still effective; it just doesn’t seem to illustrate the text as well as it used to. One thinks of the high-pitched counter tenors chosen by Purcell to depict British heroes.

Isaacson’s lively direction of the chorus and the baroque ensemble unified the work and brought it to life once more, earning a standing ovation from the capacity audience.

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

Back Cove Festival Opens on a High Note

Back Cove Contemporary Music Festival
Woodford’s Congregational Church
April 7, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

I came to the Back Cove Contemporary Music Festival (April 7, 8, 9) to hear the world premiere of Elliott Schwartz’s String Quartet No. 3 (“Portrait for Deedee”) played by the Portland String Quartet.
The quartet, Schwartz’ final work before his death last year, was all that I had hoped, but it was surrounded by other fine works, most of them in traditional forms, without the experimentalism that usually characterizes such festivals.

Looking at the programs for Saturday and Sunday, the remaining two days appear to be equally accessible.

The Portland String Quartet realized the Schwartz composition, written in memory of his wife, Deedee, almost perfectly. While it includes many of the composer’s mannerisms, such as musical quotes and use of the alphabet and numerology to generate motifs, it is considerably more dark in color than most of his work. I hesitate to use the word “tragic” in reference to one known for his unfailing good humor in the face of adversity.

The quartet also seems more thoroughly composed. The recurrent themes are developed and maintained, while the quotes, from his wife’s favorite music, fit in perfectly, like ghostly comments on the score. This promises to become one of Schwartz’s most popular works, almost making one believe in the magical power of numbers.

As for the rest of the program, I was particularly impressed by the work of the Portland Piano Trio, consisting of Tracey Jasas-Hardel, violin, Benjamin Noyes, cello, and Anastasia Antonacos, piano. They played four difficult works, in a variety of styles, with both spirit and understanding, an unusual combination.

They began the evening with “Number the Clouds,” by Delvyn Case, a dense and atmospheric setting of the Book of Job. After intermission, Case also contributed a highly effective musiking of “The Lord’s Prayer,” sung by soprano Elizabeth Marshall, accompanied by Harold Stover on the organ. Marshall performed the difficult feat of maintaining perfect intervals against the equal temperament of the organ.

Stover also played his own “Five Preludes on American Folk Hymns,” coaxing voices from the Woodford’s organ never heard before. The variations were truly amazing, even though I didn’t know most of the tunes. I wonder what he could do with “A Mighty Fortress…”

The Portland Trio finished the evening with Trio No. 1, by Nancy Gunn; “Choreodography (sic) No. 2” by Francis Kayali, a student of Elliott Schwartz; and  “Ancestry Variations” by Stepahie Ann Boyd, which takes a folk tune and varies it according to the styles of some famous composers. Entertaining and well-written, it was probably the most traditional of the three.

Gunn’s trio was also relatively tonal, with a driving, almost violent first movement, contrasted with a slower, nostalgic second.

Kayali’s offering was almost as quirky as Stover’s variations, consisting of Schoenbergian manipulations of a theme (not a tone row), which dissolve into a puddle of tonality.

Many of the composers were in the audience, accepting warm applause with the performers.

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