You’ve Come a Long Way: A Piano Recital in the 21st Century

Piano Recital
Students of Ginger Yang Hwalek
Minsky Recital Hall, University of Maine
May 21, 2017

On Sunday I went to Minsky Hall, on the University of Maine Campus, to hear my grandson, nine-year-old Jordan Seavey, play a Beethoven Sonatina and a Tarantella by Stephen Heller. I stayed to hear the rest of Ginger Yang Hwalek’s students in recital. I had prepared myself for an ordeal, but the experience turned out to be an unanticipated pleasure.

Piano teaching has come a long way since I went to my first recital, when everyone was happy just to make it through “The Jolly Rancher.” Any graduate of Juilliard now probably plays better than Franz Liszt, and I’m happy to see that the improvement extends to those, like Jordan, whose feet don’t reach the pedals. All of Hwalek’s students seemed to enjoy what they were doing

Every piece, and there were some long and challenging ones, was played by heart (as we used to say) and although there were some minor hesitations at times, generally all went smoothly and in tempo. Jordan had the sonatina down pat, and even seemed to like playing it before an audience.

He came first on the program, and was followed by an even tinier Zoe Pulitzer, who played four short pieces, including a nice Hayden Quadrille, and ended with a Waltz for Four Hands by Heinrich Wohlfahrt, with her teacher playing secondo.

Sofie Reuter also played four short works, including a Haydn German Dance in D Major, but I was most impressed by her gliding portrait of “The Snake“ by Renée Christopher.

William Xu came next, with a CPE Bach Solfeggietto and a Sonatiina in A Minor by George Anton Benda, the first work on the program to require the use of crossed hands.

Vetri Vel played another Beethoven Sonatina, in F Major, plus a descriptive “Teasing Song” by Béla Bartók.

Nate Shearer performed an up-tempo Allegro from a Sonatina by Kuhlau (Is a pattern emerging here?) but seemed more at home in an atmospheric “L’Orage” (“The Storm”) Op. 109, No. 13 by Burgmüller, stemming from the days when pianos had attachments for rendering musical portraits of battles and thunderstorms.

I was floored by the grace and feeling of Inga Zimba’s Mendelssohn Song Without Words, Op. 55, No. 1.  Many professionals do not play it as well. Then she turned around and mastered something the exact opposite—a fiery and percussive study in overtones—Rodion Shchedrin’s “Russian Bell Chimes.”

Helen Shearer performed the Bach Invention No. 8 in F Major—all of the Inventions are more difficult than they seem at first glance—plus a dramatic “Knect Rupert” of Schumann.

Clementi’s Spiritoso from the Sonatina in C. Major, Op 36, No. 3, reminded me of Vladimir Horowitz’s predilection for this composer, but Cecilia Doering’s version of a Toccatina by Samuel Maikapar was even more virtuosic.

Emma Higgins’ Six Ecossaises by Beethoven were eminently danceable, followed by a wonderfully discordant Bagatelle, Op. 5, No. 1 of Alexander Tcherepnin

Robert Starer’s tone poems, Pink and Bright Orange, from “Sketches in Color,” as played by Mei Tian, were effective. I could see the correct shade of pink behind closed eyes, but pale yellow was as far as I could get with Bright Orange.

She was followed by Emma Shearer, with a highly proficient and descriptive interpretation of Joaquin Turina’s modern masterpiece “Clowns.” She then switched effortlessly to Greig’s melodic tone poem in sonata form: “Wedding Day at Troldhaugen,”

The Shearer sisters and brother got together for a delightful six-handed romp through Robert Vandall’s “Triple Dip,” a jazzy piece that combines a stride bass with overtones of bebop.

The program concluded with a performance by Mira Schubeck, Hwalek’s senior student, of Two Arabesques by Claude Debussy. These seminal works, with their unexpected transitions and quirky humor, presage Debussy’s mature piano music, and their premonitions were beautifully brought out. She was rewarded with flowers and a hug.

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

Oratorio Chorale Ends Season with Amazing Grace

Oratorio Chorale
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Brunswick
May 20, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

“Amazing Grace” is a simple pentatonic tune (it can be played on just the black keys of a piano), which has become a cliche at public funerals, but Emily Isaacson and the Oratorio Chorale, in Sunday’s concert at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, turned it into something magical, with drones, fugues of intermixed stanzas and more musical devices than you can shake a baton at.  It wasn’t a Negro Spiritual, but it sounded marvelous nonetheless.

Spirituals were at the heart of the program, presented in collaboration with the Portland Abyssinian Meeting House, which will be offering an Emancipation Celebration at St. Paul’s on June 10.

Isaacson programmed a varied selection of these works in roughly chronological order, from the darkest days of slavery through emancipation to the 20th Century. The Chorale was ably assisted by Reginald Mobley, countertenor, Mary Sullivan, soprano, Judith Casselberry, reader and Scott Wheatley, piano.

Casselberry’s readings, beginning with Frederick Douglass, were valuable in establishing context and significance, but sometimes difficult to understand. It would have been helpful to include them in the program.

Mary Sullivan’s solo in “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” with the chorale emulating a desolate wind, reminded me of Marian Anderson. She was equally effective in livelier spirituals.

Stealing the show, however, was countertenor Reginald Mobley. Countertenors are often featured in Baroque and earlier music, but using one as a soloist in spirituals is rather unusual. As usual with Isaacson’s innovative ideas, this one worked perfectly.

Mobley , although he sounded a little unsure of himself at first, soon came into his own, with marvelous renditions of “Were You There?” and “Steal Away.”  Toward the end, his “Precious Lord” was a prime example of what Gospel shout should be, full of perfectly timed musical ornaments, delivered in a powerful mezzo-soprano voice. with infectuous enthusiasm.

My favorite among the well-known songs by the chorale alone was a fast-paced, perfectly rendered version of “Ezekiel Saw de Wheel.”

If I had any quarrel at all with the concert, it would be with its very variety. The Gospel songs are good enough on their own without shifting choirs around, marching, alternating piano accompaniment with a cappella, and using (a few) gussied-up arrangements.

That said., it was a very satisfying coda to the Chorale’s outstanding 2016-2017 season.

(For more on the subject matter of this concert, see “Negro Spirituals” on this site.)

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

Awadagin Pratt Graces DaPonte 25th Anniversary

DaPonte String Quartet
25th Anniversary Concert
Studzinski Hall, Bowdoin College
May 18, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

I don’t know whose idea it was, but getting pianist Awadagin Pratt to play quintets with the DaPonte String Quartet for its 25th anniversary celebration was a stroke of genius.

A full house at Bowdoin’s Studzinski Recital Hall was treated to two masterpieces of the genre—the Dvorak Quintet for Piano and Strings in A Major, Op. 81, and the Brahms Quintet for Piano and Strings in F Minor, Op. 34.

The DaPonte was its usual energetic and thoughtful self, alternating between Ferdinand Liva and Lydia Forbes at first violin in the Dvorak and the Brahms respectively. Pratt, however, was phenomenal.

He was the first student at Peabody Conservatory to receive diplomas in piano, violin, and conducting, and it shows. There could not be a better partner for any string quartet. He is a virtuoso when needed and an equal partner at other times, with an uncanny ability to blend in, as if the piano were another stringed instrument. Above all, he listens.

Watching him at the keyboard, I thought immediately of Brahms, thinking through a multitude of permutations and dictating his comments from the piano. All that was needed was a cigar for the resemblance to be perfect.

Either one of the quintets could have degenerated into a piano concerto at any time, but Pratt never let that happen, even in the concluding movement of the Brahms, where there is an explosive passage that outshines, in terms of pyrotechnics, most codas in the concerto literature.

The two works on the program are very different.The Dvorak, which began the celebration, is the quintessence of melody, beginning with a ravishing first theme and never letting up. The Dumka was particularly fine, a reverie with fleeting images of past delights, all perfectly characterized.

The Brahms is more thoroughly composed, building on motifs rather than long-limbed songs, but equally effective and even more passionate. If there were balance issues caused by substituting a Steinway grand for a Graf wooden-framed piano (for which the quintet was composed) I could not hear them.

The most exciting section of the Brahms quintet was the Scherzo: Allegro, a tribute to Robert Schumann in the form of a ferocious march with cross-rhythms that could be one of the older composer’s odes to the Davidsbundler.

The concluding movement begins with a dirge-like theme which soon gives way to the triumphant piano part mentioned earlier.
Both performances received well-deserved standing ovations with unexpected cheers and whistles.

Must be something in the air section: In its July concert series, the DaPonte will play Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, recently performed by the Portland Symphony Orchestra, while the August series will showcase soprano Kate Aldrich (who recently sang at a gala for Opera Maine) performing Dover Beach, featured at another gala for the Portland Chamber Music Festival. For details of these concerts, go to www.daponte.org.

Youth Takes Center Stage at PSO’s Final Concert

Portland Symphony Orchestra
Merrill Auditorium
May 16, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

There’s an adage that used to appear regularly on office walls, to the effect that “Youth and skill are no match for old age and treachery.”
Sometimes youth and skill do win out, however, an example being last night’s concert of the Portland Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Marcelo Lehninger, 31, and featuring violinist Alexi Kenney, 23.

It’s too bad that Lehninger is already spoken for (by the Grand Rapids Symphony) or the PSO’s search for a music director would be over. He elicited the best performances from individuals, and the orchestra as a whole, of any conductor I have heard in recent years. while Kenney’s performance of that old chestnut, the Bruch Concerto No. 1 in G Minor for Violin and Orchestra (Op. 26) made it sound better than it is.

Kenny has superb technique, but even more important a melodic gift that was perfectly suited to the Bruch. His dynamics have a complete range, but are understated, a characteristic that Lehninger’s conducting compensated for perfectly.

The concerto was so well played that it moved the capacity audience to a loud and long-lasting standing ovation…unfortunately, since that led to a solo encore. No,no, no..

You have just created the ideal mood intended by a great composer and you have to spoil it with a gnarly etude (Piazzola Tango Etude No. 3) that can’t compare musically and indicates only that the artist is showing off? For shame. This new post-concerto custom needs a holly stake driven through its heart.

The program began with a light hearted romp through Mozart’s Overture to “The Marriage of Figaro,” marred only by a pedantic program note that insisted on calling the composer “Amadè.” I’m sorry if Wolfgang never used the name Amadeus, but that’s what he will be called, now and forever, amen.

A  primary characteristic of youth made the Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 6 in B Minor, Opus 74, an experience to remember: daring.

At the very beginning, Lehninger called out individual solo voices in a way I have never heard before, then combined them into a musical shape like dots in a pointillist painting. The fermatas were long, some of the sounds almost inaudible, but always portentous.

The drums in the opening movement were the most powerful since the French Revolution, and the march a terrifying epitome of fascism. Lehninger also left no doubt that the final movement, which just peters out, is a suicide note.

The Sixth is both tragic and pathetic, but the performance Tuesday night was also hopeful, showing that no matter how familiar a work is, it can always be heard and performed in new, but nevertheless effective, ways by coming generations.

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

A Study in Contrasts, Soprano Kate Aldrich

Mezzo-Soprano Kate Aldrich
Hannaford Hall
May 13, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

Mezzo-soprano Kate Aldrich strode on stage at Hannaford Hall Saturday night, wearing a spectacular red dress, and proceeded to sing of love, death and suicide.

Germanic weltschmertz was appropriate for a singer who has made “Werther” her own, but the significance of the dress was revealed only in the second half of the concert, when she offered up a gloriously sultry version of the Habanera from “Carmen.” another signature role, which she sang at PORTopera (now Opera Maine) in 2005 and at the Met in 2010.

The contrast exemplified the singer’s extraordinary versatility, from Richard Srauss’ schadenfreude to Leonard Bernstein’s cleverness—in the little-known aria “What a Movie” from, “Trouble in Tahiti” (1952)— and a contemporary art-and-philosophy monolog from “Master Class” by Jake Heggie (2007). Both sketches also revealed her considerable acting talent.

She demonstrated a formidable coloratura in virtuoso arias by Rossini: “Riedi al Soglio” from “Zelmira” and the encore “Una Voce Poco Fa,” from “The Barber of Seville.” One can visualize a Rossini diva begging on her knees for such a display piece from the master. A friend aptly compared Aldrich’s fluidity in these to the elaborate and often improvised ornamentation of Chopin’s piano scores.

While I dearly love Strauss’ compositions on the theme of eros and thanatos, I came to the concert to hear the songs of Berlioz, whose small output in the genre is one of the towering landmarks of classical music. (Perhaps his pathetic portrayal of flowery drowning in “La Mort d’ophelia” influenced Strauss.)

One of my treasured vinyl recordings is the Berlioz song cycle “Les Nuits D’été,” sung by Eleanor Steber. Aldrich’s evocations of “The Captive,” and “Zaide” were its equal in every way. I wish I could hear her sing “L’Isle Inconnue,” the finest musical portrait of sailing ever written.

Speaking of sailing, Maine makes much of its artistic sons and daughters, out of a sort of provincial chauvinism. This is true of Aldrich, who was born in Damariscotta, but she doesn’t need any special dispensation. She might equally well have been born in Paris or Vienna. Her talent transcends borders.

Her accompanist, Martin Perry, born in California, also makes his home in Maine, but is in demand everywhere. HIs work seems to bring out the best in any singer, setting the stage perfectly, without dictating a note. Perry is also a genius at piano solo, to which anyone hearing his performance of the Samuel Barber piano concerto with the PSO can testify.

The Aldrich concert is one of a series of events leading up to Opera Maine’s performance of “La Traviata,” July 26 and 28. The next will be a gala celebration at Westin Portland Harborview on June 8.

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

“Dover Beach” at the Danforth

Arneis Quartet, with David Kravitz
Park-Danforth
May 7, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

My father recited Mathew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” at our wedding, so when I heard that baritone David Kravitz was to perform Samuel Barber’s setting of it with the Arneis Quartet on Sunday, I had to go.

The occasion was a preview of the Portland Chamber Music Festival’’s fund-raiser the same day, and a classical music christening of the Park-Danforth’s acoustically fine performance space.
Kravitz is an internationally acclaimed baritone, and the Arneis Quartet a noted interpreter of contemporary music. Barber’s “Dover Beach” was written in 1931, when the composer was just 21. and while it does not have the scope of his famous Adagio for Strings, it is still a powerful work.

Rather chromatic, it sets the stage for the poem, with picturesque images of desolate waves and water, and the sea breeze rustling the curtains like that of an Andrew Wyeth painting. Not until the climax, which I have quoted above, does it interpret the feeling of the verse directly.

Strangely enough, it ends on what sounds to be a tonic chord on the word “night,” as if love were a sufficient compensation for the world’s desolation.

The interpretation was virtually flawless, technically and emotionally, and the subject matter all too appropriate for today’s world.

It was followed by Leos Janáček’s unusual String Quartet No. 1 (“Kreutzer” Sonata) which has been called an opera without words.
As described by the strings, it could also have been a graphic novel, inspired by Tolstoy’s story of the same name, in which music proves to be a seductive force, leading to illicit love, jealousy and death.

Tolstoy, in his peasant garb, astride a horse like a fifth generation aristocrat, was something of a phony, and to my mind, jealous of the power of music (He loved John Field, inventor of the Nocturne, but said to Rachmaninoff, who had just played at a soiree in St..Petersburg: “Very nice, but what good is it?”).

Janáček turns the novel on its head and makes it an argument for women’s liberation .The ways in which his music portrays action and dramatic scenes is uncanny: loving harmony, strident arguments, train nosies, passion, horseback riding and murder, to name a few. The quartet realized them perfectly.

If there were  program notes relating each scene to measures in the score, no one would need supertitles to know what was going on. For the initiated, the composer even quotes the Beethoven sonata in the third movement.

Thanks to the Park-Danforth and the Portland Chamber Music Festival for scheduling this event for  residents, and for allowing free admission to the public.

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

The Summer King, First Performance

I’m sorry I wasn’t able to get to the Pittsburgh Premiere of “The Summer King,” but what I wrote about it in the Press Herald three  years ago seems prescient.

“The Summer King”

Merrill Auditorium

May 8

by Christopher Hyde

Sometimes taking a risk pays off. Portland Ovations went out on a limb when it decided to stage the world premiere of “The Summer KIng,” an opera about baseball great Josh Gibson by Maine composer Daniel Sonenberg.

A large and appreciative audience at Merrill Auditorium last night demonstrated loudly that they had made the right choice. That the opera was performed without a set detracted little from its effect, due to the dramatic talents of the cast and clever stage direction by Lemuel Wade.

Sonenberg’s music for the tragedy–he also wrote the lyrics, in collaboration with Daniel Nester– is eclectic, containing modern classical, jazz and Latin styles, but also has a voice of its own, sardonic, wistful, lyrical or tragic, illuminating nearly every situation expressively.

I use the word tragedy advisedly. All operas end badly, but Is the famous slugger of the Negro Leagues, Josh Gibson, a tragic figure? HIs rise, betrayal and fall influenced a large, self-contained world (the Negro Leagues), and helped make possible the integration of the American pastime, while he had enough hubris for King Lear.

In some ways he seems childlike, but as played and sung by Stephen Salters, Gibson was aware of how much had been lost, even in his final madness.

“The Summer King” has a number of what Sonenberg calls “set pieces,” most of them effective and some, such as the love duet between Josh and his wife Helen, sung by Candice Hoyes, and reprised at the end of the opera, quite moving.

Villains always steal the scene, and the slimy Washington Senators owners, Clark Griffith, sung by Patrick MIller and his nephew, Calviin Griffith, sung by Kyle Guglielmo, are no exception as they cry crocodile tears over the possible ill-treatment of Josh in the major leagues.

There is even a mad scene, as Gibson holds an imaginary conversation with Joe DiMaggio.

All of the singers in the opera are first rate, but Lori-Kaye Miller, as Josh’s ambitious girlfriend, Grace, deserves special mention, as does the crusading reporter, sung by Rishi Rane, and Josh’s friend, Sammy, sung by Kenneth Kellogg.

The premiere was further enhanced by two outstanding choruses, Vox Nova Chamber Choir, and The Boy Singers of Maine Concert Choir, which appeared in a short, uplifting epilogue, plus a large professional orchestra under music director Steven Osgood.

Predictions by music critics have a way of falling flat, but judging by the audience response on Thursday, “The Summer KIng”,sails trimmed and fully staged, could become an American classic.