An Outstanding Brandenburg 2

Portland Bach Festival
Episcopal Church of St. Mary
June 18, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

Like Oscar Wilde, I have very simple tastes: I am always satisfied with the best. Such as the Portland Bach Festival’s performance of the Bach Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 at St. Mary’s Church on Sunday.

I was brought up on that and the No. 5, on what I now realize was a bad recording (better than nothing), and have never missed an opportunity to hear it once again. Sunday’s rendition by the festival orchestra under Lewis Kaplan, with soloists John Theissen, piccolo trumpet, Emi Ferguson, flute, John Ferrillo, oboe and Renée Jolles, violin, was quite simply the best I have heard.

It also flirted with danger, setting a rapid tempo in the first movement that only the most experienced of soloists could maintain accurately. Thiessen was phenomenal in his melodic and unstrained negotiation of a score that gives most trumpet players nightmares.

A little clarino goes a long way, and Bach wisely omitted the part in the second movement, providing room for some limpid and graceful work by the remaining trio, led by Ferguson, whose attitude reminds me of the musicians on Greek vases. She can also hold her own with the piccolo trumpet; some passages in unison almost made the timbres of the two instruments sound the same.

The third movement echoed the virtuosity of the first, but more so, ending in a standing ovation by an overflow crowd. (Other music lovers could watch and hear the program gratis on a large TV screen outside.) Inside the church, the acoustics were remarkable, every instrument in the concerto clearly identifiable.

The evening began with the Bach Cello Suite in C Major, BWV 1009, in an outstanding performance by Paul Dwyer, making the most of the contrast between open and stopped strings, as Bach intended. The contrasts also emphasized the sonic distinction of the baroque cello on which he was playing.

The evening ended with a fine performance of the cantata “Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben,” BWV 147, with Festival Choir-in-Residence, the Oratorio Chorale, and soloists Jolle Greenleaf soprano, Jay Carter, countertenor, Steven Caldicott Wilson tenor, and David McFerrin, baritone.

This seems Maine’s year of the countertenor, with effective use of the high male voice in Negro spirituals, a Gluck opera and now a cantata. It is a welcome addition, but it was matched by the clarity and enchanting inflections of Greenleaf in the soprano aria “Bereite dir, Jesu…”

Of course, what most of he audience was waiting for was the chorus and orchestra in “Jesu , joy of man’s desiring.” They were not disappointed, and showed their appreciation with the longest standing ovation I have seen at St. Mary’s.

There’s more to come this week. See the schedule on www.portlandbachfestival.org. and hope that there are still a few seats available.

I was unable to hear Kaplan last week in the famous Bach Chaconne, so I played Brahms’ piano transcription for the left hand (which Kaplan recommended over the better-known Busoni). It was lovely, and pretty authentic, but my left hand almost fell off after the final bar.

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

St. Mary Schola Offers a Believable Orpheus

St. Mary Schola
Cathedral Church of St. Luke
June 13, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

Quick, name an opera with a happy ending. Against the parade of those one knows will end badly, I can think immediately only of “Der Freischutz” and Gluck’s “Orpheo ed Euridice.” The former ends with the hero undergoing a year of probation, and the latter with a dance in the temple of love, after a deus ex machina, Amore, reverses the tragedy.

The excerpts from “Orpheo,” performed Tuesday night by St. Mary Schola at St. Luke’s, fulfilled Mark Twain’s dream of an opera composed entirely of the parts you have to wait too long for: Orpheus’ journey to Hell, his charming of the vengeful spirits, his rescue and loss of Eurydice, and the reuniting of the lovers by Amore, plus nymphs and shepherds at the end.

(Someday, when I figure out the mechanics of it, I’m going to post the dawn serenade of our Airedale and his Golden Doodle friend, which makes Gluck’s Cerberus music seem tame.)

All the sung parts, the chorus and the orchestra of period instruments, plus guest artist Virginia Flanagan on harp, were uniformly excellent, but the surprise of the evening was the voice of counter-tenor Christopher Garrepy, which suddenly made understandable the use of that range by Purcell and his contemporaries for heroic roles.

In Gluck’s scoring, the counter-tenor voice, as clear and resonant as a classic mezzo-soprano, but with a feeling of reserved power, is ravishing, taming the Furies like Daniel Webster’s oratory to the damned in Hell. His aria, “Che farò senza Euridice,” was worth the price of admission.

Garrepy was well supported by soprano Erin Chenard, a believably jealous Eurydice, and soprano Molly Harmon as a no-nonsense, take-no-prisoners Amore. The final dance-like stanzas by soloists and chorus in the Temple of Love were as delightful as Gluck meant them to be.

The first half of the program, though equally well presented, was not as satisfying to modern ears, although the scenes of dancing around the Maypole, and some risqué verses, were often charming. I find the part singing of Morley, Dowland and their contemporaries on the continent a bit puzzling. The polyphony is intricate but it has no nodes—points were the vocal lines converge into harmonic chords. The melodies are not the sort one goes home whistling.

That the disconnect is the fault of the modern ear was borne out by the increasing sense of familiarity with time, in works by Purcell and Monteverdi. The latter contends with Gluck as the inventor of modern opera, and his dance music in “Il Ballo” is equally good.

The final concert of the St. Mary Schola Spring Series, “A Musical Banquet,” will be 7:30 p.m., June 16, at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Portland, It should not be missed.

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

Concertos and Brandenburg Concertos

Concertos and Brandenburg Concertos
Portland Bach Festival
June 17-25, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

I don’t know which of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos are most popular, but my favorites are No. 5, with its virtuoso keyboard passages, played at last year’s Portland Bach Festival by Arthur Haas on the harpsichord, and No 2, with its rousing piccolo trumpet part, to be performed this year on June 18 at St. Mary’s Church in Falmouth by John Thiessen.

Thiessen is noted for his virtuosity on this instrument, and the No. 2, with returning Festival artists, should be as outstanding as No. 5.

Haas will be returning as well, in the Vivaldi Flute Concerto in D Minor, with Emi Ferguson, flute, June 22 at Etz Chaim Synagog, and the Bach Harpsichord Concerto in D Major (BWV 1067) in the Sanctuary at St. Luke’s on June 23. He will appear in a number of other concerts, since  harpsichord continuo is virtually a necessity for baroque music, plus participating in a post concert lecture at Etz Chaim.

If the Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 in G Major (BWV 1048) is your cup of tea, you can hear that one too at St. Luke’s, plus the Orchestral Suite No. 2 in B Minor (BWV 1067), and the Motet “Jesu meine Freude” (BWV 227) by the Oratorio Chorale and soloists under Emily Isaacson.

The penultimate concert, June 24 at St. Luke’s,  promises to be something entirely different, featuring works that influenced Bach and others that were influenced by him, including a trio sonata by CPE Bach, the Vivaldi “Winter” Concerto and a Ligeti viola sonata.

The final work of the Festival will be the Cantata “Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen” (BWV 51) with soprano Sherezade Panthaki, whom Festival founder Lewis Kaplan calls “the greatest baroque soprano I have ever heard.” Be sure to hear her and soprano Jolle Greenleaf in the François Couperin “ Troisième Leçon à deux voix“ at the “Before and After” concert.

Cellist Beiliang Zhu will once again be playing an Amati lent to her by Florian Leonhard Fine Violins, who will also be binging other famous baroque instruments for display at the Bach and Beer event on June 19.

For further details of concerts and events, visit www.portlandbachfestival.org.

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

Second Bach Festival Offers Even More

Second Portland Bach Festival
Offers Even More
by Christopher Hyde

The first Portland Bach Festival, in June of 2016, was one of the most successful premieres in recent Maine history. In fact, it was so popular that it was difficult to find seats at some of the smaller venues.

This year’s festival, June 17-25, will maintain the world-class quality of solo and ensemble performance, while adding some new features intended to broaden its audience, according to associate artistic director Emily Isaacson , who with violinist Lewis Kaplan founded and co-directed the first programs.

The festival will open with one of its most unusual concerts: “Bachtails” at the newly renovated Bayside Bowl on Alder Street in Portland. The facilities are large and complex, with room for 15 different 15-minute performances in various areas, including the rooftop, beginning at around 5:00 p.m. with “Musical Games for Kids.”
Visitors can hear all of the performances, or just one or two, Isaacson said, while enjoying cocktails, wine and beer, the last of which H.L. Mencken declared “the universal solvent for the music of old J.S. Bach.” Admission is free but drinks and food are not.

“The less formal setting for hearing early music is not that unusual,” Isaacson pointed out, since much of Bach’s non-liturgical music was meant to be heard in an intimate social setting rather than a concert hall.

The second public concert will be on Sunday, June 18, 6:30 p.m., at St. Mary’s Church in Falmouth. Tickets will be required for the concert inside the church, but it will also be broadcast on a large screen outside for the general public. “Bach on a Blanket” will feature the Brandenburg Concerto No. 2, in F Major, and the Cantata “Herz und mund,“ with soloists, the Oratorio Chorale and the Festival Orchestra conduced by Lewis Kaplan.

Both free concerts are an extension of last year’s popular “Bach and Beer” party at Ocean Gateway, which this year will be on Monday, June 19.

Bach Virtuosi Institute, June 14-25

In what Isaacson believes is the first program of its kind in the country, exceptional students from around the world will attend a twelve-day program to refine their craft, focus on the performance practice of Baroque music, and immerse themselves in the music of Bach and those inspired by his work.

The Bach Virtuosi Institute focuses on learning through performance. Fellows will perform alongside distinguished international musicians in an intimate, collegial atmosphere. Limited enrollment (10 students this year) allows all participants significant coaching and performance opportunities. Selected Fellows will perform in PBF concerts, Bach Virtuosi concerts,  at “Bach and Beer,” and at outreach concerts in the community.

All participants receive a full scholarship including tuition, room and board and stipend

For the ultimate in outreach, there will be a Cantata Sing-Along at St. Mary’s on Wednesday, June 21, with soloists and piano accompaniment to the early Cantata “Christ lag in Totes Banden (BWV 4).

For further information about individual concerts, visit www.portlandbachfestival.org. Advance tickets, including season passes, are still available but they are going fast. The first festival was sold out.

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