Portland Chamber Music Festival Ends on a Happy Note

Portland Chamber Music Festival
Hannaford Hall, USM
Aug. 19, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

Alban Berg, serialist of “Wozzek” fame, is not a composer one normally associates with the theme of “happily ever after.” HIs “Seven Early Songs” (1905-1908), however, depict the progress of a successful love affair that is not only consummated but fades away into an everlasting summer sunset.

It was lovingly rendered by soprano Tony Arnold, with Diane Walsh, piano, in the final concert of the Portland Chamber Music Festival, Saturday night at Hannaford Hall.

Although the songs are more late Romantic than 12-tone in style, no one goes home whistling their melodies, as Berg’s teacher, Schoenberg, hoped would have happened by now. Perhaps the upbeat theme of the set is behind it, but they seem less dark in feeling than their models by Richard Strauss, some of which we heard last week at the Salt Bay Chamberfest.

Berg, however, is a master at creating an emotional universe to encase a poem, and Arnold, a noted interpretor of “modern” composers, recreated the atmosphere of each precisely. I would like to hear her interpretation of the later “Altenberg Leider.”

Ironically, a contemporary work by David Bruce (b. 1970), “Gumboots” for Clarinet and String Quartet, (2008), was more easily accessible. The unfortunate title (think of galoshes), refers to the boots that South African wage slaves had to wear in flooded mines, and which they employed to develop a sort of covert rhythmical language.

“Gumboots,” commissioned by clarinetist Todd Palmer, who played it at the concert, consists of five lively dances and an interlude, which the composer sees as the “abstract celebration of the rejuvenating power of dance, moving as it does from introspection through to celebration.”

Each dance is a polyrhythmic romp on the strings, supporting an incredibly virtuosic clarinet part, heavily influenced by traditional African musical forms. Although there is little “progress” through the movements, each was great fun, with the only atonality occurring in some of the clarinet’s grace notes.

The evening concluded with the closest approach to a string orchestra (12 players) that I have heard at a PCMF concert, in the Dvorák Serenade in E Major, Op. 22.

Unless one were familiar with this early work, it would be difficult to tell, except for the last movement, that it was by Dvorák at all. Some of it sounds weirdly like Borodin. The orchestra was sometimes in need of a conductor, but it was still a pleasant, if not memorable experience, and was received with a standing ovation by the large audience.

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

Salt Bay Chamberfest Shares the Madness

Salt Bay Chamberfest
Darrows Barn, Damariscotta
Aug. 8, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

The opening concert of the Salt Bay Chamberfest, before an over-flow crowd Tuesday night at Darrows Barn, continued its tradition of making unusual works not only accessible but enjoyable.

The evening started out with the most avant of the avant garde— two works for solo violin played by virtuoso Jennifer Koh. “Moto Perpetuo,” by David Ludwig, was commissioned by Koh as part of her “Shared Madness” series, now up to 34 pieces that explore the most far-out possibilities of the violin.

She began with a shorter work from the same “Madness” series, “Kinski Paganini,” by Missy Mazzoli, that references Paganini’s 24th Caprice and the film “Paganini” by Klaus KInsky, as inspired by the Devil as the violinist.

If that work was wild, the perpetual motion piece was even further out, with a series of variations interrupted by shrieks, sul ponte hollow sounds, and col legno (playing on the wood), that sounds like crumpling paper. I don’t think Paganini could have played it, Devil or not. The audience loved it.

The shift in mood to mezzo-soprano Kate Aldrich, with pianist Thomas Sauer, was not as radical as it might have been, since she began with “Riedi al soglio” from Rossini’s “Zelmira,” an aria that requires as much virtuosity to sing as a Paganini Caprice does to play.

Aldrich is a soprano on the verge of greatness, if not already there, and her aria was spectacular. For emotional intensity, however, I preferred the four Strauss songs that followed. I know enough German to appreciate the dark poetry of love and loss that the songs portray, but merely the variations in tone and phrasing were enough to bring tears to your eyes. I want to hear Aldrich in “Der Rosenkavalier.”

Sauer did not so much as accompany the singer as collaborate with her in creating dramatic scenes. HIs dynamic range and tempi were a perfect match for Aldrich’s sensitive portrayals.

Sauer demonstrated another sort of technical fireworks and endurance in the final work on the program, the Piano Quartet No. 2 in G minor, Op. 45, of Gabriel Fauré. The turbulent and virtually unceasing piano part often seems as if the composer feared being penalized for a rest.

The quartet is a strange work indeed, Fauré has been called the Brahms of France, but I think he is closer to Max Reger, flirting with atonality but never quite taking the leap. It also owes a great deal to the composer’s friend St.Saens, who showed how much life remained in “old fashioned” forms.

In spite of the continuous presence of the piano, it blended surprisingly well with the strings—Koh on violin, Cynthia Phelps, viola, and festival founder Wilhelmina Smith, cello— producing harmonies that could belong only to Fauré.

The quartet ends with a glorious waltz that doesn’t climax, but simply ends when the composer decides that it’s gone on long enough. It earned a long and boisterous standing ovation.

Future concerts of the Chamberfest will take place on Tuesdays and Fridays until August 18. For information see www.saltbaychamberfest.org.

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

The Best and the Brightest at Bowdoin

Bowdoin International Music Festival
Studzinski Recital Hall
July 31, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

The Ying Brothers’ strategy of presenting some of the world’s finest string quartets (including their own) at the Bowdoin International Music Festival, seems to be paying off. The Monday night concerts, at which most of the groups appear, have been sold out for weeks.

When I was a student, I was advised that string quartets were the highest form of music, enjoyed only by the cognoscenti. Maine seems to have a lot of cognoscenti, since I heard another quartet, at the Sebago-Long Lake Music Festival, play the Schumann Piano Quintet in E-flat Major, Op. 44, which concluded Monday’s program, just a week before.

Last night’s performance, by the Borromeo String Quartet, saw Studzinski Hall so full that ranks of students were seated on both sides of the stage, as at an old Vladimir Horowitz concert.

I did not care for the quartet’s use of glowing lap-top computer scores, but that is merely the personal prejudice of a confirmed Luddite.

The first notes of the Mendelssohn String Quartet No. 2 in A Minor, Op. 13, proclaimed that the audience was in the presence of something special. The harmony of four instruments, each with its own timbre, was so startlingly clear and precise that one could have listened to that chord for the entire evening.

Fortunately, that time warp did not happen, but the familiar score took on new meaning, with an emphasis on polyphony, and other characteristics of the late Beethoven, that influenced the young composer—right down to infuriating false cadences. The quiet ending held the audience spellbound for a moment before the first applause. (Or were they expecting another fake ending?)

My favorite of the evening was the String Quartet No. 1 (“Metamorphoses Nocturnes”) by Györgi Ligeti,  a highly imaginative and resourceful work that requires the utmost virtuosity. Unlike the motifs in much “contemporary music,” the germ that generates all of the metamorphoses is easy to follow. Violinist Nicholas Kitchen referred to it as “slime crawling upwards,” and pointed out that, unlike Waldo, it is everywhere. It is also capable of generating some beautiful patterns, including a Viennese waltz. The work owes a great deal to Bartok’s Nocturnes, and surpasses them in some ways. The tricky polyrhythms and prestissimo passages seem virtually impossible, but the quartet did not miss a beat.

I must confess that I liked the Sebago-Long Lake version of the Schumann Quintet better than the Borromeo’s, which seemed almost too perfect. There were also some balance problems with the Steinway concert grand, played by Pei-Shan Lee, which might have been solved by a lid partially closed.

The last two movements were more exciting. In the third,  Lee seems to have said the hell with it, it’s a piano concerto, and in the fourth the quartet let their hair down and made a real contest of it. The result was the loudest and most prolonged standing ovation I’ve seen at Studzinski Hall.

The final concerts of the Festival, excluding those of the Young Artists series, will be on Wednesday, Aug. 2, at Studzinski Hall, and Friday, Aug. 4, at Crooker Theater. The latter will feature the Beethoven “Emperor” Concerto, with Joseph Kalichstein as pianist and conductor.

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