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.