A Grand Display of “Pictures at an Exhibition”

Portland Symphony Orchestra
Merrill Auditorium
Sept. 26, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

The first concert of the Portland Symphony Orchestra season at Merrill Auditorium began with an orchestral version of “The Star Spangled Banner,” a tribute, as music director Robert Moody observed, to all of those afflicted by climate disasters in the U.S. and its Caribbean territories.

The arrangement was followed appropriately by a rhythmic and well-executed “Danzón No. 2 (1994) by contemporary Mexican composer Arturo Márquez. I had heard this work before, played by an orchestra stemming from the Venezuelan program “El sistema,” and the Northern version seemed just as authentic and exciting. Enjoyable fluff, with enough contrasts in texture to make it interesting.
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It is impossible to write a concerto for organ and orchestra, but German composer Hans-Andre Stamm gave it a try in 1998, basing the three movements on portions of the 23rd Psalm.
“Impossible” because when the organ is loud enough to hear, it drowns out the orchestra, and vice versa. The sounds of the instrument and and those of individual sections of the band are too similar to provide much contrast, and in a battle for dominance the Kotzschmar will always win.

Both the orchestra and organist James Jones gave it the best possible performance, with some of the tranquil passages —“He leadeth me beside still waters”—miraculously well balanced.
The style of the work, a tonal combination of neo-Romantic and church music, did not help to overcome the sonic difficulties, and it was hard to understand how the concluding middle Eastern dance music fitted into the scheme of the psalm.

The organ does have its uses in a symphony orchestra, as proved by the tremendous conclusion of the Mussorgsky/Ravel “Pictures at an Exhibition:’ “The Great Gate of Kiev.” When I play it on the piano I always wish for a larger Steinway, or maybe a Bosendorfer, but Moody had an ace in the hole with the Kotzschmar. Just when you think the ultimate in sonority has been reached, in comes an organ pipe and moves the earth.

At the time of writing, I have been unable to discover whether the Ravel transcription includes the organ or whether it was borrowed from Stokowski’s later, more “Slavic” version. Whatever the case, it belongs there.

The other “pictures” were equally well rendered, conjuring up images like no other music, from the groaning of an ox cart to the surreal “Hut on Hen’s Legs” and its brilliant percussion. In “With the Dead in the Tongue of the Dead,” the skulls begin to glow..

At the conclusion, the standing ovation was so long that Moody left the stage and allowed the orchestra members to receive it all by themselves.

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

Franco Center Piano Series Opens with Innovations

David Fung, Pianist
Gendron Franco Center, Lewiston
Sept. 22, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

One of the most unusual concerts in many a season opened the 12th annual piano series of the Gendron Franco Center in Lewiston Friday night. Its innovations were matched by the quality of the performances by pianist David Fung and Daniel Moody, countertenor.

The first half of the program was devoted to piano works with unusual (or zero) rhythmic patterns, beginning with the Mozart Sonata No. 5 in G Major, one of the complete Mozart sonata cycle that Fung is compiling for the Steinway “Spiro” high-resolution player piano.

It was followed by “Impressões Seresteiras,” W.374, by Heitor Villa-Lobos, a compilation of “street songs” in 3/4 time, which manages to be avant-garde and nostalgic at the same time.

The “Île de feu, 1” from “Four Studies in Rhythm” by Olivier Messiaen, has no bar lines at all, its rhythm being dictated by the feel of note patterns. Under Fung’s hands,it was a tour de force of technique, complete with one of the composer’s beloved bird calls (I think it was a blackbird).

Fung, who holds a doctorate from the Yale School of Music, and has taught there, prefaced each work with revelatory remarks. In describing his arrangement of Ravel’s “La Valse,” he noted that the work has been compared to Poe’s tale, “The Masque of the Red Death,” and occasioned a challenge to Ravel by choreographer Serge Diaghilev, who had commissioned the work. The duel, apparently, was never fought.

Whatever the work’s history, Fung’s arrangement captures its brooding nature perfectly, in a manner even more virtuosic than the popular two-piano transcription.

After intermission, Fung accompanied countertenor David Moody in works by Dowling, Handel, and contemporary William Bolcom, all which were thoroughly delightful. Countertenors combine the power of the male voice with the vocal range of a mezzo-soprano. They were most popular in heroic roles at the time of Purcell, but they seem to be making a welcome comeback nowadays. Moody is one of the best. He also showed a sense of humor in the very short Bolcom pieces, one of which consists of two lines: “I’ll never forgive you. For my behavior.”

Fung concluded the program with a brilliant interpretation of Schubert’s great “Wanderer” Fantasy in C Major, D. 760. After this grueling effort —Schubert himself and a hard time with it—Fung managed a spritely encore of a Scarlatti Sonata in D Minor.

If I had any quarrel at all with the pianist’s approach, which was technically flawless, it would be with a young man’s typical predilection for speed, and abhorrence of seeming to “drag.” Some passages need a little more time to breathe, even at the expense of metronomic time.

I have written his before, but it bears repeating: the Franco Center’s piano series is the best kept secret, and the foremost value ($10.00 for seniors) of any concert series in Maine. The talent is always of the highest order, the venue is comfortable, with fine acoustics, the ladies serve crepes at intermission, and one can chat with the performers over champagne after the concert. The music starts at 7:00 to accommodate younger students.

The next artist to appear in the series will be French pianist Hélène Papadopoulos, on Friday, Nov. 3.

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

Ragtime at Studzinski Hall

Adam Swanson, Ragtime Piano
Studzinski Hall, Bowdoin College
Sept. 18, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

Adam Swanson’s piano recital, Monday night at Bowdoin’s Studzinski Hall, tracing the roots of American popular music from ragtime to Moss Hart, was like a seven-course dinner consisting of varied colors of cotton candy. Always entertaining but eventually monotonous and unsatisfying.

Swanson, an award-winning interpreter of early 20th century American music, is 25, but already has a wide following, and the audience for a Monday night concert was large and enthusiastic. The composers, especially ragtime giants such as Scott Joplin, could have been better served.

Swanson began the program with “The Entertainer,” made famous by “The Sting, and as expected, was more faithful to the movie than to the original.

It was followed by James Scotts “Frog Legs.” I play “Frog Legs,” just for fun, and Swanson’s arrangement was so gussied up as to be virtually unrecognizable, and way, way too fast.

If one examines a collection of Rags, the indications “slow,” “not fast,” “not too fast,” “tempo di rag,” and “don’t fake,” pop up regularly, barroom pianists having discovered that it is a lot easier, and more tip-producing, to play fast than slow.

A good rag, with its strong syncopated rhythm, characteristic modulations, and clever turns, is a delicate flower, and like the lilies of the field, needs no embellishment.

Joseph Lamb’s ”Bohemia Rag,” which followed, is specifically marked “Not Fast.” I didn’t bring my metronome, but it was well over quarter-note equals 100, as indicated.

The rags were followed by examples of their successors in stride piano, blues, boogie-woogie, 20’s movies and Broadway, concluding with a nice Moss Hart medley.

One of the surprising aspects of the concert was the number of obscure tunes stored in one’s memory bank, never to be recovered until hearing them again many years later. All of the melodies, however, were accompanied by a strong, rhythmical left hand, with melodies and ornaments in the right. While exciting at first, the combination eventually becomes predictable. It has the added disadvantage of blurring the effect of syncopation and leaving no room for error in the embellishments. In Chopin, a rubato style leaves plenty of room for flourishes. With a strict rhythmical style, the slightest change in tempo, to accommodate grace notes and appoggiaturas, becomes glaringly obvious.

Swanson is young and personable, and it is to be hoped that he wiill follow James Scott’s advice: “Don’t Jazz Me—I’m Music,” the title of one of his later Rags.

It will be interesting on Sept. 30 to compare what Richard Dowling does with Joplin in his “Great Scott” recital at Studzinski Hall.

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