A Thinking Man’s Pianist

Pianist Richard Goode
Olin Arts Center, Bates College
Oct. 28, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

Pianist Richard Goode is a man of a thousand voices, as was apparent from his recital at Bates’ Olin Arts Center Saturday night.
Goode is a great pianist, as unconventional in his way as the late Glenn Gould, and one of his defining characteristics is the ability to make the piano imitate the instruments of the orchestra, something that stands him in good stead when delineating hitherto unheard voices in familiar works.

The ability showed itself immediately in four preludes and fugues from the second book of “The Well-Tempered Clavier.” One is accustomed to chasing the theme through its various transformations in a Bach fugue. Goode makes it easy, even with the most long-limbed and Baroque motifs of Book Two. He also reveals relationships between the lines more clearly than anyone I have heard since Walter Gieseking.

Another ability came to the fore in his superlative rendition of the Alban Berg Piano Sonata, Op. 1, (ca. 1910)—musical intelligence. Listening to Goode’s interpretation revealed structure and development in a way that made the work effective musically, something that analysis never accomplishes.

The Berg was followed by one of Beethoven’s weirdest children (a Halloween treat?): the Sonata No. 28 in A Major, Op. 101. Maybe the composer was doing penance for the “Moonlight,” but even the indications are a little much,  for example ”Geschwindt, doch nicht zu sehr und mit Entsclossenheit. Allegro,” before the final movement. (Rapidly but not too much so, and with determination.”)
Goode made it sound even more strange than it is. Good or bad, it was certainly an unconventional reading, but with Beethoven’s characteristic abrupt changes in mood and dynamics. (Goode’s dynamics, for Sunday evening at least, ranged from mp to fff, sometimes in the same second, with the Steinway in brilliant mode.)

HIs iconoclastic approach, while still exciting, was not as successful in the second half of the program, devoted entirely to Chopin. Nevertheless, his unsentimental renditions brought out the musical, rather than emotional, beauties of the works. The four Mazurkas managed to combine danceable rhythms with the complexity of the Bach preludes heard earlier.

Merely following the tempo indications of the familiar Nocturne in C-sharp minor (Op. 47) was unusual enough.  In every example on the program Goode tossed off the most fantastic of Chopin’s elaborate ornamentations gracefully and in tempo.

The final work on the program, the great Barcarolle in F-sharp major (Op. 60) sounded like the gondolier was competing at Henle. (I couldn’t resist, but the tempo was a little fast for traditional ears.)

That said, it was absolutely wonderful. More wonderful still is the fact that the pianist actually found the real climax of the piece and never approached it again, no matter how tempting the later surges became. This is something rare in virtuoso pianists, no matter what their reputation.

It resulted in a sanding ovation from the large audience, and an encore of a William Byrd Pavane and Gailiarde, which presage both Bach and Chopin.

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

A Powerful “Armed Man”

Portland Symphony Orchestra
Merrill Auditorium
Oct. 22, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

The Portland Symphony Orchestra’s presentation of the full version of “The Armed Man,” Sunday afternoon at Merrill Auditorium, demonstrated how much vitality remains in old forms, both musical and literary.

Written in 1999 by Welsh composer Karl Jenkins (b. 1944) for chorus and orchestra, on a commission from the Royal Armouries Museum, it is completely tonal (except for a primal scream) and is unified, like “Carmina Burana,” which it reflects in its chanting rhythms and use of a Medieval song —“The Armed Man.” at the beginning and end.

In form, it is a pastiche of 13 segments, ranging from the aforementioned song through the Muslim Call to Prayer to the Roman Catholic Agnus Dei, with stops at Kipling and Tennyson.
It follows Dante and other poets throughout history in a journey to Hell and back, finding its nadir in the verses of a Japanese poet who died from the effects of Hiroshima, equalled in horror by a passage from an ancient Indian epic, the Mahàbharàta.

The work is long, perhaps too long, and called for a massive effort on the part of both the orchestra and the ChoralArt Masterworks chorus. I have seldom heard the chorus sound as powerful. Soprano Stephanie Foley Davis was superb in “Now the Guns Have Stopped,” a moving portrayal of the “survivors guilt” experienced by soldiers who return while their friends do not.

It is hard not to get caught up in the martial fervor of the descent toward battle, urged on by the tenets of religions, a cavalry charge and what Wilfred Owen called “The old lie: Dolce and decorum est pro patria mori.” The music, like Alexander’s Ragtime Band, “makes you want to go to war,” even when one knows what the result will be —chaos and animals on fire like living torches.

In the end, the almost two-hour work served as a catharsis to the capacity audience at Merrill, who gave it a well deserved standing ovation, many with tears in their eyes at the final “Better Is Peace,” in a nation now fighting seven wars in places that most cannot find on a map.

The lame and sometimes misspelled supertitle translations did not detract from the overall effect.

Leading up to “The Armed Man” were Leonard Bernstein’s Symphony No. 1 (Jeremiah) and a short work for chorus and orchestra by Mason Bates: “The Book of Mathew,” from “Sirens,” arranged by PSO Music Director Robert Moody and P. Scott.
The Bernstein symphony did not have Jenkins’ cutting edge,with the sorrow of the Lamentation movement barely surpassing the bathos of a Broadway musical, in spite of Davis’ dignified solo. It showed the composer’s genius only in the “Profanation” moment, with its syncopated evil-sounding dances. The Devil always gets the best lines.
The Bates had some lovely watery effects, depicting the scene in which Christ calls upon Peter and Andrew to become “fishers of men.” It made me want to hear all of the siren calls.

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

Midcoast Symphony Rises to Three Challenges

Midcoast Symphony Orchestra
Franco Center, Lewiston
Oct. 21, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

I heard the glorious final bars of “The Fairy Garden,” the last piece in Ravel’s “Mother Goose Suite,” as I was ascending the stairs to the auditorium of Lewiston’s Franco Center. (A recent survey showed that a majority of Midcoast Symphony Orchestra supporters preferred 7:00 to 7:30 as a concert starting time. I didn’t get the memo.)

It was an appropriate beginning to a program of masterpieces in orchestration. Perhaps masterpieces is not the exact word. The works chosen by conductor Rohan Smith were more like a test to determine how much an “amateur” orchestra could handle. The members of the Midcoast, privatum et seriatum, passed with flying colors.

The Ravel suite, his orchestration of a set of four-hand piano works, ranks with his transcription of “Pictures at an Exhibition” in subtlety , tone color and innovation, ending with a climax that shakes the rafters.

The Hindemith “Metamorphoses on Themes by Carl Maria von Weber,” is equally demanding, but more eclectic. Hindemith seems to be trying to outdo his contemporary Bartok in unusual instrumental combinations and a heavy-handed use of percussion. (The percussion section has always been one of the Midcoast’s most reliable.)

Hindemith, however, lacking the genius of Ravel or Bartok, overloads his score, sometimes to the point of muddiness, when no one can decide which way to go. A fermata or two would be nice. HIs choice of von Weber melodies also seems odd. There are many of that composer’s tunes that would be more suitable for orchestral variations.

All is redeemed, however, by the final march-like tune from von Weber’s incidental music to “Turandot,” which supposedly stems from China. Wherever it came from, it crowns the entire work, and the Midcoast attacked it with renewed gusto. I haven’t head he final fugue rendered any better.

The instrumentation of Dvorak’s Symphony No. 6 in D Major, while more traditional, is almost as dense, seeking to emulate his mentor Brahms and his predecessor Beethoven. Could I also have detected a smidgen of Tchaikovsky-like whirling snow music? The  flavor, however, is distinctly Dvorak, even in this, his first published symphony. He is not quite as daring in his use of Czech folk materials (except in the Furiant), but there is more than a hint of the “Slavonic Dances.”

The symphony exposes strings, woodwinds, brass and percussion shamelessly, including the Brahms-like French horn, but there was not a single off-color note. Bravo!

I urge anyone interested in well-performed classical music to attend today’s (Sunday, Oct. 22) repeat performance at the Orion Perfuming Arts Center in Topsham, 2:30 sharp.

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

Russian Organ Music in a French-Canadian Basilica

Organist Gail Archer
Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul, Lewiston
Oct. 1, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

The Kotzschmar at Merrill Auditorium in Portland is not the only “mighty” organ in Maine. The 1938 Casavant organ in Lewiston’s Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul sounded equally magnificent in a recital Sunday evening by Gail Archer.

Archer, director of the music program at Barnard College, is a well-known recording artist and the first American woman to play the complete organ compositions of Olivier Messiaen. On Sunday she presented relatively unknown works by Russian composers, discovered there during a recent concert tour.

Their “modern” organ music is as varied in form and content as that of their better-known European contemporaries, with what seems to be a predilection for deep pedal point. What is this Russian love for the bass (which I share)?

The program began with an intellectually challenging and symphonic Prelude and Fugue in D minor (Op. 98) of Alexander Glasunow (1865-1936) which harked back to baroque models.
It was followed by two preludes of Cesar Cui (1836-1918) which sounded more, in their melodic character, like Mendelssohn “Songs without Words.”

A Prelude Pastoral (Op. 54) of Sergej Ljapunow (1859-1924) contained the requisite babbling brooks, abrupt changes of voice and some beautiful filagree work over a steady pedal point.

My favorite of the evening was a violent, polytonal and sometimes humorous Toccata by Sergei Slonimsky (b. 1932), brother of the noted writer on music, Nicolas Slonimsky. It requires the organist to play a different key in each hand. I don’t know which one the pedal favors, or if it even takes sides.

Another Prelude and Fugue, by Alexander Shaversaschvili (1919-2003) concluded with a brassy fugue that would wake the dead. They (the dead) were then given their hour in a tremendous virtuoso transcription of Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain.” by Zsigmond Szathmary.

In some ways, the organ transcription seems more in line with the composer’s intention than the orchestral version. The atmosphere is certainly menacing enough. The church bells announcing the dawn, simulated by chimes in the orchestra, became resonant, more bell-like chords on the organ.

The Casavant organ, like the Kotzschmar last year, is being renovated, with the work about 35 percent complete. No deficiencies were apparent during the concert, with Archer completely in control of the keyboard and registers, without electronic assistance. Her concert was the last in a summer series helping to raise funds for the restoration.

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

Preu Conducts Gershwin

Portland Symphony Orchestra
Merrill Auditorium
Sept. 30, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

Eckart Preu will be a tough act to follow. One of the finalists in the Portland Symphony Orchestra’s search for a new music director, he conducted an unbelievably fine all-Gershwin concert Saturday night at Merrill Auditorium, with about 3 hours of rehearsal time. The final “Rhapsody in Blue,” with pianist Terrence Wilson, was interrupted by deliberate applause in the middle of the performance, an almost unheard of occurrence.

Given the genius of Gershwin, perhaps the first impression is unfair, but Preu got things out of the orchestra, especially in “An American in Paris,” that I had never heard before, while remaining true to the spirit of the music. He admitted to a special affinity for Gershwin, who was one of the few American composers allowed to be performed in East Germany, where the future conductor grew up. He even did a passable remembrance of a few bars of “Summertime” in German.

To get back to “Rhapsody,” Preu and Wilson played off each other like jazz musicians, resulting in a version as close as possible to the improvisation that characterized Gershwin’s first performance of the work. Authentic it certainly was, but also the most exciting that I have ever heard. Wilson’s immensely long fermatas, as if he were the composer trying to think of what to do next, were heart-stopping.

The balance between piano and orchestra—a much more powerful band than Paul Whiteman’s original—was perfect, with the piano showing through in measures generally lost. Preu and Wilson had worked before on the Gershwin Concerto in F, and I would dearly love to hear that version.

Arrangements of Gershwin melodies from Broadway musicals and the great opera “Porgy and Bess,” were equally well played, but the show stopper was “An American in Paris,” which Preu divided into three movements that made sense: morning in Paris, Paris nights and hangover.

I had never cared for the work before, thinking it a piece of movie music, but Preu brought out beauties of form and detail that made me reconsider. The music became a unified entity rather than a pastiche, with use of recurring motifs that would have made Beethoven happy.

Just one example of many serendipitous details—the plaintive violin solo in the hangover movement, by assistant concertmaster Amy Sims.

Among the shorter pieces that stand out was the humorous clarinet solo, “Walking the Dog,” with principal Thomas Parchman, and a soulful big-band rendition of Gershwin’s last song, “Our Love is Here to Stay,” with soprano Jacqueline Bolier.

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