Brahms vs Wagner at the Portland Symphony

Portland Symphony Orchestra
Merrill Auditorium
Nov. 15, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

I was looking forward to the battle of the 19th century—Liszt and Wagner (“modern” music), versus Brahms (tradition). From the Portland Symphony Orchestra under Ken-David Masur, candidate for music director, I got the kind of game that makes one want to turn off the TV and go to bed.

It had a few exciting moments but most of it was, shall we say, uninspired. It should be mentioned that the fans loved it, giving standing ovations to the Liszt Concerto No.1 in E-flat Major, brilliantly rendered by pianist Ran Dank, and the glorious final movement of the Brahms Symphony No. 1 in C Minor, Op. 68.

The program began with the overture to “Tannhäuser,” in the slowest version I have ever heard this side of a slipping turntable. The interpretation provided some moments of knightly nobility in the brass, but mostly revealed Wagner’s string-section fillers. .

It was followed by the Liszt concerto, one of my least favorite compositions. Its opening motif, which crops up all over, is said to have proclaimed: “This, you do not understand,” and is as irritating musically as it is philosophically.

The concerto is basically a show-off piece, and Rank managed its extreme difficulties with ease. One place that Liszt shows some imagination is in his brilliant treble passage work (there is surprisingly little bass) and in this Dank excelled. The pianist demanded a slightly brisker tempo than displayed in the Wagner piece, but there is little for the orchestra to do anyway. The famous triangle was there, and some nice duets with the woodwinds, but that was about it, except for blaring the”understand” passage once in a while.

As readers may have noticed, I am a a confirmed Brahmsian, and it was with horror that during the first moment of the First Symphony I began to wonder when it would end. The tempo was so slow that the opening melody was lost in chaos for a few bars. Ditto the summer serenade of the second movement.

Things began to pick up in the allegretto grazioso, which is lighter than air, and finally accelerated to a reasonable tempo in the final movement, one of the great treasures of the world. It worked in spite of a completely inaudible passage that I noted as “invisible pizzicati.”

At the las moment, flocks of angels came to Masur’s rescue, bearing the music up with heavenly horn calls, some of the best I have heard, and leading into the fabulous final melody. Now I began to wish that it wouldn’t stop.

Throughout the concert the musicians gave their all, but they must have been dumbfounded by what the conductor was asking most of the time. Young people like to reinterpret the classics every generation, but there are limits.

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

 

Vox Nova Shines Again

Vox Nova
Crooker Theater, Brunswick High School
Nov. 12, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

Vox Nova, the chamber choir founded by Shannon Chase in 2009, has been expanding lately to include new vocal and instrumental consorts, while reaching a wider audience. It has lost none of its energy and precision

The audience at Crooker Theater on Sunday heard three of the Vox Nova groups in a concert that had also been performed a day earlier in Bangor. The result was a well-deserved standing ovation.

The first half of the “Autumnal Equinox” program was devoted to works sung by a small chamber choir called “Intima.” The group of fourteen singers showed a power incommensurate with its size. I was particularly impressed by the bass lines.

They performed a series of highly descriptive vignettes by Veljo Tormis (1930-2017), “Autumn Landscapes,” followed by a Robert Graves poem, “O Love Be Fed with Apples While You May,” a rather dismal work on the transient nature of things, set to a jazzy score by Morton Lauridsen (b. 1943), with a dissonant piano part played by Bridget Convey.

It concluded with a delightful musiking of Walt Whitman’s “Song of the Open Road” by Norman Dello Joio (1913-2008), with anoher fine piano part—not an accompaniment—by Convey and a trumpet solo so well attuned that it sounded like another voice in the choir.

The second half of the program featured the full Vox Nova Chamber Choir and an instrumental consort of woodwinds and brass, with the piano serving as both bass and percussion, when it wasn’t soaring alone.

The a cappella “Always Singing,” by Dale Warland (b. 1932), again showed the power of the bass section,  but perfectly balanced with the other voices.

It was followed by “The Settling Years” of Libby Larsen (b. 1950), that captures the pioneer spirit of small-town America with perfect pitch. The audience broke into spontaneous applause after each of the three sections.

In “The Long Road,” by Ēriks Ešenvalds (b. 1977) , wind chimes, alto flute, native American flute and ocarina formed part of the choir, almost like incidental bird songs and other natural sounds. Though assuredly contemporary, the work is homophonic, tonal and highly melodic.

Chase saved the best for last— a stunning “Come to the Woods,” by Jake Runestad (b. 1986), setting a passage on the joys of a windstorm by John Muir.

I have never heard anything like it. It might be called a concerto for piano and chorus, except that the brilliant piano part takes the form of an obligato to the choir, which often picks up the overtones of the loudest chords. Some passages are played with the sostenuto pedal down, resulting in a Debussy-like fog of sound. It is an amazing work, showing that traditional combinations are by no means exhausted.

I am generally opposed to piano accompaniment of massed voices, since its well-tempered intervals do not match those of a well-trained choir. This was something entirely different, the piano shining like a star. without dictating a thing.. Convey realized the part perfectly.

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