The Magic of Christmas

Portland Symphony Orchestra
“Magic of Christmas”
Merrill Auditorium
Dec. 8-17, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

The 38th annual “Magic of Christmas” series by the Portland Symphony Orchestra at Merrill Auditorium, omitted some of the bells and whistles of previous productions, but was alll the better for it, letting the music stand on its own, aided by sopranos Suzanne Nance and Susie Pepper.

The first half of the program was the least successful, consisting largely of medleys featuring the kind of holiday music played in department stores, albeit by a better orchestra.

Notable exceptions were an unknown Romanian carol, “O, ce vesti minuntã,” sung by Nance, and a bluesy version of “All I Want for Christmas is You,” by Pepper.

The solo orchestra was on display in a lively version of Prokofiev’s “Troika” from the “Lieutenant Kijė” Suite, which could have used a little more rehearsal time. This review is of opening night, and things are bound to improve over the next two weeks.

The prize for “it seemed like a good idea a the time” goes to a medley of songs with the word “magic” in them, with the orchestra backing up Pepper and Nance. Containing the word does not confer any distinction to the songs, but the light show was spectacular.

The second half of the show was marvelous, beginning with “Fanfare and Flourishes for a Festive Occasion,” played by a brass choir, with organ accompaniment by Ray Cornils.

The “Magic of Christmas” chorus, under chorus master Nicolás Dosman, contributed a striking chant-like “Gloria in Excelsis Deo” by Mack Wilberg, the arranger of three of the evening’s show pieces.

It was followed by a moving performance of “O Holy Night” by Nance, who sang it as well as any operatic soprano could. (Note to future PSO conductors: For full effect, it requires a boy soprano.)

The highlight of the evening was Handel’s “Hallelujah” chorus. It is always good to hear this from a a major chorus and orchestra but both outdid themselves on Friday. The part singing by the chorus was perfectly delineated and balanced, without the muddiness that often mars its performance by a large group.

Pepper’s expansive version of “Let it Go,” from “Frozen,” captivated the younger members of the audience, dressed in holiday finery, some with reindeer antlers.

Music director Robert Moody, conducting his last “Magic of Christmas” series of concerts, sang “My Grown Up Christmas List,” with the orchestra conducted by Dosman. Moody has a surprisingly good voice, which sometimes reminded me of a French horn.

The traditional holiday carol sing-along seemed louder and livelier than usual, with Moody quipping that the audience was auditioning for next-year’s chorus.

The final “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” with chorus and soloists in a Wilberg arrangement, was especially appropriate in these times. Now if it could only be sung to the right tune…

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

Never a Dull Moment in Dual Piano Concert

Dual Pianists Igor Lovchinsky and Matthew Graybil
Franco Center, Lewiston
Dec. 1, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

The final Piano Series concert of 2017, Friday at the Franco Center in Lewiston, was also one of the most entertaining and unusual.  Igor Lovchinsky and Martin Graybil performed works for two pianos as well as individual solos, without a dull moment in a well-diversified program.

They began with the original two-piano version of Ravel’s “Mother Goose Suite,” which is not heard often enough in this form. The composer wrote it for a friend’s two precocious children and it is not merely brilliant technically, but also a masterpiece of musical description. The pianists seemed to enjoy the glissandos and other fireworks of “The Fairy Garden” as much as the children must have, and the dialog between Beauty and the Beast was characterized perfectly.

Graybil’s turn as soloist was devoted to three movements of a piano version of “Petrushka,” which Stravinsky wrote for Arthur Rubinstein.  Stravinsky, like Bartok, regarded the piano as a percussion instrument and his transcription shows it, with fiendishly difficult rhythmical patterns. It also incorporates the composer’s most recognizable melodies while evoking the atmosphere of the most popular scenes of the ballet. Graybil realized it all perfectly, topping it off with a cooliing draft of Chopin—the Nocturne in B Major, Op. 62, No. 1—that illustrated his melodic as well as rhythmical gifts.

The first half of the program concluded with the Waltz from Anton Arensky’s Suite for Two Pianos (No. 1 in F Major, Op. 15), a glorious period piece with as many soaring decorations as a piece of baroque furniture, all of which were executed with appropriate grace and not the slightest hint of condescension.

After crepes and wine in the Center’s reception room, the program resumed with solos by Lovchinsky, beginning with an understated (for him) transcription of Bach’s “Nun Komm, der Heiden Heiland” by Ferruccio Busoni. That was followed by a Chopin Mazurka in A Minor, Op. 17, No. 4 and the famous Polonaise in A-flat Major, Op. 53.

Although it brought the audience to its feet, I found the tempo of the Polonaise a bit too fast for what is intended as a stately dance. The middle section, with its rapid pattern of descending octaves, should be a canter rather than a gallop.

My favorite of this segment was a Grand Fantasy on “Porgy and Bess” by pianist Earl Wild, based on “Summertime” and “There’s a boat dat’s leavin’ soon for New York.” It is a show-off piece for piano technique, but more important, it captures the character of Gershwin’s own improvisations.

The final work of the evening was a delightful “Scaramouche” for two pianos by Darius Milhaud (1892-1974), which ends in rousing samba. The encore, following a standing ovation, was a set of variations for two pianos on the “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” from Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker.”  Graybil said that it was written by a Cypriot pianist, Nicholas Economou, for himself and Martha Argerich.

The final concert of the 2017-2018 season will be on Mach 8, 2018, by Maine’s own Henry Kramer.

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