PSO Shows Versatility in Well-Received Concert

Portland Symphony Orchestra
Merrill Auditorium
Jan. 30, 2018
by Christopher Hyde

The Portland Symphony Orchestra, now in its final season under music director Robert Moody, hit the trifecta Tuesday night at Merrill Auditorium with three winning performances of modern, late Romantic and classical works. Moody even threw in a bonus not on the program, the quartet from Mozart’s “Idomeneo.” with Maine singers.

The program began with “Eating the Flowers” by American composer Hannah Lash (b. 1981), who was in the audience.
The work is an homage to several late 19th and early 20th Century composers. The “flowers” are their particular styles, especially of orchestration, without reference to recognizable melodies. The more long-limbed passages are supported by a driving rhythmical pattern (or “chug or in modern musical parlance), with the harp, of all instruments, front and center. The instrumentation results in beautiful gong-like effects that reminded me of Debussy’s use of gamelan music. It was much better received than most contemporary works, and its composer deserved her applause.

It was followed, after the “Mozart Moment” from “Idomeneo,” by his Piano Concerto in D-minor No. 20, Opus 466, with pianist Henry Kramer. I am not a great fan of the Opus 466, which seems more dramatic than musical, but Kramer made it sound better than it is.
The balance between orchestra and soloist was well-nigh perfect, especially in the dialogs between the piano and woodwinds.

The cadenzas, by Beethoven, were spectacular.

I reviewed Kramer’s version of the “Elvira Madigan” (Mozart Concerto No. 21) a while ago, and found it technically flawless but without much Romantic sensibility. He still has a little way to go in that repertoire, but took the bit in his teeth during the third movement, forcing the orchestra into an ultra-rapid and exciting tempo. The audience loved it, as they did his more relaxed and flexible encore of the Brahms Romanza, Opus 118, No. 5. Both received a standing ovation.

Finally came a colorful reading of Richard Strauss’ “Ein Heldenleben,” an orchestral tour-de-force that the PSO negotiated (almost) perfectly, and with a wide dynamic range.

The brasses are the heroes of this work, but the brightest star was concert master Charles Dimmick’s violin solo depicting the hero’s love interest. The orchestra, and its various sections, received a standing ovation, but Dimmick received cheers as well. HIs performance of this difficult part combined brilliant technique with emotional depth, plus the ability to stand out against Strauss’s massed horns.

Moody’s interpretation was exciting in the sections depicting struggle and victory, but he was also able to turn the hero’s departure from this world into a moving portrait worthy of “Tod und Verklarung.”

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

Vox Nova Celebrates the Winter Solstice

Vox Nova
Franco Center, Lewiston
Jan. 20, 2018
by Christopher Hyde

“To whose more clear than crystal voice, the frost had joined a crystal spell.” The Vox Nova Winter Solstice concert, Saturday night at the Franco Center, reminded me of Leonie Adams’ line, with a succession of images as sparkling, cold and clear as frost patterns on a window pane.

Where does director Shannon Chase find these works? Stanzas of great poetry set to contemporary music that adds to their effect. She even found an e.e. cummings poem, set by Steve Heizeg (b. 1959), with capitol letters (“Noel Noel”). “little tree” was almost enough to give one the Christmas spirit, ending with a peal of bells from the harp, played by Victoria Flanagan.

Flanagan also decorated — I hesitate to use the word accompanied— a moving setting of Thomas Hardy’s “The Oxen,” by Marjorie Hess (b. 1958) and a truly dolce version of “What Sweeter Music by Robert Herrick, with music by Michael Fink (b. 1955).

Chase  uses instrumentalists to good effect, without diminishing the effectiveness of the perfect intervals attainable with an a cappella choir. The first half of the program was sung by a small group, Intima,” and the second by the full chamber choir, with harp, flute, trumpet, piano and string quartet.

A Latvian folksong, “Northern Lights,” with music by Eriks Ešenvals (b. 1977), included tuned water glasses and chimes, adding to the wonder expressed in the song, which compares the perpetual rise and fall of the northern lights to harp music.

Vox Nova has a strong bass section, fully revealed in “Evensong,” by Stephen Paulus (1949-2014), to a poem by Matthias Claudus (1740-1815). One of the most effective works, however. was “Tundra,” by Ola Gjeilo (b. 1978), setting a poem by Charles A. Silvestri. It was sung by the Women’s Chamber Chorus, Jennifer Caton, soprano, with the piano and string quartet taking the tenor and bass lines.

The last time Vox Nova performed “Come to the Woods” by Jake Runestad (b. 1986) to a poem by John Muir (1838-1914), I gave it a rave review. It was just as good the second time — a concerto for piano and chorus, with Amy Maier at the piano. While listening to the wind during our October hurricane I thought of Muir climbing a pine tree to witness the storm described in his poem.

The program concluded with a wonderful version of “Auld Lang Syne,” which not only uses Burns’ original wording, but alters the traditional melody to give it a more authentic Highlands flavor. The work, by Mairi Campbell (b. 1965), was given a definitive reading by the chorus and Erika Leighton, mezzo-soprano and Julia Nadeau, soprano, with Maier at the piano.

The concert was both a celebration and a catharsis of winter. Now if someone could set Ezra Pound’s ode “Winter is icumen in, Lud sing Goddam. Skiddeth bus and sloppeth us,and how the wind doth ram…” Spike Jones perhaps?

The Winter Solstice program will be repeated today at 3:00 p.m. at the Orion Center for the Performing Arts in Topsham. It should not be missed.

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

Serendipity at Merrill

Pianist Lukáš Vondráček
Merrill Auditorium
Jan. 7, 2018
by Christopher Hyde

Portland Ovations has a way of making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. When Russian pianist Behzod Abduraimov couldn’t travel to Merrill Auditorium on Jan. 7, they were able to book a noted Czech pianist, Lukáš Vondráček, as a substitute.

I can’t compare the two, but Vondráček’s program was first rate, and attracted a large audience for a concert on a cold winter’s day. That it featured two of my favorite long works for piano was an added bonus.

The first was the great Brahms Piano Sonata No. 3 in F Minor, Op. 5, written when he was 20. Full of youthful exuberance and extravagantly Romantic, it contains enough beautiful melodies for five later symphonies, when the composer was not so profligate with his inspirations.

I found the performance, while technically flawless, vaguely disappointing. The melodies were all there, in perfect order, including one of the most noble marches in music (in the final movement), but their developments seemed to lack continuity. It was not the pianist’s melodic sense, he had that in spades for the last work on the program, or his dynamics, which had a wide range.

Not to put too fine a point on it, there were too many climaxes, a failing of the youthful Brahms, amplified by Vondráček’s inserting a tiny pause in front of each climactic chord, in order to amplify it. A little of this habit goes a long way.

It was still quite wonderful to hear again. My slight disappointment may also have been due to ownership of the definitive Julius Katchen recording of 1950, after which the interpretation of Brahms went downhill.

After intermission came “Memories” (Op. 6) by Czech composer Vitezslav Novak (1870-1949), late Romantic impressions that were pleasant to hear but less than earth-shaking after what had preceded them..

The final work was also a substitution—of Schubert’s final Sonata in B-flat Major (1828) for the Schumann “Carnival.” A wise choice.

It was “of a divine length,” but like the composer, one didn’t want it to stop, no matter how many modulations and transformations buffeted the final theme, which ends ferociously only when Schubert decides that he has had enough.

The fast movements were very fast, and the slow ones slow, but the balance was almost perfect. Vondráček’s fine melodic sense was revealed in the second movement, with a theme that rivals Brahms in its profundity, and was as beautifully sung as something can be on the piano.

The Schubert earned a deserved standing ovation. There was no encore, which would have been an anti-climax.

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