Dimmick Excels in Barber Violin Concerto

Portland Symphony Orchestra
Merrill Auditorium
Feb. 11, 2018
by Christopher Hyde

Guest conductor Paul Polivnik did a fine job with the Portland Symphony Orchestra Sunday afternoon at Merrill Auditorium, when Music director Robert Moody was unable to officiate due to the death of his father.

Polivnik, currently music director and conductor emeritus of the New Hampshire Music Festival, has worked with many of the world’s leading orchestras and,  in spite of a few technical glitches by individual players, was able to get the best out of the PSO at short notice, earning several standing ovations.

The high point of the afternoon was a performance of Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto, Op. 16, by concert master Charles Dimmick., who was equally at home in the first two lyrical movements and the fiendish finale.

There is still some controversy about this work, the violinist who commissioned it having turned it down because the finale was too difficult. Critics have said that the explanation can’t be right, since the violinist in question was a virtuoso, but knowing Barber’s piano works—and witnessing Dimmicks prestissimo fingering,— I find the explanation quite satisfactory.

A more important question is the fit of the final presto with what has gone before. No one seems to have noticed the gaelic flavor of the first two movements, with a jig-like motif appearing now and then, even in those funereal sections that are indicated by the beat of a muffled drum. Perhaps the concerto is an American “Death and Transfiguration,” with the flight of the soul portrayed by vastly increasing the tempo of fragments introduced earlier. I loved the ending, with a piano glissando leading up to the final abrupt note on the violin.

Whatever the explanation, the performance by Dimmick was utterly convincing, overcoming some significant lapses in Barber’s orchestration. You do not pit the solo violin against trumpets, the French horn maybe, but not the massed brass, unless you want a string fortissimo to disappear. Polivnik was able to ameliorate the worst of the excesses, but they were still obvious.

The other “modern” work on the program, “Alternative Energy” by Mason Bates (b. 1977), although well played (I think), was not as successful. I could not read all of the program, so I imagined each of the four movements as depicting forms of energy—Fords Farm, the automobile, Chicago, wind power, Xinjiang Province, solar, and Reykjavick, geothermal. Amid the blurts, rumblings and squeaks, the program worked pretty well, down to the recorded seabird calls stolen from Rutavaara’s “Cantus Arcticus.”

It turns out that the symphony depicts an historical dystopia in which a Chinese nuclear plant blows up and the remaining humans, living in a rain forest in Iceland, long for the days of the Model T. Close enough. Syncopated chords tossed around the orchestra get old fast.

The concluding “Bolero” was a miraculously controlled crescendo, with a few nicks in the paint consisting of muffed entrances, which tend to stand out like a sore thumb in Ravel’s orchestration. It nevertheless deserved its own standing ovation.

As usual, the opening work on the program, Brahms’ “Academic Festival” Overture, made me long for college days, which were actually among the more miserable of experiences. Next time, I’ll go to Heidelberg, drink lots of beer and emerge with a duelling scar.

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

Les Ballets Jazz De Montreal Premieres An Instant Classic

Les Ballets Jazz de Montreal
Merrill Audiorium
Feb. 8, 2018
by Christopher Hyde

Those fortunate enough to be in Merrill Auditorium Thursday night witnessed one of the first presentations of “Casualties of Memory,” premiered by Les Ballets Jazz de Montreal (BJM) earlier this month in Boston. With choreography by Itzik Galili to a percussion score by Les Frères Grand, it is destined to become an instant classic of modern dance. Thanks once again to Portland Ovations for bringing it here so fast.

The ballet is long, taking up all of the first half of Thursday night’s program, but the spectacular drumming by Joseph Khoury would carry the piece all by itself, even if it were not matched by the equally astounding dancing on stage. (Disclaimer: I used to drive to Manhattan from college in Easton, Pa. to hear drum riffs by Gene Krupa at Eddie Condon’s. Some at Merrill thought the primitive percussion was overpowering, but I thought it was just right.)

The ballet attempts, quite successfully, to blur the distinctions between genders, starting with patriarchal, male-dominated postures and progressing to what Freud called polymorphous perversity, in which the movements, lifts and postures of the dancers transcend distinctions between male and female.

And what postures they are. One would never guess that the human anatomy had so many possibilities, their transformations executed so smoothly that the changing patterns took on the nature of a kaleidoscope.

When the dancers lined up, the series of poses from left to right (or vice versa) seemed like mysterious runes or hieroglyphics, spelling out a prophecy if one could only decipher them. At all times, the coordination of the dancers was uncanny.

The lighting, in this and the ballets that followed, was a member of the company in itself, emphasizing aspects down to individual muscle groups, isolating or uniting related actions, and establishing contrasts that highlighted everything. Simple—three rows of spotlights in perspective— effective, “and cheap,” as the choreographer pointed out in a video clip.

The next two ballets were completely different, but equally exciting in their own ways. The first was a bitter-sweet salute to Canadian poet and musician Leonard Cohen, with songs taking the company through the seasons in Montreal. A pas de deux to “Suzanne,” (1966) may not have “touched your perfect body with my mind,” but came close, in the most Romantic and classically influenced sequence of the evening.

The final ballet, “O Balcāo De Amor,” ended the program on a humorous note, depicting various loving or battling pairs (sometimes both) in a Cuban nightclub, to primarily Mamba music..

It is a complete comedia del arte, without a single word necessary to identify the stock characters, from the tutu-wearing ingenue to the unsuccessful lounge lizard in suspenders. Some of the dance moves were hysterical, such as the “worm’ executed on the side instead of the stomach. flopping like a fish out of water, or a Mermaid dragging her tight-skirted tail up the beach. One gets so carried away by the stories as to forget the superb quality of the dancing that depicts them.

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

The Quintessential Quintet

Berlin Philharmonic Wind Quintet
Hannafod Hall, USM-Portland
Feb. 1, 2018
by Christopher Hyde

I tried to get my son interested in playing the French horn but he became a professional fox hunter instead. (The horn was used primarily as a signal in stag hunting, but close enough.)

That family history crossed my mind while listening to a concert by the Berlin Philharmonic Wind Quintet Thursday night at Hannaford Hall. Portland Ovations has a way of bringing the world’s finest classical musicians to Portland, and the Berlin Quintet is no exception.

Formed in 1988, it comprises Michael Hasel, flute, Andreas Wittmann, oboe, Walter Seyfarth, clarinet, Marion Reinhard, bassoon, and Fergus McWilliam, horn.

Horn? What is so obviously a brass instrument doing in a woodwind quintet? Apparently, the mellow sound of the horn, rather like that of an alto saxophone, blends so well with woodwinds that it often serves as a transitional bridge between that section and the brass in an orchestra, and perfectly rounds out the complement of voices in a woodwind quintet.

It certainly works for the Berlin Quintet, which began the program with three highly unusual pieces by Mozart, originally composed for mechanical organ, a sort of music box in which the cylinder pins open air valves instead of plucking tuned steel bars.

The transcriptions, by Hasel, follow the originals faithfully, without additions or subtractions —the compositions are multi-voiced—and open a window on little-heard works, written during Mozart’s final year of life. They are fascinating glimpses, since Mozart seldom wrote a pedestrian note, but not up to his usual standards, in spite of a delightful fugue and double fugue that indicate a late study of Bach.

They were followed by the Quintet, Op. 10 (1929) of Pavel Haas who, like his contemporary Erwin Schulhof, ended his life in a German concentration camp. Sounding like a melding of Stravinsky and Kurt Weill, it was more interesting than the Mozart, ending in a fiendish dance and a chorale-like epilog.

If civilization survives into the next century, György Ligeti will be remembered, and played, as one of the great masters of Western music. Certainly his Six Bagatelles, (1953) with their homage to Bartok, are masterpieces, exhibiting brand new sounds, rhythmical patterns, and playfulness, all of which are both unexpected and, once heard, perfectly inevitable. They are also immensely difficult, and one hopes that musicians of the 22nd Century will be as accomplished as those of the Berlin Philharmonic are today.

The Carl Nielsen Quintet, Op. 43 (1922), which ended the program, is as unusual, in its own way, as the Ligeti. Nielson is often considered a Danish folk-artist, like Greig in Norway, but he combines his folkish tunes with avant garde flourishes that sometimes border on the absurd, contrasting with his sadder and more melodic sections,

The work also contains some exquisite solos for bassoon and horn, demonstrating the important place both instruments have among the woodwinds.

After a prolonged standing ovation, the quintet played an encore of Blues by American jazz and classical composer Gunther Shuller.

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