A “Frolicsome Finale” for the DaPonte String Quartet

DaPonte String Quartet
Unitarian Universalist Church, Brunswick
March 25, 2018
by Christopher Hyde

“If the fool would persist in his folly, he would become wise.” I thought of Blake’s aphorism while listening to Alban Berg’s early String Quartet, Opus 8 (1910) at the final concert of the DaPonte String Quartet’s winter series II at Brunswick’s Unitarian Universalist Church on Saturday.

The Berg was the semi-tonal “meat” in the musical “sandwich” of easily accessible works typical of Maine concerts. The two-movement quartet is full of marvelous ideas, but stated and developed so rapidly that one easily loses track. If he had taken just one, say the “Der Rosenkavalier” dying fall borrowed from Richard Strauss,  and played with it for a while…

The work is very dark, but relatively tonal, making use of numerical and literary allusions, such as repeated two-note sequences based on his own initials, AB. In that way, it reminds me of the work of the late Elliott Schwartz. It also has passages that sound strangely like the French horn in their combination of textures.

The quartet would surely benefit from repeated hearings, maybe on the DaPonte web site? Nothing can compare to live music —the DaPonte presents five concerts throughout Maine in each of its seasonal series—but it took many repeats of a recorded Berg “Altenberg Lieder” before I could begin to appreciate it.

I would certainly like to hear the accelerando cello part once again, and the “Morse Code” sequences in which Berg flirts with serialism.

The program began with another early work, the String Quartet in C Major, Op. 20, No. 2, of Joseph Haydn. The concluding movement, Fuga a quattro soggetti, is “too easy for amateurs, too difficult for professionals,” as one critic quipped. Another noted on the score that it was enough to alienate friends who tried to play it together.
The DaPonte, although thorough professionals, succeeded brilliantly. The only noticeable symptom of a fatiguing schedule came in the relatively simple first movement.

The final quartet was Benjamin Britten’s “Simple Symphony,” which, though childish sounding— its four moments are called, “Boisterous Bourrée,” “Playful Pizzicato,” “Sentimental Sarabande,” and “Frolicsome Finale” because it was written by BB for alliterative violist Audrey Alston —was a total delight. It is funny, light-hearted, clever and exudes the essence of British folk music, far removed from the tragedy of “Peter Grimes.”

Britten was only 20 when he wrote it, but the symphony is based on themes from some even earlier works for piano, which I now have to get my hands on. The false cadences in the finale sound like a parody of Beethoven, whose String Quartet No. 7 in F Major, Op. 59, No. 1, it replaced on the program.

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

You Can’t Get There from Here. MPBN and Music

Commentary by Christopher Hyde

As an ardent Brahmsian I have always been disappointed with the so-called Double Concerto (violin and cello). No matter who plays it, the work never seems to strike the right chord, so to speak.

I was doubly disappointed then to have missed the performance recently by the Portland Symphony Orchestra under Eckhardt Preu, one of the three finalists for the position of PSO music director.

Preu’s version of “American in Paris,” during his all-Gershwin program earlier this season, was little short of miraculous, revealing qualities in the work that I had never heard before. I thought that if he could do that with movie-music by Gershwin, he might be able to give the Brahms concerto the performance it deserved.

All was not lost, however. I learned that Maino Public Broadcasting was to air a recording of the PSO performance at 8:00 p.m. on Wednesday, March 21. I have three computers and several good FM receivers, so I could listen to the performance in the comfort of my music room. How wrong I was!

First, as everyone knows, MPBN no longer plays classical music on its regular stations. It has been relegated to new positions on the dial, like a crazy uncle locked up in the attic. I have never listened to it there, being averse to segregation in any form. But hey, how difficult could it be? Find the new location, dial it up on a good receiver and turn on the stereo. Wrong again.

Either we do not have the right kind of receiver, or the signal from the nearest tower does not reach Pownal. There was absolutely nothing on the dial at the designated position.

By this time it was past 8:00 p.m., but I hoped that Preu would begin with the usual bit of fluff.

My wife recalled that we had stopped subscribing to MPBN when they prevented antenna-using listeners from viewing their programs unless they purchased a particular kind of digital box. Maybe they had done the same with classical music broadcasting.

There was still the computer and something called “live streaming,” I think. Boot up and see. Yes, there it was! IF you purchased a special app (whatever that is) for $99.00. There was a free trial, so we installed it, hoping against hope hat we could unsubscribe after the Brahms ( difficult to do in most circumstances).

There it was, the familiar strains of the vexed concerto, very faint and sounding as if being broadcast through a tin can. This lasted a few seconds and then vanished into the ether, never to return.
By this time,, the concerto was over, prompting a few choice words about MPBN, which has opted to join the talk radio gaggle.

If I want to hear loud, uninformed opinions, poorly and ungrammatically expressed, I can listen to any number of AM stations. If I want to read corporate news, sponsored by the CIA, I can subscribe to the Washington Post.

Enough vilification. The entire pubic broadcasting situation is too sad to contemplate, as organizations that should be supported by public funding turn to corporations for money, self-censor, and take on the coloring of their donors.

I long for the days when Robert J. began one’s day with the quirky “Morning Pro Musica;” when the radio was left on all the time for good music and occasional unbiased news; when the opera was broadcast every weekend; and no one believed they were a member of an intellectual elite just for listening.

So next time they tell you to silence candy wrappers because they’re recording at Merrill Auditorium, don’t believe it. You’ll never hear that concert again. Robert J. will never return, and most of his song birds are extinct.

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

A Flawed “Emperor”

Portland Symphony Orchestra
Merrill Auditorium
Mar. 20, 2018
by Christopher Hyde

“Even Homer sometimes nods.” Great composers have their off days, even Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in the late opera “La clemenza di Tito,” whose overture led off the program of the Portland Symphony Orchestra Tuesday night at Merrill Auditorium.

A packed house had come to hear one of the candidates for music director, Ken-David Masur, lead the orchestra in Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto, (No. 5 in E-flat Major, Opus 73), with Russian-born pianist Natasha Paremski.

An added bonus, after intermission, was the seldom-heard Symphony No. 6 in D Major, Op. 60, of Antonín Dvorák, the reason I added the familiar quote about Homer. In most cases there is a reason why works are seldom heard, and the No. 6 is not one of Dvorák’s most inspired compositions.

Sometimes conductors, or soloists, contrive to make a work sound better than it is, but that was not the case on Tuesday. The symphony was certainly pleasant and well played, but lacked inspiration or excitement. Even the Furiant third movement did not come up to the level of any of the Slavonic Dances, which it resembled. Could it have been a dance left out of that set? Waste not, want not.

The rest of the work has the composer’s authentic Bohemian flavor, but in it he lacks the confidence to utilize Slavonic themes to the full extent, which makes it sound somewhat derivative.

Getting back to the main event, one of my favorite concertos of all time, it was also well-played, tempo giusto and accurate to a fault. Paremski has one of the most beautiful portamento techniques I have ever heard—like a string of well-matched pearls, as my piano teacher used to say. In that regard, she was perfectly suited to Beethoven’s writing for piano.

In other regards, not so much. The bass lacked power, and the sforzando chords often sounded febrile rather than powerful. The orchestra and piano occasionally ran on different tracks, and the whole lacked coherence and drive, in spite of some memorable passage work and interplay between the piano and orchestral sections.

The audience gave it the usual standing ovation, and Paremski, thankfully, did not play an encore, but all-in-all, the performance was not the transcendent experience it could have been. I was once admonished: “A musical performance is not a religious experience.” To quote Woody Allen in another context: “It is if it’s done right.”

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

An Exciting POPS by the Midcoast Symphony

Midcoast Symphony Orchestra
Franco Center, Lewiston
Mar. 17, 2018
by Christopher Hyde

The Midcoast Symphony Orchestra’s “Celebration Pops,” Saturday night at Lewiston’s Franco Center, was just that: popular.  It attracted the largest crowd I have seen at one of the Midcoast’s concerts.

In spite of being about 2 hours long, including intermission with crepes and wine, the pace never flagged, due to the infectious energy of guest conductor Yoichi Udagawa, who was just getting into his stride with a gloriously hokey encore of “The Stars and Stripes Forever,” complete with a three-piccolo obligato and a flag-waving baseball cap. The Boston Pops couldn’t have done it better.

Udagawa has a penchant for fast tempos, which works better with some popular classics than with others. It made the orchestra struggle a bit with the Shostakovich Festive Overture, which opened he program, but was more effective in Copland’s “Hoe-Down” from “Rodeo,” and absolutely perfect with the jigs from Leroy Anderson’s “Irish Suite.”

Anderson has become a little too popular to be taken as seriously as he should be. HIs sensitive arrangement of well-known Irish tunes, however, was one of the high points of the evening.

We came to the event primarily to hear pianist Charles Floyd play “Rhapsody in Blue.” HIs interpretation of the Rachmaninov Concerto No. 2 with the Midcoast, a few years back, was unforgettable.

What happened was one of those irresistible force meets immovable object dilemmas, when Floyd’s long lines and exploration of inner voices came in contact with Udagawa’s up-tempo interpretation. A concerto is always a battle between orchestra and soloist, but this one ended in a truce that was satisfying to both parties, retaining the excitement of Gershwin’s improvisations while revealing some inner harmonies unheard in more technical performances.

I generally detest encores after concerto performances, as detracting from the main event, but Floyd’s deeply felt variations on “America” seemed appropriate. It made me think of the scene in “RIdley Walker,” when the hero comes across the ruins of Salisbury Cathedral and exclaims,”What we been…and what we are now.”

After conducting the audience in clapping for the “Colonel Bogey March,” Udagawa ended the regular program with a sultry and explosive Bacchanale from Saint-Saens’ “Samson and Delila,” that brought out the best from all sections of the orchestra.

I wouldn’t be surprised if today’s (Sunday’s) concert at the Orion Center is sold out, but if tickets are still available it would be well worth hearing.

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

The Piano Monster Tamed

Piano Monster Concert
Snow Pond Center for the Arts, Sidney
Mar. 3, 2018
by Christopher Hyde

What music critic could pass up something called The Piano Monster Concert? Shades of Creole pianist Louis Moreau Gottshalk, who once assembled 64 grand pianos for a play-along in South America. That my grandson, Jordan Seavey, took part in the event  is merely coincidental.

The concert was the brainchild of the Maine Music Teachers Association, Christine KIssack of Falmouth and Ginger Yang Hwalek of Bangor. Hwalek  conducted the ensemble  late Saturday afternoon,  in the jam-packed Alumni Hall of the Snow Pond Center for the Arts in Sidney. Kissack was in charge of the mind-boggling logistics.

There were 98 performers, 12 pianos —two concert grands and 10 spinet-sized consoles- -and 15 teachers, including Hwalek and Kissack. The teachers sometimes performed alongside their students, and sometimes just turned pages. I don’t have the exact numbers in front of me, but the piano players ranged in age from early grade-school to adult, with the majority skewed toward youth.

All of them were good—due to advances in pedagogy most Juilliard graduates have better technique than Liszt or Paderewski—and more surprising, watched the conductor closely for tempo and volume instructions. The unity was remarkable, even in the first two numbers, “Tamborine,” and “Magical March,” by Margaret Goldston, played by the youngest pianists.

The numbers of musicians in each piece varied from about a dozen to a maximum of 26, sometimes sitting three to a bench for piano-six-hands performance, as in “Bob’s Blues,” which Seavey has been practicing on our piano.

Recitals can be excruciating, especially those involving stringed instruments. This one, which lasted about an hour, was entertaining throughout, with well-selected pieces that showed off what could be done with the combination of pianos and electronic keyboards. The latter provided some real sostenuto in “Romantic Interlude,” by Beatrice Miller, and added to the authenticity of works in the Blues, Ragtime, country fiddling and and big-band styles. “Brightwood Barn,” by Robert D. Vandall, which ended the program, was a real barn burner to the tune of “What Shall We Do with a Drunken Sailer?”

The classics were not neglected, with some nice up-tempo selections from Beethoven’s “Six Country Dances,” an arrangement of the overture to “Carmen,” a well-known Gigue by Corelli and the first movement of the Mozart Sonata in D Major, K.381. The latter involved a serious attempt to bring out the often unheard voices. Mozart, who wrote for clockwork organs, would have had fun with a keyboard.

I am in awe of the effort and logistics involved in putting The Piano Monster Concert together—just getting all the performers on stage at the right time was a feat in itself. To have transformed it into an enjoyable musical event is extraordinary.