Broadway at its Best

Portland Symphony Orchestra
Merrill Auditorium
April 21, 2018
by Christopher Hyde

I had forgotten just how good the American musical theater once was. The opening bars of “Oklahoma,” played by the Portland Symphony Orchestra in a Pops concert Sunday afternoon at Merrill Auditorium, were a forcible reminder.

My father, who was a critic, took me to opening night. We sat in the front row of the balcony and I set the stage with a loud impromptu version of “The Star Spangled Banner,” in my best boy soprano. Later, my sister and I learned every single word of every single song —“Oklahoma” is a cornucopia—and sang them at an audition. The producers found them too “adult” for a children’s program in Philadelphia, but we refused to learn anything else. (We did Cab Calloway too.)

But I digress. The orchestra, under music director finalist Daniel Meyer, was on its best behavior, the arrangements were truly symphonic, and soprano Lisa Vroman was the very model of what a Broadway leading lady should be. She has a marvelous voice, a warm and friendly stage presence, dances gracefully and is also a pretty good stand-up comedienne. Her tales of mishaps on stage and her demure and lethal version of “To Keep My Love Alive” from Rogers’ “Connecticut Yankee” had even the orchestra members laughing into their cellos.

The selections favored Rogers and Hart and Rogers and Hammerstein, but Sondheim, Willson and Loewe were also well represented. The composer of the plaintive “Take of My Solitude,” Tom Megan, was in the audience and received a round of applause.

There was also a charming, humorous version of Irving Berlin’s “I love a Piano,” in which Vroman was perfectly accompanied by PSO keyboardist Janet Reeves.

Vroman spoke of her childhood desire to be Julie Andrews, but her opening “The Sound of Music,” and finale “My Favorite Things” (with an impromptu verse for Portland) placed her firmly in the same league. She even had the near-capacity audience singing “Edelweiss” at the end.

Meyer elicited fresh and enthusiastic performances of favorites so popular that orchestras sometimes merely go through the motions. Fine and cleverly orchestrated arrangements didn’t hurt the cause either. He also has a good singing voice, as evidenced by a duet from “Phantom of the Opera” illustrating one of Vroman’s stories.

It will be interesting to see how he conducts other classics, “Swan Lake” and a Glazunov Violin Concerto, on May 13.

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

The Ariel Quartet:Two Out of Three Isn’t Bad

The Ariel Quartet
Hannaford Hall, USM Portland
April 18, 2018
By Christopher Hyde

When I first started writing music reviews for the Portland Press Herald years ago, I felt like Diogenes and his lantern, looking for an honest man. My search was for the quintessential, live, Brahms performance. Like Diogenes, I never found what I was looking for, although several came close.

My hopes rose when I heard the Ariel Quartet, brought to Hannaford Hall on Wednesday night by Portland Ovations. The monumental Brahms Piano Quintet in F Minor, Opus 34, was the final work on a program that began with one of the most delightful readings of the Mozart Piano Quartet in E-flat Major (K.493) that I have heard anywhere.

The performance was as highly polished and full of intricate relief as a piece of Georgian silver. What can easily become a concerto was held in check by Navah Perlman, whose playing made the piano into one more voice in the quartet, although a lively one.

Sometimes one could not tell where the piano ended and the cello—or the viola, or the violin— began. A true conversation among equals, although inevitably, in the finale, the piano became more equal than others.

The reading was perfectly paced, from beginning to end, and somehow or other, the string players were able to achieve a degree of crisp articulation that matched that of the piano.

It seemed impossible to better that accomplishment, but the Ariel did just that in the Bartok Quartet No.1, as great a masterpiece in its own right as the Mozart. You could cut the concentration with a knife, and the dedication was of the kind that Bartok deserves but seldom gets in even the most prestigious recordings. (I bought the Ariel recording at intermission, something I very seldom do.)

From the opening exchange between the first and second violins, it was apparent that something special was happening, with the microtones producing a complex cloud of overtones. What followed was a taste of Bartok’s nocturnal world (frog fugue, mist over the lake, sighing reeds) and some of his best references to folk dances that never were. He brings forth from four instruments sonorities never heard before, without violating their musical nature.

This is the kind of music one can listen to a hundred times and always hear something new…and enchanting.

What about the Brahms? God knows, and she isn’t telling. Let’s just say that after what had gone before, it was a disappointment. Someone was ill, the quartet had used all its energy in the tirst two works, or maybe they just don’t like Brahms. (There are people like that, hard as it is to imagine.)

As a pianist, I have a theory. After intermission, Perlman played a very tentative Schumann Arabesque (Op. 18). Sometimes, when one piece goes wrong, so does everything else, and it’s advisable to go back to scales for the rest of the evening. It could happen to professionals too, I suppose, but they don’t have the luxury of quitting.

The other work on the Ariel Bartok recording is the Brahms String Quartet No. 2, so we’ll see.

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

A Welcome Addition to the Maine Music Scene

Amethyst Chamber Ensemble
Unitarian Universalist Church, Brunswick
Apr. 15, 2018
By Christopher Hyde

A new star has risen on the Maine (and Massachusetts) musical horizon. On Sunday, the Amethyst Chamber Ensemble, in its first Maine performance, at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Brunswick, transformed what could have been a lugubrious afternoon—sort of a “Songs and Dances of Death”—into a lively celebration of life.

The concert began with a set of three songs, “Let Evening Come,” by American composer William Bolcom (b. 1938) The songs are masterful settings of poems by Maya Angelou, Emily Dickinson and Jane Kenyon, dealing with human reactions to death.

Bolcom is a master at portraying psychological states through music, and the last song, to a poem by Kenyon, turns a funeral march into a triumphant procession. The set was effectively performed by Mary Sullivan, soprano, Scott Nicholas, piano, and Jon Poupore, viola. The latter instrument takes the place of a singer, who died before Bolcom could complete a commission written for two sopranos.

I loved Emily Dickinson’s image of birds in winter accepting the penance of the farmer.

The next selection on the program, the great Brahms Viola Sonata in F Minor, Op. 120, No. 1, was more cheerful, with echoes of his “Liebeslieder Waltzes” coming after more introspective sections, including some surprisingly songful double stops on the viola.

For something entirely different, the trio, with the addition of mezzo-soprano Joëlle Morris, performed 13 of “Fifteen Songs for Voice, Viola and Piano,” by Irving Schlein (1905-1986). Schlein, a familiar figure on Broadway, composed a large number of classical works, which have remained virtually undiscovered.

The songs are short, well-written, and often comical– musical one-liners, such as No. 5, which, while praising bird song, ends in a discordant minor second. The next, extoling harmony, takes the tonic to ridiculous extremes. No. 13, however, harks back to the theme of the concert, recalling the despair of unrequited love.

German weltschmerz was on full display in two wonderful, darkly Romantic songs for Voice and Viola (Op. 91) by Brahms: “Stilled Longing” and “You Who Hover “(“Gestillte Sehnsucht” and “Geistliches Wiegenlied”). They were movingly sung by Morris with just the right degree of restrained emotion, and tones complementing those of the viola.

Three tangos by Astor Piazzolla provided just the right combination of darkness and light, all of them, however a little more melodic than most of that composer’s concert tangos. The first, a Milonga, was sung by Morris, the second “El Titere,” about a Mack the Knife-like character, by Sullivan,and the third, “Song of the Zamba Girl,” by both, as alternating solos and a duet.

Sullivan and Morris form a near-perfect duet, as significant differences in pitch and timbre make the combination of voices most effective. Their coordination was most striking in a programmed encore, a vocalization of Brahms’ Hungarian Dance No. 5 by his friend Pauline Viardot (1821-1910) entitled “Les Bohemiennes.”

I usually cannot understand sung words in English, so Viardot’s French was beyond me. I’ll take it on faith that it was clever, funny and perhaps a bit risqué, judging by the fun that the singers, and the audience, had with it.

The next concert in Maine is scheduled for November. Too far off.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at classbeat@netscape.net.
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A Striking Program of American Organ Music

Harold Stover, Organist
The Cathedral Church of St. Luke, Portland
April 8, 2018
by Christopher Hyde

Merrill Auditorium’s Kotzschmar Organ gets all the press, but there are other wonders of the organ world scattered throughout Maine. One of these is the 1928 Skinner Organ at the Cathedral Church of St. Luke,  displayed in Sunday’s program of American music by composer and organist Harold Stover.

The Skinner, which Stover calls “the gold standard of organs,” was refurbished in 2000, and has some of the most brilliant voices I have heard anywhere. The trumpet or bugle calls in Virgil Thompson’s Variations on “There’s Not a Friend Like the Lowly Jesus,” (1926) were enough to knock your socks off.

Thompson is best known as a music critic, but this work, written in Paris, is a convincing reminder that more things were going on in music than atonalism during the early years of the 20th Century.

Two pieces by Boston composer Arthur Foote (1853-1937) : “Night, a Fantasy” (1919) and “Oriental Sketch,” (1923) showed off the organ’s more delicate aspects in two muted but highly atmospheric pieces, the second of which reminded one a bit of Ketelbey’s famous “In a Monastery Garden.”

I was most impressed by Stover’s early composition, “The Starry Night, after Vincent Van Gogh,” (1971), which is that rare animal, a musical composition inspired by an art work that actually conjures up the appropriate image, including instrumental colors. There are trilling swills around the brilliant yellow stars, cascades of chromatic scales for the dark cypress trees,and solid pedal point anchoring the sleeping village. Besides being a masterpiece in itself, the work, which began the program, showed off the organ’s rapid response admirably.

That response was called upon again in an authentic rendition of “Heliotrope Bouquet, a Slow Drag Two-Step” (1907), a sort of exquisite corpse co-written by Scott Joplin and Louis Chauvin. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a rag performed on an organ before.

Some of the other trumpet stops were exercised in “Trumpet Tunes” (1976), by Calvin Hampton, a composition written as an Easter processional that makes key-changes and dissonance into a pleasant and exciting experience. Stover recalled that Hampton’s recitals at Manhattan’s Calvary Episcopal Church were attended by overflow crowds—at midnight.

The program concluded with two more of Stover’s own compositions, “Blue Prelude,” (2015) an homage to the 30’s of Gershwin and Ellington, and “Feria” (2017), which conjures up images of a Spanish street fair.

Proceeds of the recital will go to support St. Luke’s  music program.

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