Students Shine at Piano Recital

Ginger Hwalek Student Recital
Minsky Recital Hall, UMO
May 20, 2018
by Christopher Hyde

A well-tempered Steinway concert grand must be a powerful incentive to piano students. The recital Sunday afternoon at the University of Maine’s MInsky Recital Hall, by students of Ginger Yang Hwalek, was not only impressive in terms of technical achievement, but also enjoyable musically. The 20-some compositions ranged from Bach to Stravinsky, without a piano-method special in the bunch.

In fact, the technical expertise of the performers led a critic to evaluate them in terms of interpretation or realization of the composer’s intent rather than the ability to play the notes correctly. The first on stage, 10-year-old Jordan Seavey,* emphasized the easy flow of the Sonatina in A Minor by Anton Benda, and achieved a good Stravinsky coloration in that composer’s “Five Finger Toccata.”

Later on in the program, Julia Hammond’s “Golliwog’s Cakewalk “ painted a minstrel in brilliant colors. Her “Doctor Gradus ad Parnassus,” from the same “Children’s Corner “ suite, generated beautiful waves of sound, but I prefer the image of a student plodding through a five-finger exercise, slyly changing key or soaring off in flights of fantasy from the boredom before him. But that’s just an opinion. Debussy, unlike Stravinsky, is always open to alternative readings.

Speaking of waves of sound, some of the works were of a high degree of difficulty, navigated almost perfectly. The Schumann “Aufschwung,” by Ha Do, was one example. Others included Anh Tran’s Fantasie-Impromptu, Op. 66 (Chopin), the Beethoven “Moonlight” Sonata, by Helen Shearer, the Beethoven Sonata in F Minor, Op. 2, No. 1, by Lilja Hanson, and a rousing piano four-hands version of the Mozart Sonata in D Major (KV 381), by Cecilia Doering and her teacher.(The sonata selections were excerpts, which did not make them any the less entertaining.)

While most of the works were by prominent composers, some of the lesser-known were also interesting. Shearer played “The Story of Gaydar” by Russian composer Grigori Frid, a Brahms Ballade written by Grieg. Sofie Rueter sketched two animal portraits by Linda Namath, and Mei Tian played a brilliantly syncopated “Crimson,” from “Sketches in Color” by Robert Starer.

Fine intermediate composers had their place too: an Allegro by William Friedmann Bach and an Etude by Dimiry Kabaalevsky, played by William Xu, were followed by Vetri Vel’s interpretation of the Sonatina in C Major, Op. 55, No. 1 of Friedrich Kuhlau, plus the better-known “Siciliano” of Schumann.

The program ended with some fine pianistic coloration by Emma Shearer of “Two Arabesques” by Debussy. The works on display had one thing in common, as Hwalek pointed out: Each of the students had made them their own.

*Jordan Seavey is the grandson of Christopher Hyde, a writer and musician who lives in Pownal and can be reached at classbeat@netscape.net.

Correction to May 13 Portland Symphony Review

Too bad I listen to music with my eyes closed. I had assumed that the assistant principal cellist would take over the solo part in “Swan Lake” (in the absence of the principal) but it was not so. The well-played solo was actually performed by David Paschke. I was informed of this by Richard Noyes, whom I had mistakenly credited.

As someone once said: “Assumption doesn’t feed the bulldog.” My apologies to all concerned.

Christopher Hyde

Portland Symphony’s Apotheosis of the Dance

Portland Symphony Orchestra
Merrill Auditorium
May 13, 2018
by Christopher Hyde

Once in a great while there comes a relatively unknown work that is truly worth reviving. The Concerto in A Minor for Violin and Orchestra, Opus 82, by Alexander Glazunov (1865-1936). is a prime example. As played by the Portland Symphony Orchestra under Daniel Meyer, with violinist Chee-Yun, Sunday afternoon at Merrill Auditorium, it brought something new to late Romanticism, with a voice all its own.

The first section of the concerto seemed a little hum-drum, with statements and development of not very memorable tunes. Then came a very long and technically ferocious cadenza, managed superbly by the soloist. It was followed by a peal of thunder and trumpet calls, and it was off to the races.

Glazunov explores just about every instrumental combination in the book at a high rate of speed, somewhere between a quick march and a jig. The violin quizzically answers massed trumpets, plays duets with various sections and imitates the oboe, all of it held together beautifully by the forgotten opening melodies, transformed by the faster tempo.

A tour de force, and something new under the sun to anyone who had not heard the work before. Then Chee-Yun spoiled it with an encore– a piece of prestidigitation (Recitative and Scherzo by Fritz Kreisler) without any redeeming musical value. Any lasting enjoyment of the concerto, replaying its beauties in the mind, was obliterated. Chee-Yun, who has a fine musical sense as well as technique to burn, should have known better, and Meyer, one of three finalists for the post of PSO music director, should have talked her out of it.

As a young romantic, I imagined impossibilities, such as taking the great hornist Dennis Brain on a fox hunt to perform the calls, or getting the Philadelphia Orchestra into the pit for a performance of “Swan Lake” by the Bolshoi Ballet (even though their own orchestra was pretty good). Meyer’s version of a suite from “Swan Lake” fulfilled more than half of the dream, conjuring up elegant images at every bar.

The music is divinely Romantic, without an ounce of the cuteness that sometimes mars “The Nutcracker.” The violin solo by concert master Charles Dimmick was worth the price of admission; when combined with a cello part, played by David Paschke, it was little short of spectacular. Every part of the suite was danceable, although the tempo in Czardas was a trifle fast.

I have always had a problem with Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances, Opus 45. HIs last works, they seem less inspired than autobiographical. It is fun trying to identify all the snippets of previous works, the orchestration is striking, and the emotion obvious, but they fail to move one like the concertos or the earlier instrumental pieces, such as “Isle of the Dead.”  Speaking of which, the dances comes alive in the finale with a ferocious treatment of the Dies Irae. It finishes with a prolonged cymbal clash which may, or may not, portray the soul leaving the body.

I won’t go so far as to say that Meyer made the music sound better than it is, but he and the orchestra gave it the best possible reading.

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

Midcoast Ends Season on a High Note

Midcoast Symphony Orchestra
Franco Center, Lewiston
May 12, 2018
by Christopher Hyde

The young French pianist, Lise de la Salle, impressed audiences of the Midcoast Symphony a while ago with an astonishing performance of the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 3.  Last night at Lewiston’s Franco Center, she showed that she could be equally impressive in a more intimate role, with the Schumann Piano Concerto in A Minor.

One of my first recordings was an LP with the Schumann concerto on one side and the Grieg Piano Concerto in A Minor on the other (could it have been Dinu LIpatti?). I have never lost my affection for either work, the Schumann in particular, which is a strange animal indeed. It makes a real attempt to avoid the heroism of the Romantic concerto, opting instead for its membership in a brotherhood of the culturally elite —the Davidsbundler, whose march is incorporated in the final movement.

There are sections in which the piano not only blends with the orchestra, but actually takes on an accessory role, like a motor that can be heard purring in the background.

The score nevertheless demands a high degree of virtuosity, especially in the exclamatory chords, and rapid passage work, which de la Salle has in abundance. Her playing is both precise—fitting a cascade of notes perfectly into a bar, but emotionally satisfying as well, something I had been concerned about after hearing the Rachmaninoff.

The Midcoast, under Rohan Smith, supported the piano ably, realizing Shumann’s concept of “first among equals.” There was a little tug of war in the beginning between the conductor’s favorite tempo and that of the pianist, but that was soon worked out.

The program began on a less successful note with three dance episodes from Leonard Bernstein’s “On the Town.”  Bernstein’s orchestral arrangements are are difficult in both scoring and rhythm, and one questions whether their performance by an amateur orchestra is worth the effort.

Many of this popular composer’s works have come to seem dated, and this tribute to a Broadway that never was is a case in point.

After the last dance, Smith admonished the large audience not to applaud between movements. In their defense, each of the dances stands on is own, without being part of an un-interruptible whole. And even highly-structured classical works were historically cheered (and sometimes repeated) after each movement.

Smith concluded the program with the best-known symphony that is never heard: Beethoven’s Fifth. It should be programmed more often, so that new generations can understand why it is so famous. It is simply a miracle. Just one of its triumphs is the orchestration, which allowed all sections of the Midcoast their moment in the sun– especially the woodwinds. It was a fitting way to close out the season.

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

Mahler No. 2 a Tribute to Robert Moody

Portland Symphony Orchestra
Merrill Auditorium
May 1, 2018
by Christopher Hyde

The Robert Moody era of the Portland Symphony Orchestra ended with a very loud bang Tuesday night at Merrill Auditorium, when the music director conducted the final work of his 10-year sojourn, a monumental performance of the Mahler Symphony No.. 2 (“Resurrection”).

A full orchestra, with major additions on and off stage, two operatic sopranos, and the ChoralArt Masterworks chorus, were at Moody’s disposal, and he made the most of them. The percussion section had a field day, producing a decibel level heard before only in the engine room of a diesel submarine. Three sets of timpani, one offstage? I was surprised that Moody didn’t throw in a few bass notes from the Kotzschmar organ.

The capacity audience loved it, erupting in a lively standing ovation, with cheers, after an emotionally grueling 90-minutes (with one short interruption). In the orchestra there were hugs all around and an unusual bouquet for the maestro.

In a survey of 150 conductors of major orchestras, the Mahler No. 2 was in the top three of favorites. It is easy to see why. The symphony has something for everyone, from massed brasses and trumpets to rival the angel Gabriel to nursery rhymes, from harps to hautboys, from clarinets to contrabassoons.

In addition to bad poetry after Klopstock, Mahler wrote his own program notes, useful in trying to know what is going on. Before Pulitzer-Winning hip-hop, how did a composer describe the meaninglessness of life?

“The first movement represents a funeral and asks questions such as “Is there life after death?”; the second movement is a remembrance of happy times in the life of the deceased; the third movement represents a view of life as meaningless activity; the fourth movement is a wish for release from life without meaning ; and the fifth movement – after a return of the doubts of the third movement and the questions of the first – ends with a fervent hope for everlasting, transcendent renewal.”

The orchestra was in top form and enthusiastic;  the Masterworks Chorus, under Robert Russell, gave one of its best performances, with plenty of bass, and the soloists, soprano Twyla Robinson and mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Bishop, were outstanding, both in their depiction of the emotions desired by the composer and in their ability to soar above a tremendous orchestra.

The contrast and variety Moody was able to coax from the vast ensemble were little short of miraculous. Finally, the choral sections, as the composer intended, were like cool water after a day in the desert. There were live effects could never be duplicated on a recording.

So why didn’t the symphony become a religious experience, as it is for many? Too much going on? Too long? The composer’s conceit about the value of his suffering? Supertitles in English? (Like the Catholic mass in Latin, the poetry works best in German.) Perhaps most off-putting was overdramatized emotion, tearing a passion to tatters. Mahler’s most effective expressions are ironic or gentle reminders of weltschmerz. Speak softly and you won’t have to carry a big stick.

All in all, however, the symphony was a marvelously performed tribute and a grand farewell to a friend.

“Girl in Six Beats” Appeals to Younger Audience

“Girl in Six Beats”
Portland High School Auditorium
April 30, 2018
by Christopher Hyde

The short opera, “Girl in Six Beats,” which was given a special performance for students at Portland High School on Monday, is a new take on an age-old story: the descent into Hades. Indeed, it goes even further back, with a shaman entering the spirit world to bring back advice to the tribe.

A project of OperaMaine, the libretto was written by high school students Emelia Bailey, Ella Briman, Makena Deveraux, Myah Garrison, Emily Greene, Zoe Sliwinski and Kaspar Wilder during a five-day workshop at “The Telling Room” in Portland.

The libretto was then turned over to Daniel Sonenberg, of “The Summer King” fame, to compose an operatic score. He used all of the students’ writing verbatim, except for some minor cuts.

The story begins with a monolog by the girl’s mother, sung by Christie Paul, in which she regrets not paying enough attention to her own daughter, while  working,ironically, with disturbed children.

The girl, sung by Rachel Shukan, finds herself, after a suicide attempt, in a limbo peopled by Oblivion, Nicole Ponti, Reincarnation, Miles Obrey, and Slushie Guy, David Myers.  Slushy is dressed in aging hippie style and caries a large blue cup with an oversize straw, with which he makes occasional nasty noises.

While Obie and Ray argue about the disposition of the girl’s soul, Slushie steals the show with a humorous depiction of his wasted life —“a million mistakes”— and how he came to be in limbo perpetuo by choosing not to choose. That implants in the girl the idea of of making up her own mind, and she decides to reconcile with her mother, awakening in a fine duet with the latter at a hospital bedside.

Sonenberg’s music fits the tale quite well, although much of it is necessarily recitative. He is best in duets between Obie and Ray, and mother and daughter, with carefully constructed sequences of intervals, some dissonant and some not, but all flowing forward.. He claims to have received his inspiration primarily from the teenaged authors, but also from “Twin Peaks.” The final aria sounds more like Orpheus charming the underworld.

The opera is scored for piano, played by music director Scott Wheatley, and a chorus of three men and three women, who also play small percussion instruments, effective in creating the appropriate atmosphere.

The production was directed by Ellen Chickering, with stage management by Keeghan Perry.

The high-school audience seemed to like the opera, which may become a hit because of is relevance to the problem of teen-age suicide. In a question and answer session after the performance, the authors seemed to disagree about whether the libretto was indeed about that subject or what is nowadays called lack of communication. The treasure the girl brings back from the underworld is her own voice, as an equal of her mothers’.

Some take-homes for the authors (which they probably know already): Characters take on a life of their own. The need for an “objective correlative,” such as Slushies’ king-size container and straw. Address large themes, such as death and transfiguration, through small details. (See “Waiting for Godot.”) Keep it simple; the audience has to understand sung words, a very difficult task without supertitles. A camel is a horse designed by a committee, but in this case a collaborative exercise paid off.

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