First Festival Friday at Bowdoin

Bowdoin International Music Festival
Studzinski Hall
June 29, 2018
by Christopher Hyde

The first of what used to be called “Festival Fridays” at the Bowdoin International Music Festival, took place June 29 in Studzinski Hall rather than the larger Crooker Theater, where they had been performed for many years. The change of venue, and the addition of reserved seats, seems a step forward, in terms of both acoustics and ambience. The stage is not large enough for the festival orchestra, whose programs will continue to be held at Crooker.

The evening began with a work by Ravi Shankar, which inspired a devout wish that he had written more for flute and harp, such as “L’Aube Enchantée sur le Raga ‘Todi,’” than for the Sitar. One can only imagine the difficulties of producing raga-like pitch relations on a pedal harp, let alone the intricate meters of the music, but harpist June Han managed it with surpassing ease. (Her gilded harp was a work of art in itself.)

The “melody” of the work, written for flutist Jean-Pierre Rampal, was carried with bravura by Laura del Sol Jiménez, whom we heard most recently in the outstanding Bach Virtuosi Festival performance of the Brandenburg Concerto No. 4.

Almost as unusual in its own way was the Violin Sonata in B Minor of Ottorino Respighi (1879-1936), played by sisters Almita Vamos, violin and Eugenia Monacelli, piano. While looking back to the late Romantic era, the sonata also combines Respighi’s fascination with the Baroque and his skill at painting tone poems, such as “The Pines of Rome.”

What made this reading special—causing cheers from a large audience of students—was the singular rapport of the musicians, who seemed able to respond to each other’s most intimate thoughts. H.L. Mencken used to proclaim that the most important characteristic of a great musician, such as Brahms, was brains. Intellectual ability, as well as musicality, marked both the work and its performance.

The evening ended with a magical performance of the Brahms Piano Trio No. 3 in C Minor, Op. 101, by David Bowlin, violin, Amir Eldan, cello and Pei-Shan Lee, piano. The work has everything that makes Brahms special, plus brevity. After hearing the ensemble in the low to mid registers, I would not have cared if Brahms never penned another treble note.

Next Friday’s concert will take place at Crooker, Theater, where the Festival Orchestra, under Angel Gil-Ordóñez, will play Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme, Op. 33,  with Narek Hakhnazaryan, cello.

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

Handel and Bach Close Virtuosi Festival

Bach Virtuosi Festival
Cathedral Church of St. Luke
June 24, 2018
by Christopher Hyde

The Bach Virtuosi Festival, which ended its third season Sunday night at the Cathedral Church of St. Luke, has a way of changing one’s mind about Baroque compositions as a whole, not only those of J.S. Bach.

I was never enthusiastic about Handel operas, but the arias performed by soprano Sherezade Panthaki, countertenor Jay Carter, and trumpeter John Thiessen, were absolutely ravishing.

Handel works a text to death, crams it with fiendishly difficult ornamentation, and the result is a trip to heaven. If performance is all, I had never heard these works before. The combination of a great soprano and an equally fine countertenor provides some amazing effects, indescribable in words, while Panthaki’s voice imitates and surpasses “uplifted angel trumpets” in an aria from “Samson.”

Old J.S., who never met his contemporary, in spite of several attempts, was not to be outdone, however. The Brandenburg concertos are all equally works of genius, but some are more equal than others. Numbers 2 and 5 used to be my favorites, but after hearing the fourth, with flautists Emi Ferguson and Laura del Sol Jimenez and violinist Renee Jolles, supported by the festival’s outstanding chamber orchestra, I’m no longer sure. If Portland’s virtuosi festivals continue, we will come to love all of them to the same degree. or maybe, “if I’m not near the girl I love, I love the girl I’m near.”

The revelations never stopped. Organist Katelyn Emerson, from Maine and now a native of the world, provided a stupendous performance of the Bach Toccata and Fugue in D Minor (BWV 565), that brought a large audience leaping to its collective feet. In her hands, the Skinner organ of St. Luke’s is indeed a phenomenon. It seemed, which is impossible, to have the physical volume control of a pianoforte, the ability to alter stops instantly in call-and response passages, and voices reserved for J. S. Bach alone.

The articulation of its cascades of notes was as crisp as that of a Steinway grand. “The difficult we do immediately, the impossible takes a little longer.”

A pair of Rob Regier’s harpsichords from his Freeport studio took center stage with Arthur Haas and Gabriel Shuford in a performance of the Bach Double Harpsichord Concerto in C Minor (BWV 1069).

This is one instance where the cliché about Bach’s music being for intimate venues applies to some extent. Regier’s harpsichords are not only beautiful, but powerful, yet their sound faded the farther back in the pews one sat. Perhaps harpsichord, or clavier, solos should be presented in the smaller chapel of St. Luke’s. The performance of the concerto itself, one of my favorites, was up to the festival’s standards of excellence (and infectious excitement). Distance only made one listen more closely.

When I was working for ad agencies I would visit New York weekly, with some light excuse, to hear music or go to the ballet. I never heard anything as good as what Lewis Kaplan has brought to Portland.  Let us all hope that it continues.

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

Bach Virtuosi

Bach Virtuosi Festival
Cathedral Church of St.Luke
June 19, 2018
by Christopher Hyde

Olivier Messiaen, whose “Quartet for the End of Time” will grace the Bowdoin International Music Festival next month, once proclaimed that the birds, whom he thought of as angels, were the consummate musicians of the world. He had not heard flautist Emi Ferguson imitate a Goldfinch in Vivaldi’s work of the same name, (Opus 10, No. 3 in D Major), and then go on to out-do the original.

Ferguson, who played Tuesday night at St. Luke’s Cathedral, is just one of the noted Bach specialists brought to Portland by Lewis Kaplan under the auspices of the Bach Virtuosi Festival, formerly known as the Portland Bach Festival, which burst upon the world in 2016.

This concert, the second of the series (June 17-24), was devoted to composers who influenced Bach, and others who were deeply influenced by him. (I use the word “deeply” because virtually every classical musician has been influenced by J.S. Bach in one way or another.

The program opened with a Trio Sonata (Opus 2, No. 5 in A Major), by Dietrich Buxtehude, whom Bach once walked 100 miles to hear, losing his job in the process. The Trio was as much fun as the Vivaldi, a sparkling delight which could have been written by the master himself in one of his lighter moods.

It was rendered with perfect balance and delineation of parts by Ariadne Daskalakis, violin, Beiliang Zhu, cello and Arthur Haas, harpsichord.

Noted Maine pianist Henry Kramer made his debut at the festival by comparing and contrasting the Bach Prelude and Fugue in E-flat Minor (BWV 853), with one in B-flat Major (No. 21) by Dimitri Shostakovich, who wrote his own set of 24, in imitation of Bach’s “Well-Tempered Clavier.”

I thought that Kramer might have chosen two pair in the same key. Instead he contrasted one of Bach’s foremost exercises in long-limbed Baroque counterpoint, with the most virtuosic of the Shostakovich set. For those who love the Russian, it was a dead heat, with Kramer offering equally fine interpretations of each.

Festival founder Lewis Kaplan appeared in the “Tempo di ciaccone,” from Bela Bartok’s Sonata for Solo Violin, heavily influenced by Bach’s Chaconne from the Partita No. 2 in D Minor (BWV 1004), but much more somber. It is perhaps even more difficult to play than its predecessor, and so densely constructed that it would take several hearings to appreciate fully. We don’t have a Brahms or Busoni to make a valid piano transcription.

A “Meditation über den Bach Choral ‘Vor Deinin Thron Tret’ich hiermit,’” by contemporary Russian composer Sofia Gubaidulina (b. 1931), came as a complete revelation, vividly depicting the appearance of J.S. Bach before the Throne of God. Bach has the last word,  as chords based on his name, played on the harpsichord, end the work. And what a work it is, emerging from a fog of mystery, with strange sounds from violins, cello, bass and harpsichord, to eventually coalesce into a variation on the chorale played (loudly) by the bass, in an amazing performance by Kurt Muroki, and eventually into the full chorale in all its sonority. A true masterpiece, and enthralling throughout.

The program concluded with the reappearance of Kramer, with Renee Jolles and Yibin Li. violin, Karina Schmitz, viola, and Paul Dwyer, cello, in the Schumann Piano Quintet in E-flat Major, Opus 44. The final fugue. revealing the composer’s study of Bach, is, to me, the most interesting part of the quintet, like the similar effort by Schubert in the “Wanderer” Fantasy.

For a quintet that has not played before, the ensemble was exemplary, and better than that, exciting. Its last performance in Portland was pedestrian, leading one to wonder if a group of five musicians, rehearsing this work for the first time, might not do better than a string quartet, set in its ways, with an “outside” pianist. Just a thought, but what can easily become a piano concerto, showed an excellent balance of forces.
The next concert of the Festival will be on Thursday, June 21, an all-Bach program of vocal and instrumental music at Etz Chaim Synagogue.

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

Bach His Way

Bach His Way

by Christopher Hyde

In June of 2016, Lewis Kaplan, co-founder of the Bowdoin International Music Festival, launched a new enterprise in Portland that came as a revelation to many—the Portland Bach Festival, now known as the Bach Virtuosi Festival (June 17-24).

If, as I believe, performance is all, the festival dispelled any notion that J.S. Bach, arguably the finest musician who ever lived, was staid, or God-forbid, as boring as Hector Berlioz thought he was.

All of the performers, and a chamber orchestra, reminded me of Wanda Landowska’s aphorism: “You play Bach your way, and I’ll play him his way.” In many instances, during both the 2016 and 2017 season, it was as if the audience was hearing a familiar work for the first time. The reason, of course, was that Kaplan, a long-term professor of violin at Juilliard and an authority on Bach, was able to draw together some of the world’s foremost Bach interpreters, who also got along famously—in ensemble playing egging each other on until one began to believe that the court of Frederick the Great had come to the Age of Jazz.

This year’s Festival will include most of the original musicians, and expand its scope somewhat, to include composers deeply influenced by Bach, such as Bartok and Shostakovich (“Before Bach and Beyond,” June 19 at St. Luke’s Cathedral) and those who influenced him, such as Vivaldi and Buxtehude.

The final concert, June 24 at St. Luke’s will also include works by another giant, George Frederic Handel, plus another of my favorite Brandenburg Concertos, No. 4

The June 19 program will mark the first appearance of noted Maine pianist Henry Kramer, who will play a prelude and fugue from “The Well Tempered Clavier,” compared to a similar work by Dmitri Shosakovich. He will also appear in the Schumann Piano Quintet in E-flat Major, Opus 44, influenced by the Romanic composer’s study of Bach.

The program at Etz Chaim Synagogue, on June 21, will feature two sonatas, for violin and for flute, with Arthur Haas at the harpsichord, plus two contatas, “Vernugte Ruh, BWV 170, and “Weichet nur, betruebte Schatten, BWV 202. It will be followed by a panel discussion on “Music and Religion between Haas, professor of Harpsichord and Early Music at SUNY Stonybrook, the Rev. Cannon Frank M. Harron II, former Executive Director of Program and Ministry at the National Cathedral, and Gary S. Berenson, Rabbi, Etz Chaim Synagogue.

Two new venues this year will include a free concert at Falmouth Congregational Church on June 23 to support the Falmouth Food Pantry, and an evening celebration of Bach and Bacchus at the Cumberland Club on June 22.

Detailed descriptions of each program are available at www.bachvirtuosofestival.org/proram. Tickets are available through PortTIX.

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

Pianist Excels in Final Concert of Franco Center Series

Jonathan Bass, Pianist
Franco Center, Lewiston
June 1, 2018
by Christopher Hyde

The final concert of the 2017-18 Piano Series, June 1 at Lewiston’s Franco Center, ended on a low note— “D” three octaves below Middle “C,” to be exact.

Sorry, I always wanted to write that, now that I don’t have to worry about an editor or headline composer.

The concert did end on the lowest note of Chopin’s Prelude 24, Opus 28, but Jonathan Bass, Professor of Piano at Boston Conservatory at Berklee, had just played a concert that exemplified everything that was best about the series—which deserves to be better known throughout Maine.

Bass is everything a pianist should be, encompassing technical brilliance without showiness, musical and emotional depth, careful thought and an architectural sense of structure. He has a huge dynamic range, and what impressed me most about his performance was his extremely delicate and controlled pianissimo, probably the hardest thing to do well on the piano. After his interpretation of Debussy’s “L’isle joyeuse,“ I would dearly love to hear his “Serenade for the Doll.”

The Debussy was preceded by a little known Nocturne No. 6 in D-flat Major, Op. 63, of Gabriel Fauré, a sonata-like work with abundant pianistic filagree,  that established an historical context for the more Impressionist piece. The coloring of both was superb.

Bass is no slouch in conveying drama, either, as evidenced by the Beethoven Sonata No. 26 in E-flat Major, Op. 81a, with its three movements entitled “Farewell,” “Absence” and “Return.” The final “very lively” section was Beethoven at his wildest, with crashing sforzandos, violent but joyous contrasts and virtuoso passagework. It also had more false cadences than the Gobi Desert has mirages. The small but enlightened audience didn’t bite on a single one.

After intermission, with its traditional wine, crepes and tortieres, everything came together with a rare performance of all  24 Chopin Preludes of Opus 28. in numerical order. Andre Gide called these Chopin’s “eagle feathers” and Bass pointed out that if the composer had written nothing else, the Preludes would have made him world-famous anyway.

The Preludes run the gamut of emotions from Beethoven-esque violence, through rain in Majorca, to a wistful and short waltz, and the world’s most somber funeral march. I had virtually no quarrel with any of Bass’ readings. In fact, a recording of the set could serve as a model for aspiring pianists.

I did think that the difficult No. 8 was a bit fast, but I’d like to be able to play it at that tempo, then slow down if necessary, instead of vice versa.

After that astonishing performance, there was no need for an encore.

A friend in the audience, who agrees with my prejudice against encores, especially after soul-wrenching concertos, had a brilliant suggestion. Why not play the encore first? A bit of technically demanding fluff would warm up the soloist and show his or her ability to play the most difficult cadenzas of the premiere work on the program. The audience would not have to worry about whether the soprano could hit high C and they could go home whistling themes from the concerto.  Just a suggestion…

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