Opera Maine “Marriage of Figaro” Will Surprise

Opera Maine “Marriage of Figaro”

Mozart at his most mischievous is a good characterization of “The Marriage of Figaro,” to be presented July 25 and 27 by Opera Maine at Merrill Auditorium.

The composer must have jumped at the chance to paint musical portraits of a count and countess, the cunning barber (of Seville), a horny teenager (himself?) a silly girl, a conniving doctor and an unconventional young woman, all wrapped up in a bawdy tale that had to be cleaned up a little to pass the Viennese censors. (The libretto is based on a popular play by Beaumarchais, adapted by Lorenzo DaPonte.)

The combination of aristocracy, romance, humor and great music has made The Marriage of Figaro” one of the ten most popular operas of all time.

Opera Maine artistic director Dona D. Vaughn finds it relevant in the “me too,” age, when men still use wealth and authority in an attempt to control women like Susanna (Figaro’s bride to be). “You often hear ‘I was afraid to speak up,’ but Susanna isn’t afraid at all.” She outfoxes Count Almaviva, who is trying to cheat on the Countess and assert his droit de seigneur before the wedding.

Vaughn likens the play to an Alice-in-Wonderland world, where anything can happen. It makes it possible for the music to range from heart-breaking to farcical without missing a beat.

“When we scheduled the opera (for the second time in 17 years), I thought ‘What have I done?’ but every time you produce it you find something different. Several of the cast and our conductor, Stephen Lord, have done it before, and everyone has an idea of how it should go. The result is a collaborative effort, and something new.

As usual, Vaughn has some surprises in store. They are not in the role of Susanna—she has portrayed strong women before—but in the setting. Originally staged in Count Almaviva’s palace not far from Seville, in the18th Century, the Marriage will take place in a lavish country manor, in a different country, around 1900, when class distinctions were more evident, and all sorts of eccentricities were tolerated: “You can do anything you like here, just don’t do it in the yard and scare the horses.”

Props lent by the Victoria Mansion will provide period authenticity.

Vaughn is enthusiastic about this year’s cast, which includes several who have sung at the Metropolitan Opera and other world-famous venues, plus others who are on the cusp of major careers.

Keith Phares will perform the role of Count Almaviva and soprano Danielle Pastin is the Countess. Returning to perform with Opera Maine are tenor Robert Brubaker as Basilio, baritone Robert Mellon as Figaro, and soprano Maeve Höglund as Susanna. Mezzo-soprano Hongni Wu joins the cast having just won the Metropolitan Council Auditions. Also featured are soprano MaryAnn McCormick as Marcellina, and bass Kevin Glavin as Bartolo.

The opera will be sung in Italian, with supertitles in English.

In another current production by Opera Maine, mezzo-soprano Raehann Bryce-Davis leads the cast of Jake Heggie’s “Three Decembers,” which also features Studio Artists soprano Symone Harcum, and tenor Yazid Gray. This opera was composed in 2008 with librettist Gene Scheer. Set in the Decembers of 1986, 1996, and 2006, the 90-minute opera tells the story of a famous stage actress, Madeline Mitchell, and her two adult children, Beatrice and Charlie, as they struggle to know and love one another.

“Three Decembers” can be heard Friday, July 13 at Deertrees Theater, Harrison; Sunday, July 15 at The Temple, Ocean Park; and Monday, July 16, at Camden Opera House.

A Definitive “Quartet for the End of Time” at BIMF

Bowdoin International Music Festival
Studzinski Recital Hall
July 11, 2018
by Christopher Hyde

Olivier Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time” is not generally considered a vehicle for virtuoso display, but its sublime beauty can be revealed only by those with extraordinary musical ability.
Such was the case Wednesday night at Studzinski Recital Hall, when Amir Eldan, cello, Derek Bermel, clarinet, Pei-Shan Lee, piano, and Ayano Ninomiya, violin, gave a definitive reading of this seminal work.

The players are faculty members of the Bowdoin International Music Festival, taking place now through the beginning August, but they might have been playing the quartet together for years, judging by the ensemble supporting three outstanding solo performances.
Lee held it all together and assisted as ably as the composer directing from the piano.

I never tire of hearing this work, which is said to have had a lifelong effect on those who first heard it performed in a German prison camp. Too often, however, it is played as a curiosity, as a memorial to the victims of World War II, or even as evidence of Messiaen’s quaint beliefs. It stands alone, without historical trappings, as a musical masterpiece, and so it was treated on Wednesday night

It began characteristically with nightingale and blackbird opening the “Liturgie de crystal” for the full quartet, followed by a “Vocalize, pour l’Ange qui announce la fin due Temps.”

The first of the major solos is by the clarinet, played very slowly, with huge fermatas and sustained notes that test the lungs of any performer. It is called “Abîme des oiseaux.” The abyss is time, in all its sadness, according to the composer, while the birds, also imitated by the clarinet, represent freedom and joy. Bermel painted the picture perfectly, testing the limits of his instrument.

After a brief interlude without piano, it was the turn of the cello, also playing very slowly and “ecstatically,” in the “Louange (praise) à l’Éternité de Jésus.” The melody, often repeated, evokes Genesis: “In the beginning was the Word, and Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

The most rhythmic, verging on jazzy, movement is the “Danse de la fureur, pour les sept trumpets.” announcing the apocalypse. It is also more terrifying than any other composer’s Dies Irae, and includes some impossibly loud tutti, which must have reached the far rows of its original 5000-man audience.

The “rainbow tangles” of the seventh movement give the composer a chance to play with his favorite blue-orange chords, during which Lee brought out some striking inner voices

In the final movement, “Louange à L’Immortalité de Jésus,” the violin speaks, like the cello before it, but this time of Christ’s life on earth—a long limbed melody that dies away into the almost imperceptible reaches of the upper register. The large audience, which included many festival students, stayed entranced for several moments before giving it a loud standing ovation.

The gods, which do not permit human perfection, smuggled in cellphones, not once but twice during this solo, the first a piano ringtone and the second a beep. Please people, I beg of you, leave that electronic junk at home. You can never be sure that it is silenced.

The Quartet obscured a lively and brilliant rendition of a work never intended to be profound, the Hayden Piano Trio in C Major (Hob. XV:27), played by Julian Martin, piano, Robin Scott, violin, and Julia Lichten, cello. Thanks to Martin for pointing out the Janissary Band references, which predate Mozart’s famous Turkish March.

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

Noise Into Music, from Sō Percussion

Bowdoin International Music Festival
Sō Percussion
Studzinski Recital Hall
July 8, 2018
by Christopher Hyde

The name Sō comes from a Japanese character meaning, (among other definitions) “to play music.” Within it is another character, the exact image of a person offering a gift, meaning “to present with both hands.”

Both are suitable for the eminent four-man percussion group Sō (pronounced “so”), which combines musical performance with education and philanthropy. The performance aspect can be both intimate and spectacular, as evidenced by Sō’s appearance at Studzinski Recital Hall for one of the new Sunday matinees presented by the Bowdoin International Music Festival.

The first work on the program, “Torque” (2018), is described by composer Vijay Iyer, as follows: “Torque, a twisting force on a body, seems to appear for the listener at music’s formal boundaries, when one movement  gives way to another. This piece for Sō Percussion invites them to perform transformations that twist the music’s temporal flow, bringing the micro-relational art of the rhythm section to this virtuosic quartet.”

I call it “too many marimbas.”

The marimba, Vibraphone and its xylophone-like cousins attempt to combine percussion and melody, something the piano does already, and much better. Because it lacks clang, a little soothing marimba music, no matter how well played —and these are masters of the first order— goes a long way.

The next piece, “Taxidermy” (2012), by Caroline Shaw, returned Sō to one of its original specialties, drumming on found objects, in this case tuned flowerpots. The result is grand, awkward, epic, silent, funny and just a bit creepy, (like its title), according to Shaw. It exemplifies a line from T.S. Eliot, repeated rhythmically during the performance: “the detail of the pattern is movement.”

I found it more interesting and imaginative than the opener, with an eerie bell-like effect generated by combining the pot notes with deep bass voices. Fermatas, long periods of silence, became an integral part of the music

“Broken Unison” (2017) by Donnacha Dennehy, was another marimba piece defined by pedantic and incomprehensible program notes, but with more interesting percussion effects, such as the use of a muted bass drum. It “disrupts unisons,” by various means, including the use of canons (think “row, row, row your boat”) created on four xylophones ad infinitum. Its chromaticism is said to have been influenced by that of Gesualdo (1566-1613) a composer best known for killing his wife and her lover.

It was after intermission that Sō was revealed in all its glory, with “Amid the Noise” (2006) by Jason Treuting, a member of the ensemble.

Seven vignettes of street sounds somehow transformed themselves into music, with the help of festival students on piano, violin, saxophone, cello and percussion. The transformations were so profound and inevitable that they became emotionally moving.

There were too many wonderful scenes to recount here. Four on a drum, like Native Americans, revealed Sō’s virtuosity with polyrhythms. I think they could play 13 against 17 beats without breaking a sweat. A session at the piano, keyboard, sounding board and strings, punctuated by real clanging tonic chords, revealed it to be the ultimate percussion instrument that Bartok thought it was. A noise-making machine that looked like a briefcase created a thunderstorm, punctuated by one of those little bells one uses to call a salesperson.

“You had to have been there.” Sō has a website, and the BIMF concert was live-streamed, but there is no substitute for the real thing. The Sunday-afternoon audience, which had itself participated in the show, gave it a prolonged standing ovation.

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

Festival Fireworks

Bowdoin International Music Festival
Studzinski Recital Hall
July 4, 2018
by Christopher Hyde

Due to the July 4 holiday, a smaller crowd than usual heard some fireworks of their own at Wednesday’s concert of the Bowdoin International Music Festival at Studzinski Hall. The display took the typical “sandwich” form, with a contemporary work, John Harbison’s (b. 1936) Sonata No. 1 for Violin and Piano, between two popular classics.

The program began with the Mozart Violin Sonata No. 32 in B-flat Major (K.454), with the viola, played by Masumi Per Rostad, substituting for the violin. The piano part, played by Chiao-Wen Chang, often dominated the performance. Whether this was due to Mozart’s wanting to show off his skills in front of a visiting virtuoso, or to differences in the sound and articulation of the stringed instruments, is unclear. One listener likened it to a waltz between a dolphin and a manatee.

The viola came off best in the song-like Andante, but there were a few fireworks in the final Allegretto, with some rapid-fire exchanges that would have been difficult enough on the violin.

The Harbison, played by Ayano Ninomiya, violin, and Tao Lin, piano, contained aerial bombs in the form of a brutalist (and virtuoso) ostinato of rapid-fire chords in the Rondo, the fourth and semi-concluding movement, since the sonata tapers off in a final “Mysterious Postscript.”

The  five-movement work begins with an intense and uncompromising Sinfonia, but loosens up substantially as it goes along. The second movement, Intermezzo: Grazioso, has a pleasant conversation in stacatto utterances between the violin and piano.

The piece de resistance, however, was the great Piano Trio in A Minor of Maurice Ravel, which contains everything but the kitchen sink, as if the composer suspected that he would die in the Great War, which he almost did. There are echoes of “La Valse,” ghosts from “Tombeau de Couperin,” Basque themes and Malaysian music,al forms, which influenced both Ravel and Debussy. Somehow, it all comes together gloriously

Like the Mozart sonata, the trio generally leans toward the piano part, but Alan Chow kept it under control, even in the virtuosic Pantoum; Assez Vif, (and in spite of a wolfish bass string in the Steinway. ) He was partnered brilliantly by David Bowlin, violin and Ahrim Kim, cello. A complete fireworks display from set pieces  through pinwheels to multiple rocket bursts. The students in the audience cheered and the rest gave it a rare standing ovation.

Coming up next Wednesday is the sui generis “Quartet for the End of Time” by Olivier Messiaen.

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