Grief and Glory at Salt Bay Chamberfest

Salt Bay Chamberfest
Darrows Barn, Damariscotta
Aug. 14, 2018
by Christopher Hyde

There are many fine classical music festivals in Maine during the summer, but if I had to choose just one, it would be the Salt Bay Chamberfest at Darrows Barn (in what used to be the Round Top Center for the Arts) in Damariscotta.

Founded by cellist Wilhelmina Smith 24 years ago, it always manages to present unusual programs performed by leading artists, in a hall with excellent acoustics.

Tuesday night’s program by the Brentano String Quartet was no exception, although it strayed from the theme of this year’s festival, which was “Troubadours and Tangos,” featuring the guitar and its ancestors.

The theme of the firs half was musical lamentations, which has a tenuous relationship with troubadours in that professional mourners, including musicians, were often hired to express a family’s grief at the loss of a loved one. The earliest examples consisted of two strangely chromatic pieces from 1611 by Carlo Gesualdo (1566-1613). They may have been prompted by remorse, but one doubts it. Gesualdo is best known for killing his wife and her lover and then displaying their bodies as an example of what happens to adulterers.

Probably the most famous example in music is Purcell’s “Dido’s Lament” from “Dido and Aeneas” (1689) which opened the program in a sensitive arrangement for string quartet.

Haydn made it into the category with two of the movements from “Seven Last Words of Christ “(Op. 51) of 1787. It is fascinating to hear how a genius injects musical interest and psychological depth into what could be merely mournful. Just one example is the repeated five-note phrase based on the words “consummatum est” from the final movement. It eventually becomes triumphant.

Shostakovich introduces a note of eroticism to the form in his Elegy (1931), based on a soliloquy from his banned opera “Lady MacBeth of Mtsensk,” in which the heroine laments that she will have no more lovers.

The exploration of grief ended with a work by an obscure French composer, Guillaume Lekeu (1870-1894), a Molto Adagio, written when he was 17, that shows considerably more than promise. Lekeu died of Typhoid Fever at the age of 24.

After intermission, the quartet was joined by pianist Thomas Sauer for the Piano Quintet in F Minor (1879) of César Franck. One could not have devised a greater contrast with what had gone before. The quartet is grand, passionate, sweeping, a little mysterious, and very knobby.

It was played brilliantly throughout, but by the final movement—a grande valse that must have influenced Ravel—there was no doubt who was in charge. There is a strange coda-less ending that may have had something to do with the fact that Franck and Camille St.Saëns, who premiered the work as a pianist, were both in love with student Augusta Holmes. Anyway, St. Saëns is said to have thrown the score into the trash, I wonder what he saw in the notes?

The Darrows Barn audience liked the piece much more than did St. Saens and gave it a well-deserved standing ovation.

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

Guilty Pleasures

Bowdoin International Music Festival
Studzinski Recital Hall
Aug. 1, 2018
by Christopher Hyde

Composer Paul Schoenfield (b. 1947) wonders if his “Café Music,” (1985) played Wednesday night at Bowdoin’s Studzinski Recital Hall, rises to the level of classical music that might be performed on its own, rather than as background in Murray’s Restaurant.

The answer, according to Janet Sung, violin, Ahrim Kim, cello and Tao Lin, piano, is a resounding yes. In fact, were it to be played at Murray’s, it would harsh everyone’s mellow. and render conversation impossible.

The three-movement work is a pastiche of cocktail lounge standards, pushed to their limits and well beyond. It is art, the way Roy Lichtenstein’s Ben Day paintings are art, deconstructing works everyone knows and re-assembling them with fresh meanings. The result, in Café Music, is pure excitement, and a sense of wonder that the transformations can be played at all. There is even sustained melody, as the strings imitate singers in the “andante.”

A vastly entertaining mix of guilty pleasures, but pleasures nevertheless.

“Café Music,” as is customary in concert programming, was sandwiched between two better-known classics—the opening Debussy Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp, and Richard Strauss’ late “Metamorphosen” as it was originally written for string septet.

The Debussy, played by Julie Nah Kyung Lee, flute, Kirsten Docter, viola, and June Han, harp, made one wish that he had been able to complete the proposed set of six, based on ancient French forms, with various, sometimes unusual, combinations of instruments.

The flute-harp-viola combination seems somehow feminine, harking back to “Sirenes” but with greater delicacy. The harp, under Han’s fingers, was the first among equals, often taking the lead.  She sometimes over-did the muting, when one hoped for a bit more resonance behind the strings.

The “Metamorphosen” works better as a septet (two cellos, violins and violas, one double bass) than the more familiar version for string orchestra. The texture of interwoven voices is so dense that it is hard to follow even with the smaller number of players.

When it is done right, as it was on Wednesday night, the result is a tightly woven tapestry of gold, silver and crimson threads stretching all the way back to some of the composer’s most notable works—and to Beethoven. As if the characteristic sound did not identify the composer beyond a doubt, the help-mate violin from “Ein Heldenleben” also makes a cameo appearance, complementing the deep bass of the introduction and finale.

The highly intense performance drew a prolonged standing ovation from Bowdoin Festival students, faculty and subscribers.

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