Early Music Festival Enlightens and Entertains

Early Music Festival
Portland Conservatory of Music
Oct. 28, 2018
by Christopher Hyde

The final concert of the 7th Annual Early Music Festival at the Portland Conservatory of Music, Sunday afternoon at the Woodfords Congregational Church, was devoted to Chamber Trios of the 18th and 19th Centuries, performed by Lydia Forbes, violin, Myles Jordan, violoncello piccolo, and Timothy Burris, the festival’s founder,  on lute and guitar.

The festival is always a combination of education and entertainment. The revelation in this case was the popularity of small chamber ensembles in the 19th century, centered around the guitar. Everyone is familiar with the piano transcriptions of operas and orchestral music that brought the latest compositions into middle-class parlors, but there was an equally flourishing market for  guitar-based works.

A strange example was the Grand Trio Extract de Mozart of Pierre Jean Porro (1750-1831). It consisted of an arrangement of the trio and minuetto from the Mozart Violin Sonata No. 21 in E Minor, K. 304.

The transcription, for guitar, violin and cello, was innovative and charming, but why not just play the original? The answer seems to have been portability. Porro was a military type, retiring with the rank of lieutenant colonel, and it is unlikely that he took a piano with him into the field. Also, pianos were not quite as ubiquitous (and cheap) as they later became, and many households were without one, whereas a guitar could be found almost anywhere. (La plus change…?)

Of course transcriptions were not the only musical forms available to a guitar-based trio, and some delightful examples were offered, by Antonio Vivaldi and Francois de Fossa (1775-1849). The lute part of the Vivaldi Trio in G Minor, (RV85) was particularly striking, with an uncanny ability to imitate even the brass sections of an orchestra. And loud. It made me think of another instrument not usually associated with trumpet calls: “The wedding guest here beat his breast for he heard the loud bassoon.” (“The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner.”)

Burris, on guitar, played a delicate but lively suite from an earlier era: three dances rom “Livre de Pieces Pour la Guittarre dedié au Roy,” by Robert de Visée, (ca 1655-1732.)

The program began and ended with J.S.Bach. Forbes and Jordan opened with four two-part canons from “The Art of the Fugue,” —well-played, profound and, as Jordan pointed out, “not at all flashy.” I sometimes wonder if Bach’s magnum opus, which he was working on until his death in 1750, was intended for public performance at all.

My opinion was bolstered by the final work on the program, the Bach Sonata in G (BWV 1021), which was everything the cannons were not—short, concise, brilliant and obviously written to entertain, something old Johann knew how to do very well.

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

An Outstanding Symphonie Fantastique by the Midcoast

Midcoast Symphony Orchestra
Franco Center, Lewiston
Oct. 20, 2018
by Christopher Hyde

Hector Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique is one of the longest and most difficult works in the orchestral repertoire, and also one of the most exciting. Last night’s performance by the Midcoast Symphony Orchestra under Rohan Smith, was one of the best I have heard, and more dramatic than most.

The performance will be repeated this afternoon at the Orion Center for the Performing Arts in Topsham, and should not be missed. Live performances are few and far between, due to lack of resources, and the piece probably will not be scheduled next time you visit New York or Vienna, if you want to hear a comparable rendition.

Smith went for broke in evoking contrasts between movements and within them, reflecting the mercurial Romantic moods of the composer. He unified the structure by emphasis on the recurring “beloved” theme. The glorious waltz of the second movement, for example, almost degenerates, presaging what Ravel did with the form many years later.

The dialog between oboes —the English horn is a large oboe— in the third movement, set in the bucolic countryside, was perfection, with the horn soloist located about halfway up the incline of the Franco Center,  providing a sense of open space. The movement itself, suspended between delight and horror, is the essential interlude.

The final witches’ sabbath, following the famous scene in which the hero, having murdered his inamorata, imagines his affair with the guillotine, is one of the most colorful and imaginative in music. It has everything, from a supernatural flight of locusts, sul legno, (played with the wood of the violin bow), to the world’s most terrifying “Dies Irae” on the low brass.

Every section of the orchestra played admirably, but the percussion often took center stage, including the loudest drum roll I have ever heard.

Part of that effect was due to the addition of mallet percussionist Nathaniel Hackworth, to the battery.

Hackworth, from Presque Isle, is the winner of the MIdcoast’s first Judith Elser Concerto Competition, and just before intermission played the Concerto for Marimba and Vibraphone, Op. 27 of Darius Milhaud (1892-1974). The concerto, which Hackworth played brilliantly, sensitively supported by the orchestra, is jazzy and colorful, full of musical in-jokes. One passage, for example, is lifted verbatim from Stravinsky’s piano transcription of “Petrouschka,” where, for a few measures, the piano does sound very much like a marimba.

The orchestra warmed up with the delightful Prelude and Mazurka from “Coppélia” by Leo Délibes (1815-1910), which first got me interested in ballet many years ago. It immediately conjures up grande jetés by Nureyev.

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

A Spectacular American Debut for Ukrainian Organist

Elena Udras, Organist
Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul, Lewiston
Oct. 4, 2018
by Christopher Hyde

You haven’t lived musically until you have heard “The Great Gate of Kiev,” from Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition,” played on a world-class pipe organ. One is immersed in a sea of sound surpassing that of a full orchestra.

Such was the case Thursday night at Lewiston’s Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul as Ukranian organist Elena Udras made her American debut.

Well-known in Europe, Udras is also an accomplished transcriber and composer for organ. Her “Song of a Dolphin,” as played on Thursday, is a tour-de-force of watery imagery that should have been the theme song of TV’s late lamented “Flipper.”

The famed 1938 Casavant organ in the Basilica is a treasure, now being restored, helped by donations at concerts during the Spring and Summer. Under Udras’ capable hands (and feet) it did not seem in need of much help. She calls it “an inspiration.”

The program began with religious works by Ukrainian and Russian composers who deserve to be better known in this country. Their settings of a Sanctus Dei and Ave Maria compare favorably to those of composers in the Western tradition.

More “modern” sounding were two fine symphonic fugues by Igor Asseive (1921-1996). and “Carpathian Meditations” by Valeri Kikta (b. 1941), which had a true regional flavor, somewhere between Bartok and Borodin.

They were followed by a lugubrious Passacaglia by Shostakovich, based on themes from his opera “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk,” highly unusual in its use of a low bass stop as the primary voice.

Like that of the Great Gate of Kiev, Udras’ transcription of the famous Rachmaninoff Prelude ini C-sharp Minor made it seem to have been written specifically for the organ, giving its sonorous bell-like chords their full value.

The following “Waltz of the Flowers,” from Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker,” was ponderous, like the dance of an elephant, perhaps indicating that new electronics might make the Casavant capable of a little more rapid response. It was, however, quite elegant in its own way.

Speaking of rapid response, a Toccata by Vladimir Nazarov (b. 1952) was a fantastic (and ferocious) sequel to the great Bach Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, adding more and more voices and themes to the first familiar bars until the edifice was just of the verge of collapse—and rescued in the nick of time. So spectacular that it should be looked at for next year’s concert series by the Bach Virtuosi in Portland.

The program concluded with a sentimental “When Blue Mountains Sleep,” by Anatol Kos-Anatolsky. and long applause from the audience standing and turning to face the organ loft.

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

The PSO and the Power of Suggestion

Portland Symphony Orchestra
Merrill Auditorium
Sept 30, 2018
By Christopher Hyde

As we approached Merrill Auditorium Sunday afternoon for the-season- opening concert of the Portland Symphony Orchestra, we noticed a long line snaking around the corner and almost a block up Congress Street. The matinees are well attended, but this was unheard of. We learned later that the first arrivals had used only one of the three doors and that those coming later assumed incorrectly that it was the only one open . Hence the traffic back-up.

It was an eye-opening introduction to the power of suggestion, affirmed during the concert by guest conductor Jeffrey Kahane’s monumental interpretation of Tchaikovsky’s opera-for-orchestra “Francesca da Rimini” (Opus 32).

The music is supposed to depict a descent into Dante’s Inferno by two illici lovers, with a romantic interlude describing their passion—so it is said—in highly graphic terms, rather like Wagner’s Liebestod from “Tristan und Isolde.”

Suppose, however, that one was unfamiliar with the plot of “Francesca da Rimini” and was hearing the music for the first time. It would seem like two gigantic sea interludes by Rimsky Korsakov or a scene from “Peter Grimes” or “The Flying Dutchman,” interrupted by a peaceful on-shore stroll accompanied by clarinet solos.

One can feel the tremendous power of the wind and waves as the storm approaches, thrill to the strain of the sail on the creaking foremast, hear the canons in a sea battle, and sympathize with the ship going down in a whirlpool. In other words, one could write an entirely different scenario, equally convincing, based on the music alone. It is words and their power of suggestion that turn it into a tragic love fest. Or maybe Tchaikovsky suffered from sea sickness, and that was his vision of Hell.

Something to think about next time one hears program music, but it did seem like a fine tribute to the Maine coast from a guest to our state.

The stage was set for the opera by one of Tchaikovski’s most lush works for string orchestra, the Èlégie from the Serenade for Strings (Opus 48).

During the first half of the concert one felt a bit sorry for Amadeus, his “Prague” Symphony No. 38 in D Major, K. 504, relegated to a rather low-key opener for an extremely flashy and well played Concerto for Flute and Orchestra, Opus 39, by Lowell Liebermann (b.1961).

Kahane, who is also a concert pianist, balanced the solo part, played by PSO Principal Lisa Hennessy, almost magically, accentuating all of the sections in which the composer demonstrates the virtuosity of James Galway–equalled by Hennessey in this rendition. The work itself, in a Stravinski-like style, without much dissonance, falls just short of greatness. Its combinations of voices are unique in the literature—muted trumpets and flute, piano-like sounds made by bouncing the bow on the strings, a woodwind ensemble that chirped like a nest full of songbirds—there was something new around every corner.

Like the concluding “Francesca,” it drew an enthusiastic standing ovation from the capacity audience.

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