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.