A Tribute to the North Woods

Premiere of “The Allagash Suite”
Augusta Symphony Orchestra
South Parish Congregational Church, Augusta
Nov. 17, 2018
by Christopher Hyde

I haven’t paddled the Allagash Wilderness Waterway—I prefer the less strenuous St. John, a few miles west—but when I heard that Nate Saunders (b. 1960), a Maine guide, mechanical engineer and second violinist with the Augusta Symphony Orchestra, had written an orchestral suite describing such a descent, I had to hear it.

The Saunders work was given its world premiere on Saturday at South Parish Congregational Church by the Augusta Symphony Orchestra under Paul Ross. It will be played again at L.L. Bean’s in Freeport on Dec. 16.

While it is not Beethoven’s Sixth (What is?), it was unfailingly entertaining, descriptive, and well written in a traditional tonal style. It made me wonder why the Maine Woods has not inspired more musical tributes. It has its own distinctive soundscape.

The Suite’s degree of musical sophistication and innovative orchestration, for example a wet shoestring on a coffee can to capture the bellowing of a moose, or a charming male-female interchange between oboe and clarinet, are impressive for anyone and quite incredible for a non-professional musician. Saunders once contemplated a career in violin making, but turned to engineering as a more supportable vocation.

(Concerning amateur vs. professional, I like to quote Schopenhauer to the effect that we deride one who practices an art for love and praise those who do it for money.)

The program begins with a tonal description, complete with the cry of the loon, of the 50 miles of lake-like river that begin the trip, comparing early morning calm to the typical afternoon’s wind and waves. There is a rollicking dance-like interlude involving a visit to the logging locomotives buried in the woods nearby, and a dream of their coming to life. Plus a flinger-snapping, toe-tapping rainstorm (in the orchestra) that is quite effective.

“Campfire Lullaby” is characterized by a romantic melody and the aforementioned duet between clarinet and oboe.

“Chase Rips/Umsaskis Meadows” depicts the trip’s major rapids and the moose-haunted meadows that follow them. The river becomes more defined and majestic in the next two movements, culminating in a musical descent of Allagash Falls (which has to be portaged in the real world)) and the snap of a broken paddle. The suite ends further down the river, in “A Quiet Peace.”

Saunders’ use of the French horn leads me to believe that he is an admirer of Brahms, whose repeated four-tone descending theme, from the early Piano Sonata No. 3 in F Minor, appears in the Allagash River section, with a different resolution. An intentional reference or not —themes lurk in our minds forever—it is a lovely touch.

If I had any suggestion about improving the flow of the work, it would be perhaps to eliminate the verbal preludes and let the musical descriptions speak for themselves,  with a short hint in the program. Everyone has to find his own way through the rapids.

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

A Study in Contrasts

Portland Symphony Orchestra
Merrill Auditorium
Nov. 13, 2018
by Christopher Hyde

Tuesday night’s concert of the Portland Symphony Orchestra, under guest conductor Jeffrey Kahane, was a study in contrasts—two great works in the Western classical tradition but diametrically opposed in mood, scope, dynamics and content.

Mozart is said to have burst into tears when hearing a trumpet as a child. One wonders what he would have thought of the brutal orchestration of the Shostakovich Symphony No. 10 in E Minor (Opus 93). Would he have joined in the standing ovation from a capacity crowd at Merrill Auditorium?

Kahane’s performance of the Mozart Concerto No. 17 in G Major, for Piano and Orchestra, which he conducted from the piano, was uncanny in its realization of the composer’s intent

I asked Matt Guggenheim, the Steinway technical affiliate for Maine, if Kahane had requested a tuning more similar to that of pianos in Mozart’s time. He did not—the tuning is standard for PSO concerts—but the placement of the piano, keyboard toward the audience and strings pointed upstage, coupled with the removal of the lid, gave it an entirely different sound, in addition to enabling Kahane, like Mozart, to conduct effectively, both sitting and standing, from the piano bench.

“Effectively” is not a strong enough word. Every single note, pause and change ini dynamics contributed to a supremely musical and balanced whole, without a scintilla of empty virtuosity. Even the cadenzas, those icons of showmanship, contributed to the sense of unity.

The tempo was fast, yes, but one felt that Mozart would have played it exactly the same way. For anyone familiar with this concerto, it was a peak experience, unequaled by any recording.

Neither could a recording do justice to the monumental 10th. Shostakovich opens the floodgates to the torrent of emotions he experienced on the death of his nemesis, Stalin. One can imagine him echoing the sentiments of another artist confronting powerful critics: “Just outlive the bastards.”

The Stalin-Shostakovich conflict was a matter of life and death rather than mere name calling, and the long opening movement of the symphony is a threnody to the deaths of millions under the dictator’s reign. The shorter second movement is a sustained hiss at evil and totalitarianism. The message is that buffoons in power can also be dangerous.

The scherzo of the third movement is jubilant, and introduces a theme based on the letters of the composer’s name. Here his satyrical waltz motifs, relieved of their double meanings, sound almost Straussian.

Finally, in the Andante-Allegro, Shostakovich goes around shouting his name at the top of his voice, like an ADD schoolboy at recess. He finally comes to his senses, realizing new possibilities, but ends with a final ferocious nailing of the name theme by the timpani.  All it needs is a holly stake.

The audience rewarded a tremendous performance with a long standing ovation, while Kahane went around the stage, congratulating individual orchestra members, from piccolo to percussion, all of whom had given more than heir best.

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

An Authentic Monteverdi “Vespers”

Monteverdi “Vespers”
St. John the Bapist Church, Brunswick
Nov. 11, 2018
by Christopher Hyde

Emily Isaacson, artistic director of the Oratorio Chorale, is attracting quite a following. On Sunday afternoon, the huge parking lot of St. John the Baptist Church in Brunswick was completely full, and its cavernous interior also. It was the largest audience I have seen for Renaissance music in Maine, and Claudio Monteverdi’s Vespers of the Blessed Virgin (1610) is not exactly a crowd pleaser.

The crowd thinned out a bit after intermission, as some amateur concert-goers realized what they had gotten themselves in for. A complete performance of the Vespers is akin to those Romantic concerts that included three symphonies and a concerto.

As a music critic I have heard such a large number of masses that I have no fear of purgatory. This one was among the best performed, by soloists Molly Quinn, soprano, Virginia Warnken,, mezzo-soprano, tenors Jason McStoot and Lawrence Jones, and baritones Eric Christopher Perry and Sumner Thompson, with a large consort of period instruments led by violinist Scott Metcalfe.

The 67-voice Chorale itself was front and center, with some sections calling for the full ensemble and others smaller groups, which were marched around with appropriate military precision. (The performance was on Veterans Day.)

I’m sure that Isaacson has beaten the bushes for basses, but regrettably as usual, the bass section was not as strong as it should have been. In one section of the final Magnificat, it was up to the low brass section to inspire a proper fear of the Lord.

This may have been due to the music itself, however, in an era when the heroic was represented by a tenor, or counter-tenor.
Monteverdi’s innovations— combinations of secular and liturgical music, wreaths of polyphony around a sustained plain chant, psychological and physical states portrayed in music—were emphasized, but some of the simpler combinations were most effective, such as he use of the soprano voice as an instrument in the Sonata on Holy Mary, which began the second half of the concert, or the delightful recorder parts in the following Hymn to the Star of the Sea (Go Maine!).

The soloists were best in plain melodies as compared to the heavily ornamented passages, which sounded a bit like Handel, but written out. Tremendously difficult vocally but adding little to the beauty of the score.

Since we’re not living in Pakistan, I’m going to commit blasphemy and suggest that the Vespers be shortened considerably, perhaps by half, either by eliminating some verses and repetitions or omitting some complete sections that don’t seem to fit a theme. Isaacson may have already done some pruning —some regard the Vespers as a miscellany, as she points out in the program notes. If so, more is needed.

I’ll end this with a disclaimer. As a former choir boy and soprano soloist, the worrying of a line in the Mass, repeating it ad infinitum, drives me completely up the wall. As we used to say to the born-again, once is enough. Get on with it.

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