New Christmas Music from Renaissance Voices

Renaissance Voices
Cathedral Church of St. Luke
Dec. 16, 2018
by Christopher Hyde

The Renaissance Voices Christmas concert has long been the highlight of the season for those looking for that still, small voice amidst the hyperbole and commercialization. This year’s programs, two concerts Saturday and Sunday at the Cathedral Church of St. Luke, were no exception. As a bonus they included a new work by  director Harold Stover: “For Christmas Day,” setting verses by Bishop Joseph Hall (1574-1656).

In style and content it belongs to the same family as the early works in which the a cappella choir excels and seems to have been written especially for them. The polyphonic voices, however, converge on some fascinating perfect intervals that would never have occurred to Palestrina ((1525-1594) but give the work an exquisite touch of dissonance. It received a standing ovation from the large audience Sunday at St. Luke’s. (The ushers ran out of programs.)

Three other contemporary works appeared on the program, the first of which was a companion piece to an early plainsong, “Conditor alme siderum,” by Italian composer Carlotta Ferrari (b. 1975).

“The Shepherds sing, and shall I silent be?,“ by American composer Tom Mueller (b. 1985), was a devoted setting of verses by George Herbert (1593-1633), which were first read aloud by Kirk Read.

I found the sung version of Psalm 23 (“The Lord is my Shepherd…”) by Patricia Van Ness (b. 1951) of Cambridge (Mass.), less effective than some of her earlier works performed by the choir in previous concerts. It is part of a project to musik all 150 Psalms. She would be advised to use the King James versions, which are poetry, instead of the wooden, pedantic and condescending translations of the Revised Standard Bible.

The spoken selections this year were outstanding, including Yeats’ horrifying “The Second Coming,” read by Bernie Horowitz,  E.B. White’s “Christmas Wishes” by Woody Howard and Steve Ryan, the aforementioned “The Shepherds Sing,” and Christina Rosetti’s “A Christmas Carol, read by Sarah Potter.

The choir continued its exploration of Neun Advent-Motetten, by Josef Rheinberger (1839-1901), which should be heard more often around this time of year.

About the Renaissance Voices performance of works by Palestrina, Francesco Soriano (c.1548-1621), and Andrea Gabrieli (1532-1585) there is little to say. except that they filled the cathedral with glorious sound up to its vaulted ceiling, just as the composers intended.

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

Magical Music and Musical Magic

“Magic of Christmas”
Portland Symphony Orchestra
Merrill Auditorium
Dec. 14-23, 2018
by Christopher Hyde

Bruce Hangen has returned after 39 years to conduct another series of the Portland Symphony Orchestra’s “Magic of Christmas” concerts at Merrill Auditorium. He has put the emphasis on the music to create a truly magical experience.

Assistance from one of Maine’s glorious sopranos, Elisabeth Marshall, the Windham Chamber Singers under Dr. Richard Nickerson, the 80-strong Magic of Christmas Chorus under Nicolás Alberto Dosman, Christopher Pelonzi on the Kotzschmar Organ and narrator Zach Handlen, helped make the season brighter for a couple of hours.

The orchestra and chorus collaborated well on the opening “A Christmas Festival,” a much better medley than is usually arranged, and an unusual Festival Gloria, which was powerful yet clear.

The orchestral arrangement of Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” that followed, was worth the price of admission, but things got better still, with Marshall’s rendition of “Rejoice” from “Messiah,” one of the most difficult and highly ornamented arias in the repertoire.

I have never heard it performed as well. Most sopranos just sweat it out, but Marshall revealed its inner beauties with seeming ease. The orchestra and chorus sang the “Hallelujah” very well, but it was not this sort of revelation.

She was equally spectacular following intermission in a piece called “The Twelve Gifts of Christmas, in which her true love gives her gifts of individual instruments and sections of the orchestra. To add to the fun, each of the sections, when possible,  plays an easily recognizable passage from the classics. A sort of Christmas “Young People’s Guide to the Orchestra.”

Marshall joined the Windham Chamber Singers, of which she is an alumna, in an authentic gospel version of “Go, Tell It On the Mountain.”

Handlen did a fine job of projecting over the orchestra in a clever musical version of “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” and paired with Marshall, the orchestra and choruses in a rousing “PSO Polar Express Suite.”

The Magic of Christmas Chorus was at its best in “Many Moods of Christmas,” with a tremendous march-like rendering of “Adeste Fideles.”

No “Magic” concert would be complete without a raucous version of “Sleigh Ride,” but Hangen killed two birds with one stone by having a youngster conduct it (as used to be the case with “Waltz of the Flowers”). “See, it’s easy, all you have to do is wave your arms until the music stops and then take a bow,” Hangen quipped. The requisite “Nutcracker” selection was filled by the “March,” with scurrying mice.

If I had any quibble with this year’s version of “Magic,’ it would be with the sing-along carols, which seemed a little heavy on the “Frosty the Snowman/Rudolf” side. Still, the most relevant and vital side of the holiday had already been covered by the orchestra and chorus, and the kids in the audience knew most of the words without a program.

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

Christmas Gifts Old and New

St. Mary Schola
Cathedral Church of St. Luke
Dec. 11, 2018
by Christopher Hyde

St. Mary Schola, the early music choir founded by Bruce Fithian a decade ago, celebrated its anniversary this week with three concerts, two at its namesake church in Falmouth and one Tuesday night at the Cathedral Church of St. Luke in Portland.

Their Christmas gift was a complete performance, with baroque chamber orchestra, of “The Christmas Story” by Heinrich Schütz, first sung in 1660, when the composer was 75.

The work is operatic in nature, with a long narrative recitative telling the familiar tale, interrupted at key points by musical interludes that highlight the more important—and dramatic— scenes. It is based on passages from the translation of the Bible into German by Martin Luther.

The translation in the program would have been more moving to most English speakers if it had used the King James version of the selected verses.

That said, the part of the Evangelist (who narrates the story) was masterfully sung by tenor Martin Lescault, who managed a flood of rapid German with aplomb. The Evangelist is generally matter-of-fact, but where emotion does break out, as in Rachel weeping for her children, or the joyous conclusion, he made the most of it.

The interludes, or intermedia, are early examples of tone painting in music, and must have been highly effective to an audience with senses innocent of moving images on a screen. For the most part they remain viable today. The bucolic recorders portraying the Shepherds in the Field, or the shrill trumpets that accompany Herod, worked very well. The angel urging Joseph to get up and get out of Egypt, sung by mezzo-soprano Jenna Guiggey, reminded me of Bach’s “Wachet Auf.”

The orchestra was excellent, especially in the concluding passages with full chorus, in which its full volume was realized.

It was in volume that the performance was a little short of ideal. I did not hear the concerts at St. Mary’s, but what might have worked perfectly there was not loud enough to fill the larger space at St. Luke’s, especially with the larger audience.

The same was true of the spoken interludes during the first half of the program. Those doing the readings were not professional actors, and did not have the clarity and resonance to make themselves understood in the back of the hall.

The first half had some beautiful,and unusual touches, mostly repeats of works performed at previous St. Mary Schola Christmas concerts. Of note was the “Learned of Angel,” by the Sabbathday Lake Shakers and a grand “Jerusalem gaude gaudio magno” by Jacob Handl (1550-1585). The bright star, however, was an enchanting “Videte miraculam” of Thomas Tallis (c.1505-1585), which was truly miraculous.

The Christmas season has an embarrassment of musical riches, but I want to mention two of the more unusual: a screening of “Messiah” sponsored by the Bach Virtuosi Festival at Cinemagic in Westbrook at 7:30 on Dec. 18, and pianist Diane Walsh at Lewiston’s Franco Center, Dec. 21 at 7:00 p.m. Walsh is one of the foremost interpreters of modern piano music and will be playing “A Little Suite for Christmas, A.D. 1979” by George Crumb, in addition to more familiar classics.
Admission to the “Messiah” simulcast, live from Trinity Church in Manhattan and featuring members of the Bach Virtuosi, is free for up to four people with a message requesting tickets to bachvirtuosifestival.org.

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

Dover Quartet Excites in Unusual Program

Dover String Quartet
Hannaford Hall, USM-Portland
Dec. 6, 2018
by Christopher Hyde

Portland Ovations has done it again; brought one of the most exciting new string quartets in the country to Hannaford Hall. Word must be getting around because the intimate venue was considerably more crowded than usual for a brilliantly played program by the Dover String Quartet Thursday night.

I was late and programless for the opening bars and couldn’t quite figure out what I was hearing, as delightful as it was. Janacek? Borodin? Smetana? It was certainly Slavic, melodic in a terse sort of way, without lengthy song lines, yet highly rhythmic, full of violent emotional ups and downs. And very, very long, as if the composer couldn’t figure out how to end it, or didn’t want to.

It was, of course, the Tchaikovsky String Quartet No. 3 in E-flat Minor (Op. 30), a work that seems more advanced musically than the late Romanticism characteristic of that composer. As played by the Dover, it appeared to be an unfairly neglected masterpiece, not only overshadowed by Tchaikovsky’s symphonic works, but also so technically difficult that it is not often programmed.

The Dover Quartet seems capable of mastering anything it essays, with perfect balance, precise enunciation and excitement explosively contained. But then, they’re all Curtis graduates (I’m a prejudiced Philadelphia native), while the spectacular violist, Milena Pajaro-van de Stadt, is also an alumna of the Bowdoin International Music Festival. She plays the viola like a tenor version of the first violin, and the result is a new feel in well-known compositions, such as the Dvorak Quartet in A-flat Major, Opus 105, that ended the concert.

The second work on the program was a quirky yet strangely moving musical essay by Mason Bates (b. 1977) called “From Amber Frozen,” which seems to depict the process of emerging from petrified tree sap, which sometimes imprisons insects from a few million years ago. Random notes eventually coalesce into a harmonious whole which then proceeds to disintegrate again like an exploding clock, drawing a few laughs from the audience. It was played ferociously, melodically and with the perfect timing of a good stand-up comedian.

The quartet also had something new to say in its version of an old favorite, Dvorak’s last string quartet, written after he had returned to Prague from his sojourn in America. It is closer to “absolute” music than any of his earlier works in the medium, and contains no recognizable Americanisms nor much Bohemian folk influence,except for the Furiant-like second movement.

The Dover shifted the balance of the piece slightly toward the lower register, which only improved it. I’d like to hear them play Brahms. In the final rousing presto, the viola and cello not only kept up the pace but seemed to be egging things on, resulting in a long, well-deserved standing ovation.

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

Portland String Quartet Shines in Bartok

Portland String Quartet
Woodfords Congregational Church
Dec. 2, 2018
by Christopher Hyde

As played Sunday afternoon at Woodfords Congregational Church by the Portland String Quartet, the early Bartok String Quartet No. 1, Opus 7 (1909), was a perfect introduction to that composer’s chamber works—easy to follow, atmospheric, profound and even humorous.

The quartet, with new cellist Andrew Mark, sounded like it must have 50 years ago when it was pioneering the work of American composers such as Walter Piston.

The PSQ sometimes has trouble jumping into the pool, for want of a better simile—easing into the music rather than proclaiming a bold beginning.

That was certainly not the case with the Bartok, which opens with an ethereal violin canon that presents the germ of almost everything that is to come. The minor sixths and seconds are not only pure Bartok, but lend themselves to incredible transformations.

Transformations, that, like Beethoven’s, seem inevitable once they have sounded, beginning as a song of the dawn and ending with raucous fun in a schoolyard. One can hear the taunting children running away as the headmaster’s steps approach. The section is billed as an Hungarian folk dance but it seems a little more like “the rat gets the cheese” or one of the incomprehensibly droll folksongs at the end of “Mikrokosmos.”

This section is in stark corniest to the Romanic intensity of the first movement and the elegance of the allegretto. One critic has called the opening Lento a “projection of the horrors of existence”—it marks a suicidal moment caused by an unfortunate love affair— but that seems as inaudible to a modern ear as the terrors of the Verdi “Requiem.”

The program to me seems like a day at school, beginning with a walk to the schoolhouse through woods and fields, a lesson in fugue while ogling a pretty girl,  and recess; or an illustration of Paul Klee’s theory of the connection between art and music. One is supposed to hear Wagner, Max Reger and Richard Strauss in it, not to mention Debussy, but it is the first of his work to be all Bartok, through and through.

It was followed by the Mozart String Quartet in A Major (K.464), which spotlighted cellist Mark in the drum-like passages that give the quartet its nickname.

After intermission came the great Brahms String Quartet in A Minor, Opus 51, No. 2, which also has a fine cello part. It was marred a little by a too-fast allegro in the Minuet, which made it sound like Mendelssohn in “A Midsummer Night;s Dream.” Like the Bartok, the Brahms quartet concentrates nodes of harmony, like the sun shining through clouds. They need to be emphasized somehow, perhaps with a resonance that exceeds what is available in a well-tempered piano chord. It should be possible with a string quartet, but I have never heard it.

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