Masterpieces of Color

Portland Symphony Orchestra,
Merrill Auditorium
Jan. 27, 2019
by Christopher Hyde

It is a requirement, under penalty of banishment, that guest conductors, or musical directors designate, lavishly praise the musicians of whatever orchestra happens to be in front of them. In the case of Eckart Preu and the Portland Symphony Orchestra, as presented Sunday afternoon at Merrill Auditorium, the praise was both genuine and well-deserved.

Preu, in a daring choice of compositions, showed that the PSO, when properly rehearsed and conducted, is the equal of any orchestra in the world. There is no such thing as musical perfection, except in the hands of a recording engineer, but in terms of technique and full realization of emotional and musical content, the performances could not have been better.

I use the word “daring” because the pieces chosen were both well-known masterpieces of difficult-to-achieve orchestral color. Both were resplendent, clear and brilliant, while full of seldom-revealed relationships. Preu, in his Gershwin concert last year, made “American in Paris” sound better than it is. On Sunday, he and the PSO made some old warhorses into frolicking colts.

In between, he convinced a capacity audience to actually enjoy the world premiere of a “modern” work by Michael-Thomas Foumai (b.1987): “The Telling Rooms,” commissioned by the PSO and based upon poetry by young Maine authors Aubrey Duplissie, Husna Quinn and Eliza Rudalevige.

Each of the poems, respectively “The Happiest Color,” ”Dressed in Red,” and “Ink Wash,” describes emotions associated with a color or colors. Foumai’s tonal and youthfully rhythmic settings provide an equivalent kaleidoscope of moods. The composer and poets, who were in the audience, received a warm round of applause.

The program began with Tchaikovsky’s ”Romeo and Juliet” Overture Fantasy, which needs no description other than the plot of Shakespeare’s play.  Program writers seem incredulous that a homosexual could have written what is arguably the greatest love music ever composed, but the best description of war, “The Red Badge of Courage,” was written by a man who never saw combat. (And there are questions about Shakespeare’s romantic inclinations too.)

I’m digressing because there is nothing to say about Sunday’s performance except that it was the finest I have heard anywhere.
Ditto (I think) for Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade,” Op. 35.

There may be more technically perfect recordings—that sound engineer again—but seldom any as moving. Or any that delineate the emotional transformations of themes as well. As just one example, the astonishing performance of concert master Charles Dimmick, whose solo violin depicts the story-teller Scheherazade as she strings along the murderous Sultan night after a thousand nights, wondering what happens next. Her voice actually seems to mature before being heard as the last word in the symphony.

Preu emphasized the “what comes next” aspect with unusually long pauses, which worked perfectly.

The audience, which had remained perfectly silent though a lengthy performance, erupted in cheers as the last bubbles rose from Sinbad’s wrecked ship, never questioning how a land-locked Russian could write the world’s best sea-inspired music.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lies in Pownal. He can be reached at

Midcoast Premiers Shemaria Trumpet Concerto

Midcoast Symphony Orchestra
Franco Center, Lewiston
Jan. 12, 2019
by Christopher Hyde

Concertos often turn into contests of will between the soloist and the conductor.  Rich Shemaria has written a Concerto for Trumpet and Orchestra, given its world premier at the Franco Center last night by the Midcoast Symphony Orchestra under Rohan Smith, that virtually eliminates the problem.

In the hands of Wayne du Maine, the trumpet is always first among equals. “Equals” being the operative word, as the soloist interacts with smaller groups of instruments, rather like a concerto grosso, persuading rather than dominating.

There is a section for brass chorus immediately after the opening notes, in which any one of the orchestra members could be the soloist, while du Maine saves his considerable virtuosity for the final riff of the piece. (Shemaria is noted as a jazz composer.)

There are various unifying motifs and melodic lines through the work, which is somewhat dissonant in a post-Gershwin American style. Philosophically, however, the over-arching theme is the ability of the trumpet to lead, like the Pied Piper of Hamelin.

The most notable example comes near the end of the second movement, when complete chaos is converted in a few measures to a melodic episode on the strings, arranged by the trumpet, which pulls everything together. In another, it changes the direction of a brutalist march.

The Midcoast gave the concerto, which I consider a seminal composition, its best possible introduction, while du Maine was spectacular in a score that is difficult without being flashy.

I usually dislike encores, but du Maine’s brilliant improvisation referenced some of the sources of Shemaria’s work, besides being a lot of fun.

The program began with an unusual reading of the Serenade for 13 Wind Instruments in E-flat Major (Op. 7), written by Richard Strauss when he was 17. Critics of Strauss take him at his word when he refers to himself as the best second-rate composer, but if juvenilia are any indication, he is right up there with Mozart and Mendelssohn.

The Serenade is as good as anything they wrote at that age, with the added difficulty of orchestration. What clinches it is the fact that from the first notes, one knows it is by Strauss, even if one has never heard it before—the hallmark of genius.

I have never been a great admirer of Schumann’s “Spring” Symphony, No. 1 in B-flat Major (Op. 38), but the Midcoast’s version changed my mind, bringing out beauties that I had not heard on recordings.

The tempo was perfect and the execution so accomplished that one could concentrate on the music, with the small but telling details Rohan Smith was able to emphasize in the midst of broad melodic sweeps.

The brass choir opening harked back to the Shemaria Concerto, as did a wonderful figure for French horns that ended on a descending phrase from the flute. (The concerto offered a lovely upward harp glissando that ended with a note from the triangle.)

The concert will be repeated today, Sunday, at 2:30 in the Orion Center in Topsham. It would be a sovereign antidote for a week’s zero weather.

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