A New Take on Clara Schumann

Portland Symphony Orchestra
Merrill Auditorium
Mar. 26, 2019
by Christopher Hyde

Guest conductor of the Portland Symphony, Ruth Reinhardt, came on stage Tuesday night like a bundle of energy, or a ball of St. Elmo’s fire, and proceded to give a large audience at Merrill Auditorium the ride of their lives. Sometimes she asked too much, and at others—much of the Clara Schumann piano concerto— she did virtually nothing, but the end result was always musical, and sometimes revelatory.

The Brahms Tragic Overture, Opus 81, is a strange piece. It seems like an answer to his lighter side, exposed in the Academic Festival Overture. This one was going to be as serious and “durch componiert” as humanly possible.

The result is an extremely dense texture that requires a relatively slow tempo to bring out the melodic lines. But no conductor since Bruno Walter,, who was accused of “melting” during the good parts of the symphonies, has  dared to take it as slowly as necessary

Reinhardt’s take, in the rapid school, resulted in a few muddy passages and a couple of muffed brass notes, but all in all it was a solid and enjoyable performance.

Clara Schumann’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra in A Minor, Op. 7, under the accomplished fingers of Diane Walsh, was a different beast entirely. In many ways it was reminiscent of Chopin in its minimal orchestration, Romanticism, use of the Polonaise dance form, and virtuoso flourishes, some borrowed from Liszt.

Walsh is known for her interpretations of modern piano works, and her style is brilliant and percussive. Her interpretation of the concerto revealed why Clara Schumann was queen in the arena of virtuosi. It is a showpiece and it wowed the audience at Merrill as it must have those in European capitols.

Compared to most feminist versions of the work, it was downright unladylike. The listeners at Merrill gave it a standing ovation with cheers.

Cheers also greeted Reinhardt’s supremely lyrical and atmospheric reading of Robert Shumann’s “Rhenish” Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major, (Op. 97). The symphony was written to a program, which has been lost, but it follows the path of most musical evocations of rivers from the Rhine to the Moldau. The boat, whose motion is described, encounters water in many forms. Castles on the banks. Happy peasants dancing, a bonfire? And finally a tribute to the Schumanns” new home of Dusseldorf. Or something like that. Best to make up your own.
Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at classbeat@netscape.net.

Weird and Wonderful Rossini

Oratorio Chorale
Unitarian Universalist Church
Brunswick
Mar. 3, 2019
by Christopher Hyde

Kudos to Emily Isaacson and the Oratorio Chorale for bringing to Maine one of the weirdest concoctions of the musical world—Rossini’s Petite Messe Solennelle, written in 1863, after the composer had retired with honors from the opera world.

The original work, as heard on Sunday at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Brunswick, is scored for two pianos, harmonium, chorus and voice quartet. As its name implies, it was intended for performance in a the composer’s salon (which must have been very large), rather than a church, and it is by no means petite, lasting over an hour and a half.

My own opinion is that “solenelle” refers to the lightness of content. It is a traditional Mass, if assembled somewhat strangely, but includes lovely arias that Rossini wished he had used in operas, some very popular, if not to say vulgar, tunes and a piano score straight out of the Monty Python skit in which the pianist wanders through every coda and key change known to man without coming to a conclusion. Satie was also to parody conventional conclusions, but much later in time. Rossini may have played the piano accompaniment himself, which would do something to explain the musical jokes.

The Mass begins with a technique that I have detested ever since I was five: taking a phrase from the liturgy and worrying it forever, like a dog with a bone, until one wonders if the repeats will ever end.

The totally insane but amusing piano part was mightily executed by Scott Wheatley and Tina Davis, while a reed organ, well played by Ray Cornils, substituted for the harmonium. The reed organ becomes the voice of reason.

After the Kyrie and he Gloria, Rossini inserts four musical forms unrelated to the Mass, although (somewhat) following the text: a Terzettino, a Bass solo, sung by the tenor, a Duetto and a Solo marche militaire sung by the baritone.

The duet, between soprano Deborah Selig and counter-tenor Reginald Mobley, made sense of the latter’s request of Isaacson to perform the Peite Messe. It is stunningly beautiful.

The chorus, in the second of two grueling performances on the same day, was in good form, but choral writing was not Rossini’s strong point. He concentrated on the soloists, alone and in combination and awarded them the highlights. Tenor Matt Anderson and baritone Paul Max Tipton sang beautifully but showman Rossini liked to give the best parts to his divas.

The score is strange all the way through, almost as if the composer were afraid of being taken too seriously. An unnecessary accompaniment to the passing of the offering plate makes the piano behave seriously. The Sanctus is deeply felt, especially the “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord,” and the accompaniment is reasonable in a soprano rendition of a non-traditional text by Thomas Aquinas. The counter-tenor and chorus have the last word, in a profound Agnus Dei.

The Petite Messe is a one key to the mystery of Rossini’s retirement at a relatively early age. He felt that he had said all that he wanted in the form of popular opera, he had plenty of money,  why not quit while you’re ahead? HIs works after retirement he regarded as the sins of old age and were intended for friends and acquaintances. God forbid they should compete with his operatic legacy. Rossini was a gourmet, and he wanted to devote his remaining years to gastronomy. Hence Tournedos Rossini.

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

Healing With Music

Sacred Equilibrium
Sandara Yoga Studio, Brunswick
Mar. 2, 2019
by Christopher Hyde

The healing power of music, like that of art and poetry, has been known for thousands of years.

Saturday evening at Brunswick’s Sundara Yoga Studio, the power of art and music came together in “Sacred Equilibrium” by musician and sound healer Shirsten Lundblad, in a gallery of visionary drawings by June Atkin and her late “Artner,” Timothy Wyllie (1940-2017).

The two modalities complemented each other very well
.

Shirsten, a massage therapist and Master of Divinity (Harvard), presided over our wedding here on the farm some 20 years ago. I have written earlier about her experiments with “the music of the spheres” in healing and restoring balance.. Saturday she brought a large gong tuned to Neptune, which was quite spectacular in its volume and complexity of overtones, giving everyone attending a “gong bath.” For some reason or other (suggestion?), the sound evoked images of the watery planet singing its way through space.

The hour-and-a-half program featured diverse sounds made by Native American-style frame drum, a steel drum shaped like a gigantic clam, many “singing bowls,”  which produce a sound like that of a wineglass rubbed with a wet finger, a xylophone, rattles, bells and a ukulele, which Shirsten used to accompany herself in a Tibetan Bhuddhist chant to the goddess of music.

After an audience exploration of the sung vowel sounds related to each chakra, the various instruments were shared. What began as cacophony eventually migrated to a form of harmony , which was surprising. I have seen the same effect with the human voice, as each modifies pitch slightly to match someone else’s production; I don’t see how it can happen with fixed pitch instruments, but it did.

If you would like to learn more about sound healing, you might want to visit Shirsten in Freeport, or explore the books on musical healing by the late Maine composer Kaye Gardner.

The gallery display will be open to the public once more on Friday, March 15, from 4:30 to 7:30. The drawings, which are both visionary and highly detailed (in Prismacolor Pencil), are well worth seeing.

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