All posts by Chris1937

A graduate of Lafayette College (BS in Physics) and University of Rochester (English), he studied piano in the preparatory division of the Eastman School while working at Eastman Kodak Company. After years as a Mad Man, he moved to Maine and was the classical music critic of the Portland Press Herald and the Maine Sunday Telegram for 20 years. Other interests include horses, gardening, painting and silver smithing.

Dimmick Excels in Barber Violin Concerto

Portland Symphony Orchestra
Merrill Auditorium
Feb. 11, 2018
by Christopher Hyde

Guest conductor Paul Polivnik did a fine job with the Portland Symphony Orchestra Sunday afternoon at Merrill Auditorium, when Music director Robert Moody was unable to officiate due to the death of his father.

Polivnik, currently music director and conductor emeritus of the New Hampshire Music Festival, has worked with many of the world’s leading orchestras and,  in spite of a few technical glitches by individual players, was able to get the best out of the PSO at short notice, earning several standing ovations.

The high point of the afternoon was a performance of Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto, Op. 16, by concert master Charles Dimmick., who was equally at home in the first two lyrical movements and the fiendish finale.

There is still some controversy about this work, the violinist who commissioned it having turned it down because the finale was too difficult. Critics have said that the explanation can’t be right, since the violinist in question was a virtuoso, but knowing Barber’s piano works—and witnessing Dimmicks prestissimo fingering,— I find the explanation quite satisfactory.

A more important question is the fit of the final presto with what has gone before. No one seems to have noticed the gaelic flavor of the first two movements, with a jig-like motif appearing now and then, even in those funereal sections that are indicated by the beat of a muffled drum. Perhaps the concerto is an American “Death and Transfiguration,” with the flight of the soul portrayed by vastly increasing the tempo of fragments introduced earlier. I loved the ending, with a piano glissando leading up to the final abrupt note on the violin.

Whatever the explanation, the performance by Dimmick was utterly convincing, overcoming some significant lapses in Barber’s orchestration. You do not pit the solo violin against trumpets, the French horn maybe, but not the massed brass, unless you want a string fortissimo to disappear. Polivnik was able to ameliorate the worst of the excesses, but they were still obvious.

The other “modern” work on the program, “Alternative Energy” by Mason Bates (b. 1977), although well played (I think), was not as successful. I could not read all of the program, so I imagined each of the four movements as depicting forms of energy—Fords Farm, the automobile, Chicago, wind power, Xinjiang Province, solar, and Reykjavick, geothermal. Amid the blurts, rumblings and squeaks, the program worked pretty well, down to the recorded seabird calls stolen from Rutavaara’s “Cantus Arcticus.”

It turns out that the symphony depicts an historical dystopia in which a Chinese nuclear plant blows up and the remaining humans, living in a rain forest in Iceland, long for the days of the Model T. Close enough. Syncopated chords tossed around the orchestra get old fast.

The concluding “Bolero” was a miraculously controlled crescendo, with a few nicks in the paint consisting of muffed entrances, which tend to stand out like a sore thumb in Ravel’s orchestration. It nevertheless deserved its own standing ovation.

As usual, the opening work on the program, Brahms’ “Academic Festival” Overture, made me long for college days, which were actually among the more miserable of experiences. Next time, I’ll go to Heidelberg, drink lots of beer and emerge with a duelling scar.

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

Les Ballets Jazz De Montreal Premieres An Instant Classic

Les Ballets Jazz de Montreal
Merrill Audiorium
Feb. 8, 2018
by Christopher Hyde

Those fortunate enough to be in Merrill Auditorium Thursday night witnessed one of the first presentations of “Casualties of Memory,” premiered by Les Ballets Jazz de Montreal (BJM) earlier this month in Boston. With choreography by Itzik Galili to a percussion score by Les Frères Grand, it is destined to become an instant classic of modern dance. Thanks once again to Portland Ovations for bringing it here so fast.

The ballet is long, taking up all of the first half of Thursday night’s program, but the spectacular drumming by Joseph Khoury would carry the piece all by itself, even if it were not matched by the equally astounding dancing on stage. (Disclaimer: I used to drive to Manhattan from college in Easton, Pa. to hear drum riffs by Gene Krupa at Eddie Condon’s. Some at Merrill thought the primitive percussion was overpowering, but I thought it was just right.)

The ballet attempts, quite successfully, to blur the distinctions between genders, starting with patriarchal, male-dominated postures and progressing to what Freud called polymorphous perversity, in which the movements, lifts and postures of the dancers transcend distinctions between male and female.

And what postures they are. One would never guess that the human anatomy had so many possibilities, their transformations executed so smoothly that the changing patterns took on the nature of a kaleidoscope.

When the dancers lined up, the series of poses from left to right (or vice versa) seemed like mysterious runes or hieroglyphics, spelling out a prophecy if one could only decipher them. At all times, the coordination of the dancers was uncanny.

The lighting, in this and the ballets that followed, was a member of the company in itself, emphasizing aspects down to individual muscle groups, isolating or uniting related actions, and establishing contrasts that highlighted everything. Simple—three rows of spotlights in perspective— effective, “and cheap,” as the choreographer pointed out in a video clip.

The next two ballets were completely different, but equally exciting in their own ways. The first was a bitter-sweet salute to Canadian poet and musician Leonard Cohen, with songs taking the company through the seasons in Montreal. A pas de deux to “Suzanne,” (1966) may not have “touched your perfect body with my mind,” but came close, in the most Romantic and classically influenced sequence of the evening.

The final ballet, “O Balcāo De Amor,” ended the program on a humorous note, depicting various loving or battling pairs (sometimes both) in a Cuban nightclub, to primarily Mamba music..

It is a complete comedia del arte, without a single word necessary to identify the stock characters, from the tutu-wearing ingenue to the unsuccessful lounge lizard in suspenders. Some of the dance moves were hysterical, such as the “worm’ executed on the side instead of the stomach. flopping like a fish out of water, or a Mermaid dragging her tight-skirted tail up the beach. One gets so carried away by the stories as to forget the superb quality of the dancing that depicts them.

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

The Quintessential Quintet

Berlin Philharmonic Wind Quintet
Hannafod Hall, USM-Portland
Feb. 1, 2018
by Christopher Hyde

I tried to get my son interested in playing the French horn but he became a professional fox hunter instead. (The horn was used primarily as a signal in stag hunting, but close enough.)

That family history crossed my mind while listening to a concert by the Berlin Philharmonic Wind Quintet Thursday night at Hannaford Hall. Portland Ovations has a way of bringing the world’s finest classical musicians to Portland, and the Berlin Quintet is no exception.

Formed in 1988, it comprises Michael Hasel, flute, Andreas Wittmann, oboe, Walter Seyfarth, clarinet, Marion Reinhard, bassoon, and Fergus McWilliam, horn.

Horn? What is so obviously a brass instrument doing in a woodwind quintet? Apparently, the mellow sound of the horn, rather like that of an alto saxophone, blends so well with woodwinds that it often serves as a transitional bridge between that section and the brass in an orchestra, and perfectly rounds out the complement of voices in a woodwind quintet.

It certainly works for the Berlin Quintet, which began the program with three highly unusual pieces by Mozart, originally composed for mechanical organ, a sort of music box in which the cylinder pins open air valves instead of plucking tuned steel bars.

The transcriptions, by Hasel, follow the originals faithfully, without additions or subtractions —the compositions are multi-voiced—and open a window on little-heard works, written during Mozart’s final year of life. They are fascinating glimpses, since Mozart seldom wrote a pedestrian note, but not up to his usual standards, in spite of a delightful fugue and double fugue that indicate a late study of Bach.

They were followed by the Quintet, Op. 10 (1929) of Pavel Haas who, like his contemporary Erwin Schulhof, ended his life in a German concentration camp. Sounding like a melding of Stravinsky and Kurt Weill, it was more interesting than the Mozart, ending in a fiendish dance and a chorale-like epilog.

If civilization survives into the next century, György Ligeti will be remembered, and played, as one of the great masters of Western music. Certainly his Six Bagatelles, (1953) with their homage to Bartok, are masterpieces, exhibiting brand new sounds, rhythmical patterns, and playfulness, all of which are both unexpected and, once heard, perfectly inevitable. They are also immensely difficult, and one hopes that musicians of the 22nd Century will be as accomplished as those of the Berlin Philharmonic are today.

The Carl Nielsen Quintet, Op. 43 (1922), which ended the program, is as unusual, in its own way, as the Ligeti. Nielson is often considered a Danish folk-artist, like Greig in Norway, but he combines his folkish tunes with avant garde flourishes that sometimes border on the absurd, contrasting with his sadder and more melodic sections,

The work also contains some exquisite solos for bassoon and horn, demonstrating the important place both instruments have among the woodwinds.

After a prolonged standing ovation, the quintet played an encore of Blues by American jazz and classical composer Gunther Shuller.

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

PSO Shows Versatility in Well-Received Concert

Portland Symphony Orchestra
Merrill Auditorium
Jan. 30, 2018
by Christopher Hyde

The Portland Symphony Orchestra, now in its final season under music director Robert Moody, hit the trifecta Tuesday night at Merrill Auditorium with three winning performances of modern, late Romantic and classical works. Moody even threw in a bonus not on the program, the quartet from Mozart’s “Idomeneo.” with Maine singers.

The program began with “Eating the Flowers” by American composer Hannah Lash (b. 1981), who was in the audience.
The work is an homage to several late 19th and early 20th Century composers. The “flowers” are their particular styles, especially of orchestration, without reference to recognizable melodies. The more long-limbed passages are supported by a driving rhythmical pattern (or “chug or in modern musical parlance), with the harp, of all instruments, front and center. The instrumentation results in beautiful gong-like effects that reminded me of Debussy’s use of gamelan music. It was much better received than most contemporary works, and its composer deserved her applause.

It was followed, after the “Mozart Moment” from “Idomeneo,” by his Piano Concerto in D-minor No. 20, Opus 466, with pianist Henry Kramer. I am not a great fan of the Opus 466, which seems more dramatic than musical, but Kramer made it sound better than it is.
The balance between orchestra and soloist was well-nigh perfect, especially in the dialogs between the piano and woodwinds.

The cadenzas, by Beethoven, were spectacular.

I reviewed Kramer’s version of the “Elvira Madigan” (Mozart Concerto No. 21) a while ago, and found it technically flawless but without much Romantic sensibility. He still has a little way to go in that repertoire, but took the bit in his teeth during the third movement, forcing the orchestra into an ultra-rapid and exciting tempo. The audience loved it, as they did his more relaxed and flexible encore of the Brahms Romanza, Opus 118, No. 5. Both received a standing ovation.

Finally came a colorful reading of Richard Strauss’ “Ein Heldenleben,” an orchestral tour-de-force that the PSO negotiated (almost) perfectly, and with a wide dynamic range.

The brasses are the heroes of this work, but the brightest star was concert master Charles Dimmick’s violin solo depicting the hero’s love interest. The orchestra, and its various sections, received a standing ovation, but Dimmick received cheers as well. HIs performance of this difficult part combined brilliant technique with emotional depth, plus the ability to stand out against Strauss’s massed horns.

Moody’s interpretation was exciting in the sections depicting struggle and victory, but he was also able to turn the hero’s departure from this world into a moving portrait worthy of “Tod und Verklarung.”

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

Vox Nova Celebrates the Winter Solstice

Vox Nova
Franco Center, Lewiston
Jan. 20, 2018
by Christopher Hyde

“To whose more clear than crystal voice, the frost had joined a crystal spell.” The Vox Nova Winter Solstice concert, Saturday night at the Franco Center, reminded me of Leonie Adams’ line, with a succession of images as sparkling, cold and clear as frost patterns on a window pane.

Where does director Shannon Chase find these works? Stanzas of great poetry set to contemporary music that adds to their effect. She even found an e.e. cummings poem, set by Steve Heizeg (b. 1959), with capitol letters (“Noel Noel”). “little tree” was almost enough to give one the Christmas spirit, ending with a peal of bells from the harp, played by Victoria Flanagan.

Flanagan also decorated — I hesitate to use the word accompanied— a moving setting of Thomas Hardy’s “The Oxen,” by Marjorie Hess (b. 1958) and a truly dolce version of “What Sweeter Music by Robert Herrick, with music by Michael Fink (b. 1955).

Chase  uses instrumentalists to good effect, without diminishing the effectiveness of the perfect intervals attainable with an a cappella choir. The first half of the program was sung by a small group, Intima,” and the second by the full chamber choir, with harp, flute, trumpet, piano and string quartet.

A Latvian folksong, “Northern Lights,” with music by Eriks Ešenvals (b. 1977), included tuned water glasses and chimes, adding to the wonder expressed in the song, which compares the perpetual rise and fall of the northern lights to harp music.

Vox Nova has a strong bass section, fully revealed in “Evensong,” by Stephen Paulus (1949-2014), to a poem by Matthias Claudus (1740-1815). One of the most effective works, however. was “Tundra,” by Ola Gjeilo (b. 1978), setting a poem by Charles A. Silvestri. It was sung by the Women’s Chamber Chorus, Jennifer Caton, soprano, with the piano and string quartet taking the tenor and bass lines.

The last time Vox Nova performed “Come to the Woods” by Jake Runestad (b. 1986) to a poem by John Muir (1838-1914), I gave it a rave review. It was just as good the second time — a concerto for piano and chorus, with Amy Maier at the piano. While listening to the wind during our October hurricane I thought of Muir climbing a pine tree to witness the storm described in his poem.

The program concluded with a wonderful version of “Auld Lang Syne,” which not only uses Burns’ original wording, but alters the traditional melody to give it a more authentic Highlands flavor. The work, by Mairi Campbell (b. 1965), was given a definitive reading by the chorus and Erika Leighton, mezzo-soprano and Julia Nadeau, soprano, with Maier at the piano.

The concert was both a celebration and a catharsis of winter. Now if someone could set Ezra Pound’s ode “Winter is icumen in, Lud sing Goddam. Skiddeth bus and sloppeth us,and how the wind doth ram…” Spike Jones perhaps?

The Winter Solstice program will be repeated today at 3:00 p.m. at the Orion Center for the Performing Arts in Topsham. It should not be missed.

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

Serendipity at Merrill

Pianist Lukáš Vondráček
Merrill Auditorium
Jan. 7, 2018
by Christopher Hyde

Portland Ovations has a way of making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. When Russian pianist Behzod Abduraimov couldn’t travel to Merrill Auditorium on Jan. 7, they were able to book a noted Czech pianist, Lukáš Vondráček, as a substitute.

I can’t compare the two, but Vondráček’s program was first rate, and attracted a large audience for a concert on a cold winter’s day. That it featured two of my favorite long works for piano was an added bonus.

The first was the great Brahms Piano Sonata No. 3 in F Minor, Op. 5, written when he was 20. Full of youthful exuberance and extravagantly Romantic, it contains enough beautiful melodies for five later symphonies, when the composer was not so profligate with his inspirations.

I found the performance, while technically flawless, vaguely disappointing. The melodies were all there, in perfect order, including one of the most noble marches in music (in the final movement), but their developments seemed to lack continuity. It was not the pianist’s melodic sense, he had that in spades for the last work on the program, or his dynamics, which had a wide range.

Not to put too fine a point on it, there were too many climaxes, a failing of the youthful Brahms, amplified by Vondráček’s inserting a tiny pause in front of each climactic chord, in order to amplify it. A little of this habit goes a long way.

It was still quite wonderful to hear again. My slight disappointment may also have been due to ownership of the definitive Julius Katchen recording of 1950, after which the interpretation of Brahms went downhill.

After intermission came “Memories” (Op. 6) by Czech composer Vitezslav Novak (1870-1949), late Romantic impressions that were pleasant to hear but less than earth-shaking after what had preceded them..

The final work was also a substitution—of Schubert’s final Sonata in B-flat Major (1828) for the Schumann “Carnival.” A wise choice.

It was “of a divine length,” but like the composer, one didn’t want it to stop, no matter how many modulations and transformations buffeted the final theme, which ends ferociously only when Schubert decides that he has had enough.

The fast movements were very fast, and the slow ones slow, but the balance was almost perfect. Vondráček’s fine melodic sense was revealed in the second movement, with a theme that rivals Brahms in its profundity, and was as beautifully sung as something can be on the piano.

The Schubert earned a deserved standing ovation. There was no encore, which would have been an anti-climax.

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

Voices from the Renaissance

Renaissance Voices
Cathedral Church of St. Luke
Dec. 16, 17, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

The Christmas concert of the a cappella choir, Renaissance Voices, Saturday night and Sunday afternoon at the Cathedral Church of St. Luke, reminds me of Mathew Arnold’s image, in “Dover Beach,” of a faith that once held the Western World together. The music transports one to that era, when a still, small voice could yet be heard, and reindeer were merely the Lapp’s cattle.

Echoes resound in music director Harold Stover’s programming of modern music and that of the Victorian era, represented in this year’s concert by four motets by Josef Rheinberger (1839-1901). Rheinberger’s “Neun Advent-Motetten, Op. 176, are more difficult than his Renaissance models, especially in their demand for sustained tenuto of difficult intervals. They were worth the effort, however.

This year’s Renaissance-era offerings were relatively well-known, beginning with “Natus est Nobis,” by Tomas Luis de Victoria (1548-1611) and ending with “Canite tuba in Sion” (Blow the trumpets in Zion) by Hieronymus Praetorius (1560-1629).

The latter was something of a revelation, in that the listener knows the intent of the music (apart from the text) and can appreciate the composer’s success in rendering it. In this case,, the work consists entirely of combinations of trumpet calls, imitated by the choir, and is quite magnificent.

An effective juxtaposition was an anonymous “Laudemus Virginum“ (c. 1399), with a traditional English carol, “Blessed be that maid Marie,” similar in mood and perhaps as old.

Modern works included a deeply felt “O Magnum Mysterium,” by American composer Sally Hermon, and a setting of “A little child there is ybore”, by British composer David W. Jepson, sung by soprano Joanne deKay.

As customary at the Renaissance Voices Christmas program, the musical offerings were interspersed with appropriate readings of poetry, in this case two Christmas poems by Jane Kenyon, and “Department Store,” by Carl Dennis.

A work by Orlando de Lasso (1532-1594), seemed particularly appropriate to this season: “Veni Domine, et noli tardare…” (“Come, Lord, and do not delay. Pardon the misdeeds of your people, and bring the dispersed back to your land.”)

Today’s concert will be at 2:00 p.m.

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

The Magic of Christmas

Portland Symphony Orchestra
“Magic of Christmas”
Merrill Auditorium
Dec. 8-17, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

The 38th annual “Magic of Christmas” series by the Portland Symphony Orchestra at Merrill Auditorium, omitted some of the bells and whistles of previous productions, but was alll the better for it, letting the music stand on its own, aided by sopranos Suzanne Nance and Susie Pepper.

The first half of the program was the least successful, consisting largely of medleys featuring the kind of holiday music played in department stores, albeit by a better orchestra.

Notable exceptions were an unknown Romanian carol, “O, ce vesti minuntã,” sung by Nance, and a bluesy version of “All I Want for Christmas is You,” by Pepper.

The solo orchestra was on display in a lively version of Prokofiev’s “Troika” from the “Lieutenant Kijė” Suite, which could have used a little more rehearsal time. This review is of opening night, and things are bound to improve over the next two weeks.

The prize for “it seemed like a good idea a the time” goes to a medley of songs with the word “magic” in them, with the orchestra backing up Pepper and Nance. Containing the word does not confer any distinction to the songs, but the light show was spectacular.

The second half of the show was marvelous, beginning with “Fanfare and Flourishes for a Festive Occasion,” played by a brass choir, with organ accompaniment by Ray Cornils.

The “Magic of Christmas” chorus, under chorus master Nicolás Dosman, contributed a striking chant-like “Gloria in Excelsis Deo” by Mack Wilberg, the arranger of three of the evening’s show pieces.

It was followed by a moving performance of “O Holy Night” by Nance, who sang it as well as any operatic soprano could. (Note to future PSO conductors: For full effect, it requires a boy soprano.)

The highlight of the evening was Handel’s “Hallelujah” chorus. It is always good to hear this from a a major chorus and orchestra but both outdid themselves on Friday. The part singing by the chorus was perfectly delineated and balanced, without the muddiness that often mars its performance by a large group.

Pepper’s expansive version of “Let it Go,” from “Frozen,” captivated the younger members of the audience, dressed in holiday finery, some with reindeer antlers.

Music director Robert Moody, conducting his last “Magic of Christmas” series of concerts, sang “My Grown Up Christmas List,” with the orchestra conducted by Dosman. Moody has a surprisingly good voice, which sometimes reminded me of a French horn.

The traditional holiday carol sing-along seemed louder and livelier than usual, with Moody quipping that the audience was auditioning for next-year’s chorus.

The final “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” with chorus and soloists in a Wilberg arrangement, was especially appropriate in these times. Now if it could only be sung to the right tune…

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

Never a Dull Moment in Dual Piano Concert

Dual Pianists Igor Lovchinsky and Matthew Graybil
Franco Center, Lewiston
Dec. 1, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

The final Piano Series concert of 2017, Friday at the Franco Center in Lewiston, was also one of the most entertaining and unusual.  Igor Lovchinsky and Martin Graybil performed works for two pianos as well as individual solos, without a dull moment in a well-diversified program.

They began with the original two-piano version of Ravel’s “Mother Goose Suite,” which is not heard often enough in this form. The composer wrote it for a friend’s two precocious children and it is not merely brilliant technically, but also a masterpiece of musical description. The pianists seemed to enjoy the glissandos and other fireworks of “The Fairy Garden” as much as the children must have, and the dialog between Beauty and the Beast was characterized perfectly.

Graybil’s turn as soloist was devoted to three movements of a piano version of “Petrushka,” which Stravinsky wrote for Arthur Rubinstein.  Stravinsky, like Bartok, regarded the piano as a percussion instrument and his transcription shows it, with fiendishly difficult rhythmical patterns. It also incorporates the composer’s most recognizable melodies while evoking the atmosphere of the most popular scenes of the ballet. Graybil realized it all perfectly, topping it off with a cooliing draft of Chopin—the Nocturne in B Major, Op. 62, No. 1—that illustrated his melodic as well as rhythmical gifts.

The first half of the program concluded with the Waltz from Anton Arensky’s Suite for Two Pianos (No. 1 in F Major, Op. 15), a glorious period piece with as many soaring decorations as a piece of baroque furniture, all of which were executed with appropriate grace and not the slightest hint of condescension.

After crepes and wine in the Center’s reception room, the program resumed with solos by Lovchinsky, beginning with an understated (for him) transcription of Bach’s “Nun Komm, der Heiden Heiland” by Ferruccio Busoni. That was followed by a Chopin Mazurka in A Minor, Op. 17, No. 4 and the famous Polonaise in A-flat Major, Op. 53.

Although it brought the audience to its feet, I found the tempo of the Polonaise a bit too fast for what is intended as a stately dance. The middle section, with its rapid pattern of descending octaves, should be a canter rather than a gallop.

My favorite of this segment was a Grand Fantasy on “Porgy and Bess” by pianist Earl Wild, based on “Summertime” and “There’s a boat dat’s leavin’ soon for New York.” It is a show-off piece for piano technique, but more important, it captures the character of Gershwin’s own improvisations.

The final work of the evening was a delightful “Scaramouche” for two pianos by Darius Milhaud (1892-1974), which ends in rousing samba. The encore, following a standing ovation, was a set of variations for two pianos on the “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” from Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker.”  Graybil said that it was written by a Cypriot pianist, Nicholas Economou, for himself and Martha Argerich.

The final concert of the 2017-2018 season will be on Mach 8, 2018, by Maine’s own Henry Kramer.

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

Brahms vs Wagner at the Portland Symphony

Portland Symphony Orchestra
Merrill Auditorium
Nov. 15, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

I was looking forward to the battle of the 19th century—Liszt and Wagner (“modern” music), versus Brahms (tradition). From the Portland Symphony Orchestra under Ken-David Masur, candidate for music director, I got the kind of game that makes one want to turn off the TV and go to bed.

It had a few exciting moments but most of it was, shall we say, uninspired. It should be mentioned that the fans loved it, giving standing ovations to the Liszt Concerto No.1 in E-flat Major, brilliantly rendered by pianist Ran Dank, and the glorious final movement of the Brahms Symphony No. 1 in C Minor, Op. 68.

The program began with the overture to “Tannhäuser,” in the slowest version I have ever heard this side of a slipping turntable. The interpretation provided some moments of knightly nobility in the brass, but mostly revealed Wagner’s string-section fillers. .

It was followed by the Liszt concerto, one of my least favorite compositions. Its opening motif, which crops up all over, is said to have proclaimed: “This, you do not understand,” and is as irritating musically as it is philosophically.

The concerto is basically a show-off piece, and Rank managed its extreme difficulties with ease. One place that Liszt shows some imagination is in his brilliant treble passage work (there is surprisingly little bass) and in this Dank excelled. The pianist demanded a slightly brisker tempo than displayed in the Wagner piece, but there is little for the orchestra to do anyway. The famous triangle was there, and some nice duets with the woodwinds, but that was about it, except for blaring the”understand” passage once in a while.

As readers may have noticed, I am a a confirmed Brahmsian, and it was with horror that during the first moment of the First Symphony I began to wonder when it would end. The tempo was so slow that the opening melody was lost in chaos for a few bars. Ditto the summer serenade of the second movement.

Things began to pick up in the allegretto grazioso, which is lighter than air, and finally accelerated to a reasonable tempo in the final movement, one of the great treasures of the world. It worked in spite of a completely inaudible passage that I noted as “invisible pizzicati.”

At the las moment, flocks of angels came to Masur’s rescue, bearing the music up with heavenly horn calls, some of the best I have heard, and leading into the fabulous final melody. Now I began to wish that it wouldn’t stop.

Throughout the concert the musicians gave their all, but they must have been dumbfounded by what the conductor was asking most of the time. Young people like to reinterpret the classics every generation, but there are limits.

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