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.

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 classbeat@netscape.net.

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.

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.

Early Music Festival Enlightens and Entertains

Early Music Festival
Portland Conservatory of Music
Oct. 28, 2018
by Christopher Hyde

The final concert of the 7th Annual Early Music Festival at the Portland Conservatory of Music, Sunday afternoon at the Woodfords Congregational Church, was devoted to Chamber Trios of the 18th and 19th Centuries, performed by Lydia Forbes, violin, Myles Jordan, violoncello piccolo, and Timothy Burris, the festival’s founder,  on lute and guitar.

The festival is always a combination of education and entertainment. The revelation in this case was the popularity of small chamber ensembles in the 19th century, centered around the guitar. Everyone is familiar with the piano transcriptions of operas and orchestral music that brought the latest compositions into middle-class parlors, but there was an equally flourishing market for  guitar-based works.

A strange example was the Grand Trio Extract de Mozart of Pierre Jean Porro (1750-1831). It consisted of an arrangement of the trio and minuetto from the Mozart Violin Sonata No. 21 in E Minor, K. 304.

The transcription, for guitar, violin and cello, was innovative and charming, but why not just play the original? The answer seems to have been portability. Porro was a military type, retiring with the rank of lieutenant colonel, and it is unlikely that he took a piano with him into the field. Also, pianos were not quite as ubiquitous (and cheap) as they later became, and many households were without one, whereas a guitar could be found almost anywhere. (La plus change…?)

Of course transcriptions were not the only musical forms available to a guitar-based trio, and some delightful examples were offered, by Antonio Vivaldi and Francois de Fossa (1775-1849). The lute part of the Vivaldi Trio in G Minor, (RV85) was particularly striking, with an uncanny ability to imitate even the brass sections of an orchestra. And loud. It made me think of another instrument not usually associated with trumpet calls: “The wedding guest here beat his breast for he heard the loud bassoon.” (“The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner.”)

Burris, on guitar, played a delicate but lively suite from an earlier era: three dances rom “Livre de Pieces Pour la Guittarre dedié au Roy,” by Robert de Visée, (ca 1655-1732.)

The program began and ended with J.S.Bach. Forbes and Jordan opened with four two-part canons from “The Art of the Fugue,” —well-played, profound and, as Jordan pointed out, “not at all flashy.” I sometimes wonder if Bach’s magnum opus, which he was working on until his death in 1750, was intended for public performance at all.

My opinion was bolstered by the final work on the program, the Bach Sonata in G (BWV 1021), which was everything the cannons were not—short, concise, brilliant and obviously written to entertain, something old Johann knew how to do very well.

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