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.

Guilty Pleasures

Bowdoin International Music Festival
Studzinski Recital Hall
Aug. 1, 2018
by Christopher Hyde

Composer Paul Schoenfield (b. 1947) wonders if his “Café Music,” (1985) played Wednesday night at Bowdoin’s Studzinski Recital Hall, rises to the level of classical music that might be performed on its own, rather than as background in Murray’s Restaurant.

The answer, according to Janet Sung, violin, Ahrim Kim, cello and Tao Lin, piano, is a resounding yes. In fact, were it to be played at Murray’s, it would harsh everyone’s mellow. and render conversation impossible.

The three-movement work is a pastiche of cocktail lounge standards, pushed to their limits and well beyond. It is art, the way Roy Lichtenstein’s Ben Day paintings are art, deconstructing works everyone knows and re-assembling them with fresh meanings. The result, in Café Music, is pure excitement, and a sense of wonder that the transformations can be played at all. There is even sustained melody, as the strings imitate singers in the “andante.”

A vastly entertaining mix of guilty pleasures, but pleasures nevertheless.

“Café Music,” as is customary in concert programming, was sandwiched between two better-known classics—the opening Debussy Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp, and Richard Strauss’ late “Metamorphosen” as it was originally written for string septet.

The Debussy, played by Julie Nah Kyung Lee, flute, Kirsten Docter, viola, and June Han, harp, made one wish that he had been able to complete the proposed set of six, based on ancient French forms, with various, sometimes unusual, combinations of instruments.

The flute-harp-viola combination seems somehow feminine, harking back to “Sirenes” but with greater delicacy. The harp, under Han’s fingers, was the first among equals, often taking the lead.  She sometimes over-did the muting, when one hoped for a bit more resonance behind the strings.

The “Metamorphosen” works better as a septet (two cellos, violins and violas, one double bass) than the more familiar version for string orchestra. The texture of interwoven voices is so dense that it is hard to follow even with the smaller number of players.

When it is done right, as it was on Wednesday night, the result is a tightly woven tapestry of gold, silver and crimson threads stretching all the way back to some of the composer’s most notable works—and to Beethoven. As if the characteristic sound did not identify the composer beyond a doubt, the help-mate violin from “Ein Heldenleben” also makes a cameo appearance, complementing the deep bass of the introduction and finale.

The highly intense performance drew a prolonged standing ovation from Bowdoin Festival students, faculty and subscribers.

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

Serkin Dazzles and Disappoints

Bowdoin International Music Festival
Peter Serkin, PIanist
Studzinski Recttal Hall
July 29, 2018
by Christopher Hyde

Pianist Peter Serkin has it all, tight control over a wide range of dynamics, flawless passage work and ornamentation, an ear for inner voices, architectural phrasing, and an unrivaled musical sensitivity, capable of revealing fresh aspects of familiar works and launching new ones.

Why then, was his recital at Studzinski Hall,  part of the Bowdoin International Music Festival, strangely lacking in excitement?
Admittedly, it was a hot and somnolent Sunday afternoon, but this is one of the finest pianists of a generation, in a concert that had been sold out for months. Maybe it was Mozart who conjured up the spirit of Morpheus.

Amadeus was never at his best in a minor-key, tragic mode, and Serkin played two of his most lugubrious compositions—the Adagio in B Minor, K. 540 and the Piano Sonata No. 8 in A Minor, K 310. (Rachmaninoff used the indication “Lugubre” in his early Piano Trio, played a couple of weeks ago at the festival.)

The realizations of these two works, and the more cheerful Piano Sonata No. 17 in B-flat Major, K. 570, brought out voices never heard before, perhaps not even to the composer.

Most of Mozart’s published piano sonatas began life as keyboard improvisations. Unlike the Haydn sonatas, they can be sight-read by any moderately proficient pianist.

Could it be that their appeal lies largely on the surface, that simplicity in their rendering might be a virtue? And skip the repeats as soon as the audience begins to cough.

The most exciting part of the afternoon was its beginning, hearing the Variations, Op. 24, by Oliver Knussen, a British composer who was a close friend of the pianist and wrote the Variations for him. The tragic Mozart works may have been intended as a memorial to Knussen, who died this year.

The variations are indeed “concise,” to the point of making Anton Webern seem long-winded. Indeed, the theme of the variations sounds like half a tone row, and Serkin never loses sight of it through thick and thin, with some virtuoso etudes thrown in. Its six minutes, passed rapidly.

It was also a treat to hear Schumann’s “Waldszenen,” Op. 82, outside the confines of a student piano recital. Serkin made the ephemeral vignettes seem more profound than they are, in particular the “Vogel als Prophet,” in which the bird’s prophecy is a melodic peace and harmony that escaped the composer.

Serkin has an irritating habit of pausing for what seems an eternity with his hands on the keys, before he allows the awe-struck audience to applaud,. It goes with his huge fermatas, which have enough room to recapitulate an entire theme.

But who else would dare to perform one of Bach’s two-part inventions as an encore?

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

A Memorable “Marriage”

Opera Maine
“Marriage of Figaro”
Merrill Auditorium
July 25, 2018
by Christopher Hyde

If you don’t have tickets already, buy whatever is available for Opera Maine’s new production of “The Marriage of Figaro.” on Friday. It has everything—a great cast of singers, an interesting Downton Abbey-style set by Portland’s Christopher Akerlind, an understandable plot (if chaotic at times), Mozart’s music played by a fine orchestra under maestro Stephen Lord, humor, romance and sex. Even the supertitles are good.

Thanks to artistic director Dona D. Vaughn for one of the most memorable presentations of this work in recent years.

Where to begin? Probably with Figaro himself, sung by bass-baritone Robert Mellon. If he were not a world-class singer, he could make a career as a stand-up comic. HIs facial expressions as he tries desperately to explain events in the countess’ chamber are priceless, like his antics with the dowdy Marcellina, sung by mezzo-soprano MaryAnn McCormick. He is perfectly cast.

Speaking of perfect, soprano Maeve Höglund as Figaro’s betrothed, Susanna, had better be careful or she will be type-cast as Mozart’s favorite heroine. She is a fine actress, and her voice has remarkable clarity and power without a hint of shrillness. Her duets with soprano Danielle Pastin, as Countess Almaviva, are enthralling in their subtle contrasts of tone and timbre.

Baritone Keith Phares makes an ideal foil for Figaro and Susanna’s machinations as the pretty-boy Count Almaviva who has abolished his droit de seigneur powers because he can fool around quite as well without them. I got the impression that the lovely flower-girl chorus was composed primarily of his conquests among the servants.

Among the principals, mezzo-soprano Hongni Wu stole the show as the equally lecherous Cherubino, the teenaged go-between who loves the Countess but will take anything he can get. He/she lightens up the stage whenever she appears. My theory is that she is Mozart, who puts himself in his operas the way Alfred Hitchcock did in movies.

The ancillary roles are sung and acted with humor and authenticity. Special mention should be made of bass Kevin Glavin, as the scheming Dr. Bartolo. His rapid-fire rendition of legal polysyllables must have inspired Rossini’s “Largo al factotum,” in his own “Barber of Seville.”

The Victorian sets work quite well, as do the costumes by Millie Hiibel. The first three acts take place in rooms typical of those in a British manor, suggested by a tapestry-like background. They provide a feeling of intimacy, yet with ample room for Mozart’s characteristic device of characters at odds with each other singing from opposite sides of the stage.

The final seduction scene, however, takes place in a “pine grove” portrayed by huge pinecone-like scales in the background, with the foreground dominated by two giant segmented horns. Tree trunks, phallic symbols, or the duplicate horns of a cuckold? The characters in their cloaks look like wraiths, indicating that something serious is at stake.

But all is resolved in the end, the lighting becomes more cheerful, Susanna and Figaro, and the Count and Countess are reconciled, and the entire cast joins in a gigantic chorus. The curtain falls and it is time for the cheers, bravos and flowers.
Next year “The Magic Flute.”

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

A Tribute to Youthful Enthusiasm at Bowdoin

Bowdoin International Music Festival
Studzinski Recital Hall
July 20, 2018
by Christopher Hyde

An evening of youthful effusions made for a bumpy ride Friday night at Studzinski Hall as the Bowdoin International Music Festival entered its final two weeks.

The early opus numbers by Rachmaninoff and Brahms had the virtues and defects of their kind, while “Space Jump” (2013), Opus 46 of Fazil Say, explored the brave new world of classical mixed media, with mixed results.

Say, a Turkish piano prodigy and well-known composer, wrote “Space Jump” to memorialize the descent of daredevil Felix Baumgartner from the stratosphere to earth, during which he seems to have exceeded the speed of sound (not that of light, as stated in the accompanying video clip, which really would have been spectacular). He landed alone in desert scrubland, which made me worry about rattlesnakes.

The musical depiction, for piano, violin and cello, would have been fine on its own, rather like a transcription of “Also Sprach Zarathustra” for music box, but was accompanied by a rather pedestrian video and even worse text. Years ago, I was one of those who thought a poet should be the first man in space, but alas, it was not to be.

What spoiled it completely, however, was the logo of an energy drink on the space suit and its name dominating the film credits.

The evening began with the Rachmaninoff Trio élégiaque No. 1 in G Minor, written when he was 19, but not as a memorial to Tchaikovsky, although one of its themes is an inversion of the first four notes of that composer’s Concerto No. 1.

It shows a lack of experience in writing for strings, but already has the characteristic Rachmaninoff sound in the dominating piano part. Its best section is the concluding funeral march, in which the muted bass of the piano perfectly supports a melodic duet of violin and cello.

The Brahms Piano Quartet No. 1 in G Minor, Op. 25, which concluded the program, was written as a display piece, with flashy show-off sections that must have made the composer blush in later years. It gave his friend Clara Schumann a fine vehicle for her virtuosity.

Whether because of the composer’s youthful exuberance (and plethora of themes), or lack of rehearsal time, the performance seemed lacking in continuity. The piano part, played with bravura by Yong Hi Moon, took center stage, with two movements ending in solo cadenzas. The final one, a fiendishly rapid czardas, brought the house down, as Brahms intended.

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

Opera Maine “Marriage of Figaro” Will Surprise

Opera Maine “Marriage of Figaro”

Mozart at his most mischievous is a good characterization of “The Marriage of Figaro,” to be presented July 25 and 27 by Opera Maine at Merrill Auditorium.

The composer must have jumped at the chance to paint musical portraits of a count and countess, the cunning barber (of Seville), a horny teenager (himself?) a silly girl, a conniving doctor and an unconventional young woman, all wrapped up in a bawdy tale that had to be cleaned up a little to pass the Viennese censors. (The libretto is based on a popular play by Beaumarchais, adapted by Lorenzo DaPonte.)

The combination of aristocracy, romance, humor and great music has made The Marriage of Figaro” one of the ten most popular operas of all time.

Opera Maine artistic director Dona D. Vaughn finds it relevant in the “me too,” age, when men still use wealth and authority in an attempt to control women like Susanna (Figaro’s bride to be). “You often hear ‘I was afraid to speak up,’ but Susanna isn’t afraid at all.” She outfoxes Count Almaviva, who is trying to cheat on the Countess and assert his droit de seigneur before the wedding.

Vaughn likens the play to an Alice-in-Wonderland world, where anything can happen. It makes it possible for the music to range from heart-breaking to farcical without missing a beat.

“When we scheduled the opera (for the second time in 17 years), I thought ‘What have I done?’ but every time you produce it you find something different. Several of the cast and our conductor, Stephen Lord, have done it before, and everyone has an idea of how it should go. The result is a collaborative effort, and something new.

As usual, Vaughn has some surprises in store. They are not in the role of Susanna—she has portrayed strong women before—but in the setting. Originally staged in Count Almaviva’s palace not far from Seville, in the18th Century, the Marriage will take place in a lavish country manor, in a different country, around 1900, when class distinctions were more evident, and all sorts of eccentricities were tolerated: “You can do anything you like here, just don’t do it in the yard and scare the horses.”

Props lent by the Victoria Mansion will provide period authenticity.

Vaughn is enthusiastic about this year’s cast, which includes several who have sung at the Metropolitan Opera and other world-famous venues, plus others who are on the cusp of major careers.

Keith Phares will perform the role of Count Almaviva and soprano Danielle Pastin is the Countess. Returning to perform with Opera Maine are tenor Robert Brubaker as Basilio, baritone Robert Mellon as Figaro, and soprano Maeve Höglund as Susanna. Mezzo-soprano Hongni Wu joins the cast having just won the Metropolitan Council Auditions. Also featured are soprano MaryAnn McCormick as Marcellina, and bass Kevin Glavin as Bartolo.

The opera will be sung in Italian, with supertitles in English.

In another current production by Opera Maine, mezzo-soprano Raehann Bryce-Davis leads the cast of Jake Heggie’s “Three Decembers,” which also features Studio Artists soprano Symone Harcum, and tenor Yazid Gray. This opera was composed in 2008 with librettist Gene Scheer. Set in the Decembers of 1986, 1996, and 2006, the 90-minute opera tells the story of a famous stage actress, Madeline Mitchell, and her two adult children, Beatrice and Charlie, as they struggle to know and love one another.

“Three Decembers” can be heard Friday, July 13 at Deertrees Theater, Harrison; Sunday, July 15 at The Temple, Ocean Park; and Monday, July 16, at Camden Opera House.

A Definitive “Quartet for the End of Time” at BIMF

Bowdoin International Music Festival
Studzinski Recital Hall
July 11, 2018
by Christopher Hyde

Olivier Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time” is not generally considered a vehicle for virtuoso display, but its sublime beauty can be revealed only by those with extraordinary musical ability.
Such was the case Wednesday night at Studzinski Recital Hall, when Amir Eldan, cello, Derek Bermel, clarinet, Pei-Shan Lee, piano, and Ayano Ninomiya, violin, gave a definitive reading of this seminal work.

The players are faculty members of the Bowdoin International Music Festival, taking place now through the beginning August, but they might have been playing the quartet together for years, judging by the ensemble supporting three outstanding solo performances.
Lee held it all together and assisted as ably as the composer directing from the piano.

I never tire of hearing this work, which is said to have had a lifelong effect on those who first heard it performed in a German prison camp. Too often, however, it is played as a curiosity, as a memorial to the victims of World War II, or even as evidence of Messiaen’s quaint beliefs. It stands alone, without historical trappings, as a musical masterpiece, and so it was treated on Wednesday night

It began characteristically with nightingale and blackbird opening the “Liturgie de crystal” for the full quartet, followed by a “Vocalize, pour l’Ange qui announce la fin due Temps.”

The first of the major solos is by the clarinet, played very slowly, with huge fermatas and sustained notes that test the lungs of any performer. It is called “Abîme des oiseaux.” The abyss is time, in all its sadness, according to the composer, while the birds, also imitated by the clarinet, represent freedom and joy. Bermel painted the picture perfectly, testing the limits of his instrument.

After a brief interlude without piano, it was the turn of the cello, also playing very slowly and “ecstatically,” in the “Louange (praise) à l’Éternité de Jésus.” The melody, often repeated, evokes Genesis: “In the beginning was the Word, and Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

The most rhythmic, verging on jazzy, movement is the “Danse de la fureur, pour les sept trumpets.” announcing the apocalypse. It is also more terrifying than any other composer’s Dies Irae, and includes some impossibly loud tutti, which must have reached the far rows of its original 5000-man audience.

The “rainbow tangles” of the seventh movement give the composer a chance to play with his favorite blue-orange chords, during which Lee brought out some striking inner voices

In the final movement, “Louange à L’Immortalité de Jésus,” the violin speaks, like the cello before it, but this time of Christ’s life on earth—a long limbed melody that dies away into the almost imperceptible reaches of the upper register. The large audience, which included many festival students, stayed entranced for several moments before giving it a loud standing ovation.

The gods, which do not permit human perfection, smuggled in cellphones, not once but twice during this solo, the first a piano ringtone and the second a beep. Please people, I beg of you, leave that electronic junk at home. You can never be sure that it is silenced.

The Quartet obscured a lively and brilliant rendition of a work never intended to be profound, the Hayden Piano Trio in C Major (Hob. XV:27), played by Julian Martin, piano, Robin Scott, violin, and Julia Lichten, cello. Thanks to Martin for pointing out the Janissary Band references, which predate Mozart’s famous Turkish March.

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

Noise Into Music, from Sō Percussion

Bowdoin International Music Festival
Sō Percussion
Studzinski Recital Hall
July 8, 2018
by Christopher Hyde

The name Sō comes from a Japanese character meaning, (among other definitions) “to play music.” Within it is another character, the exact image of a person offering a gift, meaning “to present with both hands.”

Both are suitable for the eminent four-man percussion group Sō (pronounced “so”), which combines musical performance with education and philanthropy. The performance aspect can be both intimate and spectacular, as evidenced by Sō’s appearance at Studzinski Recital Hall for one of the new Sunday matinees presented by the Bowdoin International Music Festival.

The first work on the program, “Torque” (2018), is described by composer Vijay Iyer, as follows: “Torque, a twisting force on a body, seems to appear for the listener at music’s formal boundaries, when one movement  gives way to another. This piece for Sō Percussion invites them to perform transformations that twist the music’s temporal flow, bringing the micro-relational art of the rhythm section to this virtuosic quartet.”

I call it “too many marimbas.”

The marimba, Vibraphone and its xylophone-like cousins attempt to combine percussion and melody, something the piano does already, and much better. Because it lacks clang, a little soothing marimba music, no matter how well played —and these are masters of the first order— goes a long way.

The next piece, “Taxidermy” (2012), by Caroline Shaw, returned Sō to one of its original specialties, drumming on found objects, in this case tuned flowerpots. The result is grand, awkward, epic, silent, funny and just a bit creepy, (like its title), according to Shaw. It exemplifies a line from T.S. Eliot, repeated rhythmically during the performance: “the detail of the pattern is movement.”

I found it more interesting and imaginative than the opener, with an eerie bell-like effect generated by combining the pot notes with deep bass voices. Fermatas, long periods of silence, became an integral part of the music

“Broken Unison” (2017) by Donnacha Dennehy, was another marimba piece defined by pedantic and incomprehensible program notes, but with more interesting percussion effects, such as the use of a muted bass drum. It “disrupts unisons,” by various means, including the use of canons (think “row, row, row your boat”) created on four xylophones ad infinitum. Its chromaticism is said to have been influenced by that of Gesualdo (1566-1613) a composer best known for killing his wife and her lover.

It was after intermission that Sō was revealed in all its glory, with “Amid the Noise” (2006) by Jason Treuting, a member of the ensemble.

Seven vignettes of street sounds somehow transformed themselves into music, with the help of festival students on piano, violin, saxophone, cello and percussion. The transformations were so profound and inevitable that they became emotionally moving.

There were too many wonderful scenes to recount here. Four on a drum, like Native Americans, revealed Sō’s virtuosity with polyrhythms. I think they could play 13 against 17 beats without breaking a sweat. A session at the piano, keyboard, sounding board and strings, punctuated by real clanging tonic chords, revealed it to be the ultimate percussion instrument that Bartok thought it was. A noise-making machine that looked like a briefcase created a thunderstorm, punctuated by one of those little bells one uses to call a salesperson.

“You had to have been there.” Sō has a website, and the BIMF concert was live-streamed, but there is no substitute for the real thing. The Sunday-afternoon audience, which had itself participated in the show, gave it a prolonged standing ovation.

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

Festival Fireworks

Bowdoin International Music Festival
Studzinski Recital Hall
July 4, 2018
by Christopher Hyde

Due to the July 4 holiday, a smaller crowd than usual heard some fireworks of their own at Wednesday’s concert of the Bowdoin International Music Festival at Studzinski Hall. The display took the typical “sandwich” form, with a contemporary work, John Harbison’s (b. 1936) Sonata No. 1 for Violin and Piano, between two popular classics.

The program began with the Mozart Violin Sonata No. 32 in B-flat Major (K.454), with the viola, played by Masumi Per Rostad, substituting for the violin. The piano part, played by Chiao-Wen Chang, often dominated the performance. Whether this was due to Mozart’s wanting to show off his skills in front of a visiting virtuoso, or to differences in the sound and articulation of the stringed instruments, is unclear. One listener likened it to a waltz between a dolphin and a manatee.

The viola came off best in the song-like Andante, but there were a few fireworks in the final Allegretto, with some rapid-fire exchanges that would have been difficult enough on the violin.

The Harbison, played by Ayano Ninomiya, violin, and Tao Lin, piano, contained aerial bombs in the form of a brutalist (and virtuoso) ostinato of rapid-fire chords in the Rondo, the fourth and semi-concluding movement, since the sonata tapers off in a final “Mysterious Postscript.”

The  five-movement work begins with an intense and uncompromising Sinfonia, but loosens up substantially as it goes along. The second movement, Intermezzo: Grazioso, has a pleasant conversation in stacatto utterances between the violin and piano.

The piece de resistance, however, was the great Piano Trio in A Minor of Maurice Ravel, which contains everything but the kitchen sink, as if the composer suspected that he would die in the Great War, which he almost did. There are echoes of “La Valse,” ghosts from “Tombeau de Couperin,” Basque themes and Malaysian music,al forms, which influenced both Ravel and Debussy. Somehow, it all comes together gloriously

Like the Mozart sonata, the trio generally leans toward the piano part, but Alan Chow kept it under control, even in the virtuosic Pantoum; Assez Vif, (and in spite of a wolfish bass string in the Steinway. ) He was partnered brilliantly by David Bowlin, violin and Ahrim Kim, cello. A complete fireworks display from set pieces  through pinwheels to multiple rocket bursts. The students in the audience cheered and the rest gave it a rare standing ovation.

Coming up next Wednesday is the sui generis “Quartet for the End of Time” by Olivier Messiaen.

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

First Festival Friday at Bowdoin

Bowdoin International Music Festival
Studzinski Hall
June 29, 2018
by Christopher Hyde

The first of what used to be called “Festival Fridays” at the Bowdoin International Music Festival, took place June 29 in Studzinski Hall rather than the larger Crooker Theater, where they had been performed for many years. The change of venue, and the addition of reserved seats, seems a step forward, in terms of both acoustics and ambience. The stage is not large enough for the festival orchestra, whose programs will continue to be held at Crooker.

The evening began with a work by Ravi Shankar, which inspired a devout wish that he had written more for flute and harp, such as “L’Aube Enchantée sur le Raga ‘Todi,’” than for the Sitar. One can only imagine the difficulties of producing raga-like pitch relations on a pedal harp, let alone the intricate meters of the music, but harpist June Han managed it with surpassing ease. (Her gilded harp was a work of art in itself.)

The “melody” of the work, written for flutist Jean-Pierre Rampal, was carried with bravura by Laura del Sol Jiménez, whom we heard most recently in the outstanding Bach Virtuosi Festival performance of the Brandenburg Concerto No. 4.

Almost as unusual in its own way was the Violin Sonata in B Minor of Ottorino Respighi (1879-1936), played by sisters Almita Vamos, violin and Eugenia Monacelli, piano. While looking back to the late Romantic era, the sonata also combines Respighi’s fascination with the Baroque and his skill at painting tone poems, such as “The Pines of Rome.”

What made this reading special—causing cheers from a large audience of students—was the singular rapport of the musicians, who seemed able to respond to each other’s most intimate thoughts. H.L. Mencken used to proclaim that the most important characteristic of a great musician, such as Brahms, was brains. Intellectual ability, as well as musicality, marked both the work and its performance.

The evening ended with a magical performance of the Brahms Piano Trio No. 3 in C Minor, Op. 101, by David Bowlin, violin, Amir Eldan, cello and Pei-Shan Lee, piano. The work has everything that makes Brahms special, plus brevity. After hearing the ensemble in the low to mid registers, I would not have cared if Brahms never penned another treble note.

Next Friday’s concert will take place at Crooker, Theater, where the Festival Orchestra, under Angel Gil-Ordóñez, will play Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme, Op. 33,  with Narek Hakhnazaryan, cello.

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

Handel and Bach Close Virtuosi Festival

Bach Virtuosi Festival
Cathedral Church of St. Luke
June 24, 2018
by Christopher Hyde

The Bach Virtuosi Festival, which ended its third season Sunday night at the Cathedral Church of St. Luke, has a way of changing one’s mind about Baroque compositions as a whole, not only those of J.S. Bach.

I was never enthusiastic about Handel operas, but the arias performed by soprano Sherezade Panthaki, countertenor Jay Carter, and trumpeter John Thiessen, were absolutely ravishing.

Handel works a text to death, crams it with fiendishly difficult ornamentation, and the result is a trip to heaven. If performance is all, I had never heard these works before. The combination of a great soprano and an equally fine countertenor provides some amazing effects, indescribable in words, while Panthaki’s voice imitates and surpasses “uplifted angel trumpets” in an aria from “Samson.”

Old J.S., who never met his contemporary, in spite of several attempts, was not to be outdone, however. The Brandenburg concertos are all equally works of genius, but some are more equal than others. Numbers 2 and 5 used to be my favorites, but after hearing the fourth, with flautists Emi Ferguson and Laura del Sol Jimenez and violinist Renee Jolles, supported by the festival’s outstanding chamber orchestra, I’m no longer sure. If Portland’s virtuosi festivals continue, we will come to love all of them to the same degree. or maybe, “if I’m not near the girl I love, I love the girl I’m near.”

The revelations never stopped. Organist Katelyn Emerson, from Maine and now a native of the world, provided a stupendous performance of the Bach Toccata and Fugue in D Minor (BWV 565), that brought a large audience leaping to its collective feet. In her hands, the Skinner organ of St. Luke’s is indeed a phenomenon. It seemed, which is impossible, to have the physical volume control of a pianoforte, the ability to alter stops instantly in call-and response passages, and voices reserved for J. S. Bach alone.

The articulation of its cascades of notes was as crisp as that of a Steinway grand. “The difficult we do immediately, the impossible takes a little longer.”

A pair of Rob Regier’s harpsichords from his Freeport studio took center stage with Arthur Haas and Gabriel Shuford in a performance of the Bach Double Harpsichord Concerto in C Minor (BWV 1069).

This is one instance where the cliché about Bach’s music being for intimate venues applies to some extent. Regier’s harpsichords are not only beautiful, but powerful, yet their sound faded the farther back in the pews one sat. Perhaps harpsichord, or clavier, solos should be presented in the smaller chapel of St. Luke’s. The performance of the concerto itself, one of my favorites, was up to the festival’s standards of excellence (and infectious excitement). Distance only made one listen more closely.

When I was working for ad agencies I would visit New York weekly, with some light excuse, to hear music or go to the ballet. I never heard anything as good as what Lewis Kaplan has brought to Portland.  Let us all hope that it continues.

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