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.

A Timely “Tosca”

A Timely “Tosca”

I’m looking forward to attending the dress rehearsal of PORTopera’s production of “Tosca,” on Tuesday, July 27. Knowing artistic director Dona Vaughn’s ability to breathe new life into old librettos, and to create more complex characters than usually strut the operatic stage, I’m wondering what she will do with an opera whose arch villain is a policeman, and whose plot echoes Shakespeare’s Mark Antony: “The evil that men do lives after them, the good is oft interred with their bones.” (Scarpia continues to do harm even after his death at the hands of Tosca.)

It is not often that an opera can be this relevant to today’s news. In addition to police misbehavior, we have torture for political ends based on faulty information, lechery in high places, propaganda and the banality of evil. My guess is that Scarpia will remain a stage villain, but more realistically vicious, while Tosca may be a little more complex and less Diva-like. Can’t wait to find out.

BIMF Monday Showcase Disappoints

Bowdoin International Music Festival
Monday Showcase
Studzinski Recital Hall
July 20
by Christopher Hyde
The combined concert of the Ying and Pacifica String Quartets, Monday night at Studzinski Recital Hall, one of the premiere events of the Bowdoin International Music Festival, was sold out weeks in advance.
As often happens, the outcome was something of an anti-climax, in spite of two standing ovations from an audience determined to be entertained.
I had hoped, because of two works for octet on the program, that it would be possible to hear a kind of dueling banjos between two prominent string quartets with very different styles. Instead, eight very good musicians played individual parts that had nothing to do with their ordinary relationships in a family of four.
It would be educational, in some future concert, to hear quartets alternate movements within a well-known example of the repertoire, say Haydn’s “Lark” Quartet.
The first work on the program was certainly well-known— Mozart’s String Quintet in C Major (K.515), for which the Ying Quartet borrowed violist Masumi Per Rostad from the Pacifica. It was beautifully played, with a combination of clarity and ensemble that is rare, but occasionally differences in style made themselves felt, even leading to some slight mistakes of intonation during the andante.
After the Mozart, things went downhill, beginning with the Two Pieces for String Octet, Opus 11, by Dmitri Shostakovich, which began with a wailing gypsy violin and ended with a chromatic glissando leading to a gallop that sounded more like a drum solo than an octet.
The two pieces are part of a suite that was never completed, begun when the composer was 17. His teacher didn’t care for them and expressed the hope that when the composer was 30 he would no longer write such wild music. I love Shostakovich, but his teacher was right. The writing verges on the maniacal.
Another youthful effusion, the Mendelssohn Octet for Strings in E-flat Major, Opus 20, written when the composer was 16, followed after intermission. The first two movements make one want to seize the young man by the scruff of the neck and tell him, in no uncertain terms, that it is okay to complete a phrase in a banal manner, as long as you complete it.
As for the scherzo and presto, St. Cecilia appeared to me in a dream and revealed that her protege had become infatuated with rapid triplets after playing the Haydn Sonata in C (Hob. XVI/32) too many times.
The combined string quartets performed the work as if they were the musicians assembled in the Mendelssohn-Bartholdy household for one of their musical afternoons, enjoying themselves while humoring their host. I was distracted from the excitement of the last two movements by the facial grimaces of the first violin, which exerted a morbid fascination.
Both the Shostakovich and the Mendelssohn received long standing ovations.

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

Negro Spirituals

In the wake of last month’s Charleston, SC, tragedy, there has been a renewed interest in what used to be called Negro Spirituals. The a cappella choir, Vox Nova, sang two of them as encores after its recent concert in Yarmouth, in elaborate arrangements that nevertheless seemed to capture some of the flavor of the originals.
After deciding to write a column on the subject, I was surprised to discover that there is just as much controversy over the songs as there is about other aspects of race relations. There seems to be no consensus about their origin or definition, although most people think that they know one when they hear one. Unfortunately, what most white Americans have heard are adaptations written for public performance, which is not what spirituals are about.
I was fortunate enough as a boy to have heard what I consider to be the real thing, in some small churches of rural Maryland while visiting a friend there. Our parents not being church goers, we would take our bicycles on Sunday morning, ride to one or another of the local African-denomination churches and listen to the singing through the windows, open wide in the Maryland summer heat.
We found the music strange but exciting. We were often invited inside but were too frightened or embarrassed to accept. Perhaps that was a good thing, since the presence of strangers might have altered the songs (I didn’t think of them as hymns).
The primary controversy has to do with the origin of the Spiritual form, one major aspect of which is the call-and-response heard in “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.”
One school maintains that it is entirely African in nature, another that it is an amalgam of African and protestant hymn forms, and a third that it is modeled entirely on Scotch-Irish hymns sung at popular religious revival events (camp meetings) in the 19th-century rural South.
The latter view was backed by some purportedly anthropological studies of the 1930s, which analyzed rhythm, meter, harmony and use of the pentatonic (all black keys on the piano) scale in spirituals versus those of camp meeting songs, and found them virtually identical. The same view was advocated by earlier musicologists after Dvorak’s favorable comments on the songs led to international recognition in the early 1900s. It is almost as if the academic community, or at least some parts of it, could not accept the idea of an original Black art form.
Maintaining the exact opposite was musicologist Henry Edward Krehbiel, who, after analyzing 529 songs, wrote in “Afro-American Folksongs: A Study in Racial and National Music” (1913) “… while their combination into songs took place in this country, the essential elements came from Africa; in other words… while some of the material is foreign, the product is native; and, if native, then American.” (Krehbiel wrote this study while living in Blue Hill.)
The problem with the African origin theory is that Africa is not a single entity. The enslaved were from many different tribes or nations, each with its own musical traditions and forms. The Bantu may sing in parallel fifths, while some nomadic herders have a polyphonic tradition that would put Bach to shame. Still, there may be some universal characteristics in communal singing, and in widely played instruments, such as the banjo and the wooden xylophone, that could have contributed significantly to the form. African drumming is universal, but was forbidden by fearful slave owners because it was a form of communication that they could not understand.
A description of the Spiritual, which comes closest to what my friend and I heard long ago, is that of African-American novelist Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960) in “The Sanctified Church:” “The jagged harmony is what makes it, and it ceases to be what it was when this is absent. Neither can any group be trained to produce it. Its truth dies under training like flowers under hot water. The harmony of the true spiritual is not regular. The dissonances are important and not to be ironed out by the trained musician. The various parts break in at any old time. Falsetto often takes the place of regular voices for short periods. Keys change. Moreover, each singing of the piece is a new creation. The congregation is bound by no rules. No two times singing is alike, so that we must consider the rendition of a song not a final thing, but as a mood. It will not be the same thing next Sunday. Negro songs to be heard truly must be sung by a group, and a group bent on expression of feelings and not on sound effects.”
Maybe Dvorak was prescient when he said: “I am convinced that the future music of this country must be founded on what are called Negro melodies. These can be the foundation of a serious and original school of composition, to be developed in the United States. These beautiful and varied themes are the product of the soil. They are the folk songs of America and your composers must turn to them.” We’re still waiting.