Category Archives: Commentary

An Authentic Chinese Voice: Wu Man, Pipa, and the Shanghai Quartet

Wu Man and the Shanghai Quartet
Hannaford Hall, USM Portland
March 31
by Christopher Hyde

The Pipa, a long-necked, lute-like instrument, has been the quintessential voice of China for millennia, and Wu Man is its foremost player. We can thank Portland Ovations for providing the opportunity to hear her live, with the outstanding Shanghai String Quartet, Thursday night at Hannaford Hall.

The Chinese also have the oldest “classical” music tradition, and the earliest system of musical notation, which consisted of instructions to scholars about where to place the fingers on the strings, rather like labanotation in dance.

A close approach to this tradition was in Wu Man’s first solo, “Flute and Drum Music at Sunset,” a highly atmospheric work that showed off all of the considerable possibilities of the Pipa. Its tone is hard to describe, but once it has been heard, it can never be forgotten. It sounds like the human voice, speaking highly inflected Chinese, full of overtones, reverberations on open strings, chromatic slides and castanet sounds, to name a few.

The latter clicks often seemed like an extension of the treble beyond the point of human hearing.

Like the piano, it is capable of what seem like long-sustained notes but are actually trills or rapid hammering on a single string. Wu Man is a master of this technique, which makes the Pipa sing like the flute in the title.

Equally evocative was the “Red Lantern” suite, derived from film music by Zhao Lin (b. 1974) and played by Wu Man and the quartet. It was accompanied by filmed images of a traditional Chinese courtyard. The five movements depict stages in the life of an isolated family behind its walls. The most effective, and strangely the liveliest, of the sections is that entitled “Death,” which is followed by a Romantic epilog. The Pipa imitation of rain on water alone was worth the price of admission.

After intermission, the Shanghai Quartet showed what it could do with Western classics, in a bravura rendition of the Beethoven String Quartet in F minor, Op. 95 (“Serioso”). The quartet has everything—a singing tone, a wide range of dynamics, and near perfect balance, all in the service of a well-thought-out conception of the work. The Op. 95 is a caged leopard that escapes in the final bars.

The Tan Dun Concerto for String Quartet and Pipa, which concluded the program, was the opposite of serious, verging on the frivolous. While it shows off Wu Man’s virtuosity, it consists primarily of a series of musical jokes from almost every tradition on earth, without much to hold them together except the stage presence of the musicians.

Some of the jokes are even a little old, such as treating the orchestral tuning to “A”-440 as composed music. (I remember my father telling that one, about an Arab potentate who liked the first number on the program.) Still, nothing that Tan Dun writes is dull, and the audience gave the performance a well-deserved standing ovation.

If I had any quibble about the program as a whole, it would be that some of the Chinese works sounded too “Western,” almost like Dvorak. I put it down to the influence of the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, when anything that smacked of bourgeois revisionism— meaning anything that Mao or Stalin didn’t like— could be severely punished.

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

Bach and Beer

Bach and Beer

The news that Lewis Kaplan, co-founder of the Bowdoin International Music Festival, is collaborating with Emily Isaacson, Bruce Fithian, and internationally known soloists to present a major new Bach Festival this June in Portland was welcome in itself (more on the festival and its musical content in a later column). That Isaacson is thinking of concluding the affair with a Bach and Beer party at a venue near the shore reminded me of H.L. Mencken’s story about how Bach’s Mass in B Minor saved him from death by thirst. (“Heathen Days” (1943))

Mencken and his publisher and friend, Alfred Knopf, were attending the famous Bach Festival in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, during Prohibition, (1920-1933) and discovered to their horror that every speakeasy in town was closed due to the sighting of “agents” some days previously.

He writes: “This seemed strange and unfriendly, for it is well known to every musicologist that the divine music of old Johann Sebastian cannot be digested without the aid of its natural solvent (malt liquor).”

They barely made it through the last concert and on their way to the train discussed how soon they could get a bootlegger to meet them at a station before New York.

Their taxi driver took pity on them and drove to a warehouse-like building with the telltale sign “Sea Food” above the door.

“We rapped on the door and presently it opened about half an inch, revealing an eye and part of a mouth. The ensuing dialog was sotto voce but staccato and appassionata. The eye saw that we were famished but the mouth hesitated.

‘How do I know,’ it asked, ‘that you ain’t two of them agents?’

‘Agents!’ hissed Knopf. ‘What an idea. Can’t you see us? Take a good look at us.’

The eye looked but the mouth made no reply.

‘Can’t you tell musicians when you see them?’ I broke in. ‘Where did you ever see a Prohibition agent who looked so innocent, so moony, so dumb? We are actually fanatics. We came here to hear Bach. Is this the way Bethlehem treats its guests? We came a thousand miles, and now—‘

‘Three thousand miles,’ corrected Knopf.

‘Five thousand,’ I added, making it round numbers.

Suddenly I bethought me that the piano score of the B minor mass had been under my arm all the while. What better introduction? What more persuasive proof of our bona fides? I held up the
score and pointed to the title on the cover. The eye read:

J.S. Bach
Mass in B Minor

The eye flicked for an instant or two and then the mouth spoke. ‘Come in, gents,’ it said. As the door opened our natural momentum carried us into the bar in one leap, and there we were presently immersed in two immense Humpen….

It was a narrow escape from death in the desert, and we do not forget all these years afterward that we owed it to Johann Sebastian Bach, that highly talented and entirely respectable man, and especially to his Mass in B minor.”

I don’t know if Emily Isaacson has heard that story, but I’m sure Mencken would have approved of her idea and the plethora of micro-breweries now gracing the City by the Sea.

More on the festival soon and the Maine premiere of a newly reconstructed Bach concerto.

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

Dancers and Musicians Shine in “Play and Play”

Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company
“Play and Play”
Merrill Auditorium
Feb. 25, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

Finally, a collaboration that works flawlessly. I feel sorry for anyone who wasn’t at Merrill Auditorium Wednesday night for “Play and Play,” featuring the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company.

Under the auspices of Portland Ovations BTJ/AJC assembled local musicians and dancers for an absolutely riveting evening of contemporary ballet. As a friend remarked about “D-Man in the Waters,” the last of three ballets on the program, it was as if the dancers ”floated on a sea of music.”

The music in question was the Mendelssohn Octet for Strings in E-flat major, Op. 20, played by Robert Lehmann, Dino Liva, Dean Stein and Yasmin Vitalius, violin, Kimberly Lehmann and Kirsten Monke, viola, and Eliza Meyer and Benjamin Noyes, cello.

I have seldom heard this work performed as well in concert; as ballet music it verged on the miraculous. It certainly inspired the dancers who, in addition to those of the company, included 13 from Colby, Bates and Bowdoin colleges, PATH (Portland Arts and Technology High School) and the Portland Ballet.

They had rehearsed for only a week, according to the program, but they might have been dancing this program for years,

It made me wonder why other traveling companies do not also take advantage of the tremendous pool of talent available in Maine. Even the Andante of the Mozart String Quartet No. 23 in F Major (K. 590) for “Spent Days Out Yonder,” easily filled Merrill Auditorium. Live music for dance cannot even be compared to a recording, to which some shows resort.

Speaking of recordings, the second piece on the program, “Continuous Replay,” combined (a little) live music from early and late Beethoven Quartets, with a recorded sound rack that included such acoustic icons as count-downs and the description of the Honey Badger that went viral on the internet a few years ago.

Jenna Riegel was superb as “the clock,” which almost disintegrates during a speeded up version of a famous Beethoven quartet passage.

Each of the three ballets was marked by the indefinable atmosphere characteristic of this company. It includes an infinite umber of clever and dramatic poses, motions and lifts, all stemming from natural movement. Gender differences are dissolved into a human unity, and there is little display of athletic prowess—the remarkable is taken for granted.

What is most striking is the sense of community. In “D-Man in the Waters,” which is a sort of ”in Memoriam,” various types of intimate relationships come and go, but there is always human sympathy, even under the sea.

The program ended with cheers and a long standing ovation, which the musicians shared with the dancers on stage.

(The written program includes one of my favorite quotes, from Jasper Johns on the creation of art: “…take something and do something to it, and then do something else to it.” Rather like Bertrand Russell’s observation that all the world’s work consists of moving something from one place to another.)

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

First Day of Bowdoin Klavierfest Will Honor Elliott Schwartz

The first day of Bowdoin’s annual Klavierfest, Friday, Feb. 19, 7:30 p.m. at Studzinski Recital Hall, will be devoted to the piano music of Bowdoin composer emeritus Elliott Schwartz, in honor of his 80th birthday.

It will include works from several phases of his career, plus (it is hoped) a performance by the composer of his “Hearing David,” for piano and electronic sounds. Written in memory of David Gamper, it includes sounds that he originally taped on one of the early synthesizers, Schwartz said in a telephone interview.

The program was compiled in cooperation with pianist George Lopez, Bowdoin artist in residence, and includes Lopez, Kimberly Lehmann, viola, Chiharu Naruse, piano, John McDonald, piano,, and Maria Wagner, clarinet.

The first work of the evening is also the earliest, composed around 1963-64, when Schwartz was experimenting with 12-tone techniques. His idea for the Suite for Viola and Piano, to be played by Lehmann and Naruse, involved making serial music sound tonal. “It does sound rather traditional,” he said.

The suite will be followed by “Four Maine Haiku,” written for pianist Kazuko Tonosaki and played on Friday by George Lopez. The four short pieces, each completely different in mood, include 17 measures each, the number of syllables in a Japanese Haiku.

After an on-stage interview of the composer by Lopez, the pianist will serve as assistant to McDonald in a performance of “Memorabilia,” a work that Schwartz calls “very theatrical,” in which the assistant may drum on the wood of the piano, play the inside strings or perform other movements to accompany the pianist. Lopez may assist with a toy piano, Schwartz said.

“Hearing David” will be the final work before intermission.

“The Seven Seasons,” for solo piano, written in 2007-2009 for Katie Cushing, will start the second half of the program. Played by Naruse, it consists of short pieces designed to aid in teaching modern piano techniques, such as playing with the fingers on the inside strings.

The next work,”Blossoms and Cannons,” for piano and recorded sounds, was written in 2010 to celebrate the 200th anniversaries of Chopin and Schumann. The title is based on a Schumann quote about Chopin, “It’s a time warp,” Schwartz said. McDonald, at the piano, will play against recorded quotations from both composers’ music, plus verbal quotes from Clara Schumann and George Sand (Chopin’s lover).

“Blossoms…” will be followed by a second interview, and the program will conclude with “Souvenir,” for clarinet and piano, with Lopez and Wagner. The work, written in 1978, is improvisational, with each musician responding to the other. At one point, if I recall correctly, the clarinetist places the instrument on the sounding board of the piano to achieve an unusual timbre.

Schwartz is also at work on a string quartet, in memory of his late wife, Deedee, Because of health reasons, he has shortened the work to two movements, played without pause, and based on her favorite music, combined with themes developed from the letters of her name and significant dates in her life. The work will be premiered in London on April 21, he said.

Midcoast Symphony Changes the Climate

Midcoast Symphony Orchestra
Orion Center, Topsham
Jan. 16, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

It takes a Northerner to really appreciate Spanish music. The Maine residents who play in the Midcoast Symphony Orchestra must have a really passionate desire to experience warmer climes, or at least to re-create them among the snowdrifts. How else to explain the almost miraculous performances of de Falla, Ravel and Chabrier that conductor Rohan Smith elicited from the band on Sunday afternoon at Orion Center for the Performing Arts?

The final works on the program, two suites from Manuel de Falla’s ballet, “The Three Cornered Hat,” resulted in a rare standing ovation from a near capacity audience. It was well deserved. I have never heard the Midcoast perform as well in all its 15-year history. Everything–tempo, dynamics, orchestral color and elaborate rhythmical pulses–came together perfectly. The exciting orchestration sounded at times like that of Rimsky- Korsakov.

The woodwinds were particularly striking, sometimes rolling down the scale from flute to bassoon and back again. It was de Falla as he is never heard on a recording. It made me re-think my opinion of him as a minor national colorist.

All three of the Spanish-flavored pieces, two of them by Frenchmen, are often selected by top-notch orchestras to display their virtuosity. The Midcoast outdid them all, if not in technical perfection then in contagious enthusiasm.

Another superb advertisement for live music came in the form of Ravel’s “Alborada del Gracioso,” which began life as one of that composer’s fiendishly difficult piano pieces. One knows how complex the polyrhythms are when even a highly accomplished percussionist can be seen counting. Ravel never wrote anything trivial–and that includes the Bolero–but the Alborada is often performed like an insignificant piece of atmospheric writing.

Nay, not so, but far otherwise. It is musical to a fault, exploring the far reaches of contrasts, with brass sforzandos like lightning bolts through a cane jungle of pizzicato. Smith, in opening remarks, characterized it as both grotesque and mysterious. As played by the Midcoast it was both of these, and more.

The program opened with Emmanuel Chabrier’s well-known “España,” which concerned me a little. It was together, lively and up-tempo, but some of its striking brass accents were slightly off the mark. Maybe the players’ fingers and lips were cold, since the work improved vastly as it went along.

The orchestra really came into its own with the next offering, the Beethoven Symphony No. 1 in C Major, Op. 21. The Portland Symphony Orchestra recently performed this work as part of its three-year cycle of all Beethoven’s symphonies, and I must confess that I preferred the Midcoast’s version. The so-called minuet, which is actually a scherzo, was appropriately wild, and the beauty of the finale was enough to bring a tear to one’s eye.

Technically, the Beethoven, in its use of sforzando-like strong accents, resembled enough of the Spanish works to make it fit right in with the rest of the program.

Schopenhauer once questioned why we denigrate those who practice an art out of love —amateurs— while praising those who do it for money —professionals. Why indeed?

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

Eroticism in Music

Classical Beat Column
by Christopher Hyde

The Portland Symphony Orchestra’s “Beethoven and Strauss” program, Jan. 24 and 26 at Merrill Auditorium. in addition to Beethoven’s shortest and most unusual symphony, the Eighth, includes some of the most erotic works in the repertoire: Richard Strauss’ Prelude to Act I of “Guntram,” Love Scene from “Feursnot” and the famous “Dance of the Seven Veils” from “Salome,” with guest artist soprano Patricia Racette.

It was reported a few years ago that scientists at the Montreal Neurological Institute have discovered that music activates the same reward centers of the brain as food and sex.

Some pieces of music activate better than others, but the effect has nothing to do with content. Overt or hidden erotic messages, as in the pieces programmed by the PSO, may help, but Beethoven and Bach affect the same pleasure centers as “Der Rosenkavalier.” What other areas they stimulate–memory, discovery, aesthetic beauty or rational intellect–is an entirely different question. (See Oliver Sacks’ “Your Brain on Music.”)

There are a couple of Bach cantatas that have the same erotic effect—Christ as the immortal beloved— as the Bernini sculpture of the Ecstasy of St. Teresa. “Wann kommst du, mein Heil?” from the Cantata No. 140 is one.

Music director Robert Moody has selected two leading candidates for the most erotic piece of music, at least according to some informal surveys on the internet.

Richard Strauss has the largest number of mentions, including “Der Rosenkavalier,” which is full of hidden risque meanings, “Salome” and even the “Domestic Symphony” and the “Four Last Songs.” Strangely enough, no one mentioned “Die Frau Ohne Schatten,” which is about nothing but eroticism.

A Ravel work, the “Bolero,” also had several mentions. I find it quite similar to the “Liebestod” in its gradual build-up to an overwhelming climax, in the case of the Wagner a union of Eros and Thanatos, and in the Ravel, appropriately enough, a change of key.

Among the moderns are, of course, Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” and Schoenberg’s “Pierrot Lunaire,” plus John Adams’ “Harmonium.” Since Adams is one of Moody’s favorite composers it would be interesting to hear this some time near Valentine’s Day.

There was also considerable discussion of Luciano Berio’s tape “Visage” for voice and electronic sounds, although to my mind this one and Pierrot seem more weird than erotic.

One work that I was not familiar with was Karol Szymanovski’s Symphony No. 3. Szymanowski, a friend of pianist Artur Rubinstein, was openly homosexual when that was taboo, and the symphony is supposedly full of homoerotic messages.

I have always wondered exactly how erotic images could be conveyed in music, but an analysis of the images in the Third Symphony told me much more than I wanted to know. The treatise is one of the most abstruse pieces of musical analysis I have ever encountered, having to do (I think) with chordal analysis and progressions, as well as rhythm.

Many of the selections on the internet were equally puzzling, at least to this reader. Scriabin’s grandiose “Poem of Ecstasy” was right up there, but I find it more embarrassing than erotic. His early Chopin-like Preludes are more realistic and Romantic at the same time.

On the subject of eroticism in music one has to fall back on the old dictum about pornography: “I know it when I see it.”

In the meantime, “If music be the food of love, play on.”

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

Music Appreciation 101

George Bernard Shaw, one of my inspirations as a music critic, once observed that music appreciation classes had it all backward. One has to love the music first, and the history, biography and musicology will follow out of a desire to know more about the object of affection. No one ever came to enjoy a Chopin etude because of its masterful enharmonic modulations.

Shaw was lucky enough to have grown up in a musical family. exposed to the classics at an early age, before the development of a recording industry. That still works today, in some instances, but how is an adult to find his or her way into that rewarding and sometimes ecstatic world? All the guides to listening that I have read have done little to enhance my enjoyment and would be virtually useless to anyone looking for that first spark.

I thought of this ancient problem a while ago when the DaPonte String Quartet played the String Quartet No. 8 of Australian composer Peter Sculthorpe. This is certainly a “modern” work (1969), but even traditionalists in the audience told me how much they enjoyed it..

The tragic opening, played by the cello, draws one in immediately. After all, who doesn’t love a cello song, even if it includes some surprising bumps. The musical imagery of the rice harvest continues the fascination, with its blurring of the line between sound effects and written music. The driving rhythm propels the listener from bar to bar.

Then there is the almost subliminal remembrance of ancient work songs, followed by the shock of recognition when the cello song reappears and is repeated by the other instruments.

The way the quartet is organized and the development of the theme are straightforward enough to satisfy even a casual listener, without banality. It left me wanting to hear more.

The first prerequisite to real enjoyment of music is performance. Find the best performance, of anything, that you can. Even the greatest masterpieces are dead on arrival without an equivalent realization. If one doesn’t work, keep looking. You will be surprised. Sometimes an unknown orchestra and conductor capture the essence, at least for me, better than Herbert von Karajan and the Vienna Philharmonic.

The second is repetition. The recording industry has a lot to answer for in its treatment of classical music, but it does offer the opportunity to hear a specific work again and again, which eventually, with luck, will lead to an “aha” moment; what psychologists call the relaxation response and others call shivers up and down the spine. The test of great music is the one Robert Graves suggested for poetry: it should make the hair stand up on the back of your neck.

Another way in is rhythm, which is built into our bodies, and which everyone enjoys in one way or another. I first started listening to Bartok because of his complex and powerful rhythms, and eventually developed a taste for his modal style. This is also a good path from popular to classical.

Imagery is derided by musical purists, but it has led multitudes toward more abstract music. Think of “Peter and the Wolf,” “The Swan of Tuonela,” “The Four Seasons,” or “La Mer,” all of which are great music in themselves.

Recognition, even the vaguest kind, can also lead to enjoyment, as in the work songs of the Sculthorpe quartet. We don’t know their specifics, but the style is universal. This also applies to hymns or marches, as in Charles Ives’ music, or references to popular tunes, as in Bach’s “Goldberg Variations.”

An historical approach sometimes works, but there may be a chasm between a composer’s approachable work and his later output that requires a leap of faith. A good example is Shoenberg’s “Verklarte Nacht” and his later 12-tone music. Another is the early Chopin-like preludes of Scriabin and his later, monstrous tone poems.

Seeing how the mechanism works, as described in the listener’s guides, can also be fun in an intellectual way, but all too often I can’ t hear, in a live performance, what the writers are talking about.

Finally, there are various unmusical ways to acquire a love of music. Many students have used Mozart to improve their grades and come to love him. The greatest motive of all is snobbery. After all, classical music is an aristocratic form that requires a refined sensibility to appreciate. I really don’t care. Anything that gets people to attend concerts or listen to recordings is good — and may transform a life or two.

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

Clarity at Christmas in the Cathedral

Christmas in the Cathedral
Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception
Dec. 5, 2015
by Christopher Hyde

“For now we see as through a glass darkly; for we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when that which is perfect is come, that which is in part shall be done away.”

I thought of these verses from the King James Bible at the beginning of the Choral Art Society’s’ Christmas in the Cathedral Saturday night, under the direction of Robert Russell.

The women’s voices in 13th and 14th Century Latin carols, “Angelus ad Virginem,” and “Verbum caro factum est,” had an angelic clarity, rather like that of a boy soprano, which is too rare in choral music. They retained it even in the latter work, which has more complex counterpoint.

They were joined by the tenors and bases in the processional, which has become a tradition at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception: “Personent hodie voices puerulae” of 1582. It gets better every year.

The Christmas concert rose to that level again after intermission, when soprano Sarah Bailey and mezzo-soprano Andrea Graichen sang an “Ave Verum” by Welsh composer Karl Jenkins (b. 1944), which was absolutely ravishing. It was accompanied by a piano obligato, played by Dan Moore, which was unable to reduce the perfect intervals of the voices to the “tempered” compromises of the keyboard.

The Portland Brass Quintet was in good form, with the trumpets ringing from the high vaulted ceiling, especially in the rapid ornamentation of “Rejoice and be Merry,” and the joyful pagan dance of the “Gloucestshire Wassail.”

Following their three solos, they took part in an experiment on Handel’s “Messiah,” a work that has become a little too much of a Christmas tradition, having been intended for Easter. The experiment was to replace the orchestral parts of four sections, including the “Hallelujah Chorus,” with a brass quintet.

To paraphrase Dr. Johnson’s comment: ”Sir, a woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.” The transcription was amazing, and generally well played, but it was an impossible task to begin with.

After intermission came two choir director specials, “Intrada” by Alfred Reed (1921-2005) and “Welcome all wonders,” by Richard Dirksen (1921-2003). The former was distinguished by an organ fanfare by Dan Moore, and the latter by a gradual segue into what sounded a little like a variation on “A Mighty Fortress…”

It was good to hear Gustav Holst’s “Christmas Day,” the ultimate holiday carol arrangement. It is actually composed, building upon familiar themes, instead of being thrown together in the usual pastiche.

Of course no Christmas concert would be complete without the thoroughly awful, a heavily amplified version of a gospel song, “He Never Failed Me Yet,” arranged by Robert Ray, in which the soloist drowned out the chorus. I ordinarily abide by my grandmother’s admonition–“If you can’t say anything nice, say nothing at all,” but the audience loved it, so it should be mentioned.

You can make up your own mind today (Sunday, Dec. 6). The matinee is sold out, but there are still tickets left for the evening performance at 7:30.

Prodigies at the Oratorio Chorale

The Oratorio Chorale’s concert, on Nov. 21 at Woodfords Congregational Church, will be devoted to youthful music by three child prodigies: Mozart, Mendelssohn and England’s greatest composer, Henry Purcell (1659-1695).

The Purcell anthem selected by music director Emily Isaacson, “O Sing Unto the Lord,” is thought to have been composed when he was 14, although it is difficult to date many of Purcell’s compositions. (Even the name of his father is in dispute.)

Purcell died at the age of 46, Mozart at 35 and Mendelssohn at 38. There is a Romantic tendency to associate early death with musical genius; think of Schubert, Schumann, Chopin, as well as the above, but I’m not sure the facts bear that out.

In Purcell’s time, when people married at 12 and became admirals in the British Navy at 14, (those of Family, with good connections at Court) 46 was a ripe old age. Life expectancy was about 35. Mozart may well have been poisoned, and Mendelssohn worked himself to death, perhaps overcompensating for the death of his beloved sister, Fanny.

Schubert, like Beethoven and Schumann, died of syphilis, and Chopin of tuberculosis. Perhaps, as some have suggested, we owe a large number of masterworks to disease.

Neither is early genius a predictor of early demise. St.Saêns, who could play all of the Beethoven sonatas from memory before he was a teenager, is one example. A Renaissance man, he started composing at age 6 and died at 86.

It is customary to lament what might have been, had composers not departed this earth so soon, but I’m not sure that we have lost that much. Perhaps they had already said whatever was on their minds. Music channeled from the beyond by various mediums generally leaves something to be desired.

On a more serious note, it is quite possible that the quality of their compositions might have declined with age. I’m thinking of the Romantic poet Wordsworth, who, unlike Keats and Shelley, lived to be 80, writing more and more pedestrian boilerplate after a brilliant youth.

The Oratorio Chorale concert will include Henry Purcell’s, “O Sing unto the Lord,” the Felix Mendelssohn Chorale: “Jesu meine Freude,” written when the composer was 16, a Mozart Te Deum, written when he was 13, and Christopher Staknys’ “The Window,” a premiere of his newly written choral work. Staknys, who recently entered Juilliard, is already known as a piano virtuoso. He will play Chopin’s Concerto No. 1 in E-minor with the Maine Chamber Ensemble.

The concert will be repeated on Sun., Nov. 22, at 3:00 p.m. and 6:00 p.m. in the Seventh-day Adventist Church, Brunswick.

Scary Music and Henry Cowell

Every year at this time I think about appropriate Halloween music. There are all the usual suspects–“Night on Bald Mountain,” “Symphony Fantastique”,” Verdi and Mozart for hellfire and damnation, Beethoven for the dark night of the soul, Grieg for trolls, Chopin for autumn leaves and funerals. Mahler for schadenfreude, all kinds of horror movie scores…

But the all-time winner for music that provides that special scary thrill is Henry Cowell’s “Banshee” for piano. It’s a short piece, for prepared piano –which John Cage learned from Cowell– but makes up for it in intensity and, well, realism. There really is a demon inside that piano.

I’ve been reading about and listening to Cowell (1897-1965) since hearing his Quartet No. 4 (“United”) played by the Portland String Quartet. I’ve even bought some of his piano music, featuring his invention of “tone clusters,” groups of minor second chords played with the fist or the forearm, thinking my grandson would like to play them. (Bartok, whom kids also love, requested Cowell’s permission to use the technique in his own works.)

Cowell, born in California of philosophical anarchist parents, is one of a long line of quirky American composers of genius, beginning with New England’s own writer of hymns and fugueing tunes, William Billings,(1746-1800) who thought that there should always be twice as many basses as any other voice in the choir. (He was dead on.)

Home-schooled until the age of 17, Cowell was largely self-taught in music until he began to study at the University of California, Berkeley, under Charles Seeger, father of Pete Seeger, who recognized and nurtured his genius.

The list of Cowell’s achievements goes on and on. He wrote over 1,000 compositions, including 180 songs. He was a writer, whose prose, as well as his music, strongly influenced generations of composers, including both John Cage and George Gershwin. He was an ethnomusicologist who learned many of the world’s musical traditions and incorporated them into his own work, not quoting, but grafting his ideas on to their roots.

Schoenberg asked him to play for his composition class in Vienna.

Cowell worked with Leôn Theremin on machines that would realize his ideas about the relationship of harmony and rhythm. He invented rhythms so complex that they could not be played by a human being, but only by a specially designed instrument called a Rhythmicon..

He championed Native American music, which is nothing like what Dvorak imagined, or what any of us can imagine, more strange and “foreign” than anything recorded in far-off lands.

He wrote some of his best work from a cell in San Quentin.

It is hard to believe in today’s society, but in 1936 Cowell was sentenced to 15 years in prison for having a homosexual relationship. Although he served “only” four years and eventually received a full pardon from the Governor of California, the experience profoundly affected him. Opinions differ about whether he was a broken man. He never spoke about radical politics again, and may have made his works more accessible to a wide audience, but that could also have been a natural development with age.

The imprisonment, however, because of lingering prejudice, prevented his works from receiving the recognition they deserved, and still deserve.

A good dose of Cowell is just what is needed to improve audience reaction to “modern” music. It is accessible, interesting, inventive, melodic, and non-academic. He wrote a lovely piano concerto and 15 symphonies, any one of which would grace a Portland Symphony Orchestra concert. The full cycle has never been recorded. There’s an opportunity for someone.

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