Category Archives: Commentary

“Dover Beach” at the Danforth

Arneis Quartet, with David Kravitz
Park-Danforth
May 7, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

My father recited Mathew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” at our wedding, so when I heard that baritone David Kravitz was to perform Samuel Barber’s setting of it with the Arneis Quartet on Sunday, I had to go.

The occasion was a preview of the Portland Chamber Music Festival’’s fund-raiser the same day, and a classical music christening of the Park-Danforth’s acoustically fine performance space.
Kravitz is an internationally acclaimed baritone, and the Arneis Quartet a noted interpreter of contemporary music. Barber’s “Dover Beach” was written in 1931, when the composer was just 21. and while it does not have the scope of his famous Adagio for Strings, it is still a powerful work.

Rather chromatic, it sets the stage for the poem, with picturesque images of desolate waves and water, and the sea breeze rustling the curtains like that of an Andrew Wyeth painting. Not until the climax, which I have quoted above, does it interpret the feeling of the verse directly.

Strangely enough, it ends on what sounds to be a tonic chord on the word “night,” as if love were a sufficient compensation for the world’s desolation.

The interpretation was virtually flawless, technically and emotionally, and the subject matter all too appropriate for today’s world.

It was followed by Leos Janáček’s unusual String Quartet No. 1 (“Kreutzer” Sonata) which has been called an opera without words.
As described by the strings, it could also have been a graphic novel, inspired by Tolstoy’s story of the same name, in which music proves to be a seductive force, leading to illicit love, jealousy and death.

Tolstoy, in his peasant garb, astride a horse like a fifth generation aristocrat, was something of a phony, and to my mind, jealous of the power of music (He loved John Field, inventor of the Nocturne, but said to Rachmaninoff, who had just played at a soiree in St..Petersburg: “Very nice, but what good is it?”).

Janáček turns the novel on its head and makes it an argument for women’s liberation .The ways in which his music portrays action and dramatic scenes is uncanny: loving harmony, strident arguments, train nosies, passion, horseback riding and murder, to name a few. The quartet realized them perfectly.

If there were  program notes relating each scene to measures in the score, no one would need supertitles to know what was going on. For the initiated, the composer even quotes the Beethoven sonata in the third movement.

Thanks to the Park-Danforth and the Portland Chamber Music Festival for scheduling this event for  residents, and for allowing free admission to the public.

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

The Summer King, First Performance

I’m sorry I wasn’t able to get to the Pittsburgh Premiere of “The Summer King,” but what I wrote about it in the Press Herald three  years ago seems prescient.

“The Summer King”

Merrill Auditorium

May 8

by Christopher Hyde

Sometimes taking a risk pays off. Portland Ovations went out on a limb when it decided to stage the world premiere of “The Summer KIng,” an opera about baseball great Josh Gibson by Maine composer Daniel Sonenberg.

A large and appreciative audience at Merrill Auditorium last night demonstrated loudly that they had made the right choice. That the opera was performed without a set detracted little from its effect, due to the dramatic talents of the cast and clever stage direction by Lemuel Wade.

Sonenberg’s music for the tragedy–he also wrote the lyrics, in collaboration with Daniel Nester– is eclectic, containing modern classical, jazz and Latin styles, but also has a voice of its own, sardonic, wistful, lyrical or tragic, illuminating nearly every situation expressively.

I use the word tragedy advisedly. All operas end badly, but Is the famous slugger of the Negro Leagues, Josh Gibson, a tragic figure? HIs rise, betrayal and fall influenced a large, self-contained world (the Negro Leagues), and helped make possible the integration of the American pastime, while he had enough hubris for King Lear.

In some ways he seems childlike, but as played and sung by Stephen Salters, Gibson was aware of how much had been lost, even in his final madness.

“The Summer King” has a number of what Sonenberg calls “set pieces,” most of them effective and some, such as the love duet between Josh and his wife Helen, sung by Candice Hoyes, and reprised at the end of the opera, quite moving.

Villains always steal the scene, and the slimy Washington Senators owners, Clark Griffith, sung by Patrick MIller and his nephew, Calviin Griffith, sung by Kyle Guglielmo, are no exception as they cry crocodile tears over the possible ill-treatment of Josh in the major leagues.

There is even a mad scene, as Gibson holds an imaginary conversation with Joe DiMaggio.

All of the singers in the opera are first rate, but Lori-Kaye Miller, as Josh’s ambitious girlfriend, Grace, deserves special mention, as does the crusading reporter, sung by Rishi Rane, and Josh’s friend, Sammy, sung by Kenneth Kellogg.

The premiere was further enhanced by two outstanding choruses, Vox Nova Chamber Choir, and The Boy Singers of Maine Concert Choir, which appeared in a short, uplifting epilogue, plus a large professional orchestra under music director Steven Osgood.

Predictions by music critics have a way of falling flat, but judging by the audience response on Thursday, “The Summer KIng”,sails trimmed and fully staged, could become an American classic.

“Joy shall be yours in the morning…” PSO Does the Ninth

Portland Symphony Orchestra
Merrill Auditorium
April 25, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

Isak Dinesen once observed that there are three sources of joy: love, to have been in pain and be out of it, and to feel in oneself an excess of strength.. Each of these applies to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony , which ends with Schiiler’s “Ode to Joy,” gloriously performed by the Portland Symphony Orchestra under music director Robert Moody on April 23 and 25.

One suspects that people nowadays are desperate for any source of joy—witness sold-out houses at Merrill Auditorium on both days. But there is another source of joy that Baroness Blixen neglected to mention—what William James called the “oceanic” feeling— the experience of being one with the universe, or the universal brotherhood celebrated by Schiller, Beethoven and Karl Marx.

Universal brotherhood was a subversive concept during the Romantic period, with the aristocracy desperately trying to hold on to power in the face of the French Revolution. and other popular movements. Beethoven had pondered setting Schiller’s poem to music for over 30 years before he wrote the Ninth, and there is evidence that the poet originally intended his ode to be in praise of liberty, rather than joy.

Music doesn’t have to be about anything but itself, but there must have been a powerful impulse at work for Beethoven to devote all of his genius, for an extended period, to a work that he would never hear, except in his own mind.

The Ninth is such a monumental creation that it is seldom heard live. To pull it off, Moody had to recruit a quartet of fine soloists: Mary Boehlke-Wilson, soprano; Margaret Lias, alto; John McVeigh, tenor; and Philip Cutlip, baritone, willing to risk their voices in Beethoven’s impossible roles, the combined forces of the Oratorio Chorale, under Emily Isaacson and the Choral Art Masterworks, under Robert Riussell, plus the full orchestra devoted to a demanding score lasting over an hour.

Although there were a couple of strained points, inevitable in such an undertaking, Moody held everything together admirably. The soloists tackled the impossible successfully, and the combined choruses were able to hold their own against the orchestra gracefully, and to sing a monumental fugue without the muddiness that often accompanies large numbers of voices.

The result was tremendously moving, in spite of superfluous supertitles (there is not a single decent translation of the Schiller ode anywhere on the internet). After the final fortissimo the audience leaped to its collective feet instantly, with the accompaniment of cheers and foot stomping. No one wanted to leave.

In the face of the Ninth, the opening Samuel Barber Adagio for Strings seemed a little muted, at least in retrospect, but its selection to set the sombre opening mood of the Beethoven symphony was inspired programming.

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

Mozart and Gershwin at the Franco Center

Kevin Ayesh, Piano
Franco Center, Lewiston

April 19, 2017

by Christopher Hyde

On Friday night I took my grandson, nine-year-old Jordan Seavey, to hear Kevin Ayesh, in the penultimate concert of the Franco Center’s 2016-2017 piano series.

It was a good choice. Jordan is beginning to study piano seriously and Dr. Ayesh is a noted teacher and performer whose approach is musical rather than virtuosic. In my experience, Lisztian displays often do more to discourage budding musicians than to inspire them.
Jordan also happens to love the Gershwin “Rhapsody in Blue,” which was the final work on the scheduled program. (The encore was Dame Myra Hess’ transcription of the Bach “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.”)

Friday’s night’s performance marked the first time I had heard the solo piano score, written by Gershwin himself, and I liked it better than any of the versions orchestrated by Ferde Grofe, always excepting the opening clarinet glissando, which Ayesh imitated well on the piano.

Gershwin himself was a pianist and the piano must have been what he heard in the railroad noises that inspired the work. It does feel closer to the spirit of the composition, and it seems to hold together better than the concerto-with-orchestra that Leonard Bernstein deplored as fragmented.

Ayesh is as much at home in Mozart as in Gershwin, opening the program with a remarkable performance of the Sonata No. 9 in D Major, K. 311.  It seemed an almost complete realization of the composer’s intentions in  dynamic range, tempo and clear delineation of voices.

His inherently thoughtful approach was not as useful in four works by Chopin that concluded the first half of the program. The opening Nocturne in C Minor, Op. 48, No. 1, was the most successful, bringing out the unusual amount of drama in the piece.

The well-known melody of the Etude in E Major, Op. 10, No. 3, was a bit idiosyncratic, but what is a pianist to do after a few centuries of repetition? I once asked a famous virtuoso how he maintained his feeling for a composition after a few hundred performances . He replied “fake it.”

I don’t have enough Polish blood to enjoy the mazurkas as I should, and the “Heroic” Polonaise in A-flat Major, which has become display rather than music, needs more artillery power than thought.

However, I very much enjoyed Ayesh’s interpretation of the Brahms Intermezzo in A Major, Op. 118, No. 2, especially his emphasis on the triplets in the central section, and the fermata before the final “A” in that beautiful arpeggiated chord.

The Impromptu No. 3 in A-flat Major, Op. 34 of Gabriel Fauré came as a revelation, full of sparkling French fireworks and a wistful middle theme that recurs in the coda. Very appropriate for the Franco Center.

And Jordan got to meet the artist at the regular champagne reception after the concert.

The final recital of the series will be on June 9, with pianist Tamara Poddubnaya and Music Without Borders Grand Prix winner Vassily Panteleev.

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

Sweetest in the Gale’s Baroque Beauties

Oratorio Chorale
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Brunswick
April 9, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

The Oratorio Chorale’s women’s choir is named “Sweetest in the Gale,” (from the Emily Dickinson poem “Hope is a Thing with Feathers”). Sunday’s concert at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Brunswick was more like an inland breeze from the ocean on a hot day, both surprising and refreshing.

Director Emily Isaacson has a knack for choosing scores that perfectly illustrate her concert titles, in this case “Beauties of the Baroque,” and that offer something to every member of the audience. The choir she has founded and coached is little short of phenomenal, and her choice of soloists, Mary Sullivan, soprano, and Jenna Guiggey, alto, complements it very well.

Add to this a fine baroque chamber ensemble, and you have recipe for a delightful, if short (one hour) Sunday afternoon.

The opening work, Claudio Monteverdi’s (1567-1643) “Angelus ad pastors ait; Ubi Duo,” was both sweet and surprising. Sweet in the harmonies that Monteverdi achieves through counterpoint, and surprising for the contrasting lines the choir is able to obtain with female voices alone. The low altos served the essential purpose of the bass in mixed choirs that we have long been arguing for,

The second piece, “Duo Seraphim,” by Tomás Luis de Victoria (c.1548-1611), was surprising for what came after it: a setting of the same text by Caterina Assandra (c. 1590-after 1611). It is a good example for those who argue that female composers of the past may have been the equals of their male counterparts, but suppressed by societal conventions.

More evidence was offered by the sprightly and modern-sounding “Quis dabit mihi,” by Barbara Strozzi (1619-1677), which describes what seems to be a love affair between the composer and Jesus, evoking images of the ecstasy of St. Teresa as depicted by Bernini.

The second half of the program was devoted to the great “Stabat Mater” of Giovanni Batista Pergolesi (1710-1736), which describes in 12 cantos the agony of Christ’s mother beneath the cross. The narrative, which alternates between chorus and soloists, both alone and in duets, is highly operatic and ornamented to an extent that offers major challenges to the singers. There are dramatic leaps in pitch and changes in volume that must have delighted divas of the past, but tend to dismay modern singers. Not so Sullivan and Guiggey.

What is surprising about the Stabat Mater is how much musical conventions have changed. There are sections that to a modern ear sound almost cheerful, but which were intended to describe the depths of suffering. The music is still effective; it just doesn’t seem to illustrate the text as well as it used to. One thinks of the high-pitched counter tenors chosen by Purcell to depict British heroes.

Isaacson’s lively direction of the chorus and the baroque ensemble unified the work and brought it to life once more, earning a standing ovation from the capacity audience.

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

Back Cove Festival Opens on a High Note

Back Cove Contemporary Music Festival
Woodford’s Congregational Church
April 7, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

I came to the Back Cove Contemporary Music Festival (April 7, 8, 9) to hear the world premiere of Elliott Schwartz’s String Quartet No. 3 (“Portrait for Deedee”) played by the Portland String Quartet.
The quartet, Schwartz’ final work before his death last year, was all that I had hoped, but it was surrounded by other fine works, most of them in traditional forms, without the experimentalism that usually characterizes such festivals.

Looking at the programs for Saturday and Sunday, the remaining two days appear to be equally accessible.

The Portland String Quartet realized the Schwartz composition, written in memory of his wife, Deedee, almost perfectly. While it includes many of the composer’s mannerisms, such as musical quotes and use of the alphabet and numerology to generate motifs, it is considerably more dark in color than most of his work. I hesitate to use the word “tragic” in reference to one known for his unfailing good humor in the face of adversity.

The quartet also seems more thoroughly composed. The recurrent themes are developed and maintained, while the quotes, from his wife’s favorite music, fit in perfectly, like ghostly comments on the score. This promises to become one of Schwartz’s most popular works, almost making one believe in the magical power of numbers.

As for the rest of the program, I was particularly impressed by the work of the Portland Piano Trio, consisting of Tracey Jasas-Hardel, violin, Benjamin Noyes, cello, and Anastasia Antonacos, piano. They played four difficult works, in a variety of styles, with both spirit and understanding, an unusual combination.

They began the evening with “Number the Clouds,” by Delvyn Case, a dense and atmospheric setting of the Book of Job. After intermission, Case also contributed a highly effective musiking of “The Lord’s Prayer,” sung by soprano Elizabeth Marshall, accompanied by Harold Stover on the organ. Marshall performed the difficult feat of maintaining perfect intervals against the equal temperament of the organ.

Stover also played his own “Five Preludes on American Folk Hymns,” coaxing voices from the Woodford’s organ never heard before. The variations were truly amazing, even though I didn’t know most of the tunes. I wonder what he could do with “A Mighty Fortress…”

The Portland Trio finished the evening with Trio No. 1, by Nancy Gunn; “Choreodography (sic) No. 2” by Francis Kayali, a student of Elliott Schwartz; and  “Ancestry Variations” by Stepahie Ann Boyd, which takes a folk tune and varies it according to the styles of some famous composers. Entertaining and well-written, it was probably the most traditional of the three.

Gunn’s trio was also relatively tonal, with a driving, almost violent first movement, contrasted with a slower, nostalgic second.

Kayali’s offering was almost as quirky as Stover’s variations, consisting of Schoenbergian manipulations of a theme (not a tone row), which dissolve into a puddle of tonality.

Many of the composers were in the audience, accepting warm applause with the performers.

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

DaPonte Does the Three “B”s in Brunswick

DaPonte String Quartet
Unitarian Universalist Church, Brunswick
March 25, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

The DaPonte String Quartet’s program on Sunday, at Brunswick’s Unitarian Universalist Church, began with two fugues from Bach’s “Art of the Fugue,” which has been called the greatest masterwork in music, although it was written to teach rather than perform.

Cellist Myles Jordan points out, in his always perceptive program notes, that there are a number of problems with this attribution. One is Joseph Conrad’s observation that “All praise is invidious,” because it assumes that the person offering the praise is qualified to to give it.

A second is the effect on performers, which is like that on a modern sculptor given a chisel and asked to improve upon MIchelangelo’s David. It can’t be done, and the effect is near paralysis.

Of course Bach has to be performed to live at all, but one tries to approach it like any other score, without fear and trembling. The DaPonte gave it a good try, but could not seem to let themselves go, as they did with a more popular work, the Beethoven String Quartet in C Major, Op. 29.

With the able assistance of violist Katherine Murdock, they brought this melodic and sometimes quirky creature to life. It is easily accessible on first hearing, but there is some novel invention in each of the movements, just enough to delight without confusing: odd triplets in the first, huge empty rests and no resolution to the tonic in the second, a lovely canter across country, reminding one of the “Light Cavalry Overture,” in the third, and a switch from a gallop to a slower call and response, and back again, in the fourth, which also presages Beethoven’s later obsession with false cadences.

About the last work on the program, the Brahms String Quintet No. 2 in G Major, Op. 111, Jordan pointed out the difficulties in balancing the cello part, which stems from a theme for the brass section of an orchestra, with the other voices in the quintet. The disparity was unnoticeable among the lush and familiar melodies the composer spreads lavishly throughout.

Brahms, perhaps believing that this was to be his last published work, seems to have let his hair down in the quintet, which is nowhere near as durch-componiert as most of his earlier works, beginning with an opening theme that sounds strangely Wagnerian. (Pardon the German, but there’s no other way to describe what composers do who work like a painter, seeing that a dab of color in the lower left-hand corner affects something else in the upper right.)

The first two movements are perfect examples of late Romanticism. The third seems an attempt to get back to more intellectual pursuits, with a strangely off-kilter treatment of triplets and a hearkening back to the principal theme of the first.

Finally, in the fourth, Brahms says “to Hell with it all,” and brings in a gypsy melody, ending with a totally unrelated Hungarian furiant that would have made Bartok proud. It received a well deserved sanding ovation.

The size of the overflow audience at the UUC attests to the success of the quartet’s policy of extending its outreach in Maine. I still think they may be spreading themselves too thin, but music lovers throughout the state have much to be grateful for.

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

Philharmonia Quartett, Berlin

Philharmonia Quartett Berlin
Hannaford Hall, USM
March 19, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

An encore by a string quartet! The first I have heard in many years of listening to chamber music, and not a lollipop either, but the first movement of Beethoven’s Opus 18, No. 6.

The occasion was the conclusion of a Sunday afternoon concert at USM’s Hannaford Hall by the Philharmonia Quartett Berlin, one of the world’s pre-eminent ensembles, under the auspices of Portland Ovations.

The quartet had just concluded the Beethoven No. 15 in A Minor, Opus 132, to a standing ovation, when one of the members said something to the effect of : “Well, you liked that, so we’ll give you some more.”

I had been wracking my brains for what element  makes the quartet so special —balance, individualization of parts, resonance, microtone precision, passion, dynamics, what some have called “smoothness,” etc. etc., without coming to any obvious conclusion.

After the encore, I saw them entering the elevator, chatting like a group of high school students on a senior trip, and what had been under my nose during the encore, suddenly came to mind: They actually love what they’re doing. It’s what holds them together. I had seen that during the encore, but their cohesiveness was emphasized by their obvious comradery off stage.

The program itself was fascinating, beginning with a Mozart quartet, No. 8 in F Major (KV.168), that was light and lively, the composer making fun of convention with a fugue whose theme was so rapid that it defied the rules of counterpoint.

My favorite, however, was the late Shostakovich No. 15 in E-flat Minor (Op 144). There were no flies in Hannaford Hall, so I couldn’t check the validity of the composer’s dictum that the first movement should be so boring that it would make flies drop dead.

I found it fascinating, an exploration of what could be accomplished with the fewest possible notes, played sostenuto within a severely limited range of pitches. It was extremely effective in a macabre sort of way and lent itself to all sorts of Shostakovian transformations, from heart-rending shrieks to summer insects, to one of his famous sardonic waltzes, to, finally, a dirge to the tune of Happy Birthday.
One would have thought it another poke in the eye to Stalin, except that the dictator had already been dead 20 years when it was written. I think Shostakovich missed him.

I wasn’t as happy with the late Beethoven, also a No. 15, but in A Minor (Op. 132). Not because of its execution, which was well-nigh perfect, but because of my blind spot for these revered productions.

The “Holy Song of Thanksgiving to the Divinity by a Convalescent, in the Lydian Mode” (Note the comma. The movement is in the Lydian mode, not the convalescent.) goes on forever. One can imagine God saying: “Enough, Ludwig, I get the message.”

The final movement is livelier, but its false cadences are enough to drive one mad. Sorry. Mea culpa. I really have come to like the Grosse Fugue.

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

Operatic Pops Take On New Luster at MIdcoast

Midcoast Symphony
Franco Center, Lewiston
March 18, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

Mark Twain would have loved Saturday night’s concert of the Midcoast Symphony Orchestra at Lewiston’s Franco Center.

Twain famously remarked that the trouble with opera was sitting through interminable periods of non-musical scene-setting to get to the good parts. On Saturday, the orchestra, under the direction of guest conductor Eric Hewitt, played nothing but the good parts.

One striking aspect of the performance was how much the good parts are sort of a Cliff’s Notes of the opera as a whole, epitomizing , if not the plot, then the emotional atmosphere of the work. Could it be that the composer himself merely used the libretto as an excuse for whatever arias he had in mind?

The Intermezzo from Puccini’s “Manon Lescaut,” for example, tells all one needs to know about the principal character and her fate. It was lushly Romantic and tragic at the same time, played with just the right amount of reserved emotion and tragic portent.

The orchestra entered into the spirit of the works, all quite familiar, with much more enthusiasm than is characteristic of professional (by that I mean for-pay) ensembles. Their interpretation of the “Liebestod” from “Tristan und Isolde” should never have been allowed in mixed company. It is the most graphic depiction of intercourse, raised to the level of religion, ever composed. The climactic measures were earth-shattering,  the best I have ever heard, (and I dislike Wagner with equal passion).

Another aspect of these operatic works is the extreme difficulty of the orchestration. Many of them were re-composed as display pieces, poster children for the operas themselves. Richard Strauss’ Waltz Sequence No. 1 from “Der Rosenkavalier,” (Opus 139), which concluded the program, is the orchestral equivalent of a Godowski piano transcription of “The Blue Danube,” by another Strauss, quite impossible to play. The Midcoast did it anyway, and aside from a few minor glitches, managed it admirably, once again creating a perfect impression of the opera as a whole, as well as illustrating Strauss’s excessive love of the French horn.

I could hear Baron Ochs, besieged in a tavern by a flock of his illegitimate offspring, shouting “Papa. papa,” and muttering to his servant: “Leopold, wir gehens.”

The longest work of the evening was BIzet’s “Carmen” Suite, No. 2, in an arrangement by Ernesto Guiraud which includes some of the lesser-known interludes. It was also very well played, with an authentic Spanish-French flavor and virtuoso work by the trumpet and piccolo.

The regular conductor of the Midcoast, Rohan Smith, was playing in the violin section. I don’t know if he will appear at this afternoon’s concert at the Orion Center in Topsham, but it will be well worth attending in any event.

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

An English Deutsches Requiem at the PSO

Portland Symphony Orchestra
Merrill Auditorium
March 13, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

The change of date, from March 14 to March 13 to beat an oncoming blizzard, didn’t seem to affect attendance at Merrill Auditorium for the Portland Symphony Orchestra’s Lenten program.

It wasn’t billed as Lenten, but that was the impression given by three Christian religious works, played without intermission, backed by the combined forces of the Choral Art Society and the Oratorio Chorale, plus two soloists: baritone Troy Cook and soprano Twyla Robinson.

Music director Robert Moody began the program with a Bach Chorale, “Kumm süsser Tod,” transcribed for full orchestra by Leopold Stokowski. (Disclaimer: I met Stokowski once many years ago when he came to Kodak looking for a grant to stage the Scriabin “Poem of Fire,” complete with light organ to be built by us. He was turned down.)

The chorale is one of Bach’s inspired shorter works, but everything transcribed by Stokowski sounds like, well… Stokowski. Given the state of world affairs, I’m not sure that the sentiment in the title is one that should be widely promulgated.

“Come sweet death” was followed immediately by “In Paradisum,” for orchestra and chorus, by Dan Forrest (b. 1978). It was pleasant enough, well played and sung in traditional harmony, but bears the same relation to religious music as Bob Jones University (which commissioned the work) does to Christianity. It descended into kitsch with a part for handbell ringers in the aisles.

Now we come to the meat of the evening, the great Brahms “Deutsches Requiem,” one of the most profound expressions of religious sentiment ever written, by a man who wasn’t very religious himself.

Only God knows why the work was sung in English. Brahms chose the passages from the Lutheran Bible himself, and the music was written to fit them—as beloved of the Germans as the King James Bible is of us— certainly not English.

With supertitles, one can follow the text perfectly well, no matter what language is being sung. So why the translation? Incidentally, the supertitles in both the Forrest and the Brahms, were their usual ham-fisted selves, complete with misspellings.

Moody put Robinson on the balcony for the movement that was written to commemorate the death of the composer’s mother,  in which she seems to communicate with him. It was a nice touch, but the spotlighted singer could not be seen from under the left balcony overhang, and her part seemed to emanate from somewhere in the chorus. Both she and Cook have clear, well-projected voices, which would have been a delight to hear in German.

The orchestra was on its best behavior, but needed to expand its dynamic range beyond mezzo-forte to piano.

The combed choruses, under the direction of Emily Isaacson and Robert Russell, were fine, but could have been a little smaller, for better focus, and shifted toward the bass end of the spectrum.
Still, I would walk miles in the cold to hear the Requiem sung by a high school choir, and the audience agreed, giving the performance a for-once-deserved standing ovation.

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