Category Archives: Commentary

A Welcome Addition to the Maine Music Scene

Amethyst Chamber Ensemble
Unitarian Universalist Church, Brunswick
Apr. 15, 2018
By Christopher Hyde

A new star has risen on the Maine (and Massachusetts) musical horizon. On Sunday, the Amethyst Chamber Ensemble, in its first Maine performance, at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Brunswick, transformed what could have been a lugubrious afternoon—sort of a “Songs and Dances of Death”—into a lively celebration of life.

The concert began with a set of three songs, “Let Evening Come,” by American composer William Bolcom (b. 1938) The songs are masterful settings of poems by Maya Angelou, Emily Dickinson and Jane Kenyon, dealing with human reactions to death.

Bolcom is a master at portraying psychological states through music, and the last song, to a poem by Kenyon, turns a funeral march into a triumphant procession. The set was effectively performed by Mary Sullivan, soprano, Scott Nicholas, piano, and Jon Poupore, viola. The latter instrument takes the place of a singer, who died before Bolcom could complete a commission written for two sopranos.

I loved Emily Dickinson’s image of birds in winter accepting the penance of the farmer.

The next selection on the program, the great Brahms Viola Sonata in F Minor, Op. 120, No. 1, was more cheerful, with echoes of his “Liebeslieder Waltzes” coming after more introspective sections, including some surprisingly songful double stops on the viola.

For something entirely different, the trio, with the addition of mezzo-soprano Joëlle Morris, performed 13 of “Fifteen Songs for Voice, Viola and Piano,” by Irving Schlein (1905-1986). Schlein, a familiar figure on Broadway, composed a large number of classical works, which have remained virtually undiscovered.

The songs are short, well-written, and often comical– musical one-liners, such as No. 5, which, while praising bird song, ends in a discordant minor second. The next, extoling harmony, takes the tonic to ridiculous extremes. No. 13, however, harks back to the theme of the concert, recalling the despair of unrequited love.

German weltschmerz was on full display in two wonderful, darkly Romantic songs for Voice and Viola (Op. 91) by Brahms: “Stilled Longing” and “You Who Hover “(“Gestillte Sehnsucht” and “Geistliches Wiegenlied”). They were movingly sung by Morris with just the right degree of restrained emotion, and tones complementing those of the viola.

Three tangos by Astor Piazzolla provided just the right combination of darkness and light, all of them, however a little more melodic than most of that composer’s concert tangos. The first, a Milonga, was sung by Morris, the second “El Titere,” about a Mack the Knife-like character, by Sullivan,and the third, “Song of the Zamba Girl,” by both, as alternating solos and a duet.

Sullivan and Morris form a near-perfect duet, as significant differences in pitch and timbre make the combination of voices most effective. Their coordination was most striking in a programmed encore, a vocalization of Brahms’ Hungarian Dance No. 5 by his friend Pauline Viardot (1821-1910) entitled “Les Bohemiennes.”

I usually cannot understand sung words in English, so Viardot’s French was beyond me. I’ll take it on faith that it was clever, funny and perhaps a bit risqué, judging by the fun that the singers, and the audience, had with it.

The next concert in Maine is scheduled for November. Too far off.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at classbeat@netscape.net.
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You Can’t Get There from Here. MPBN and Music

Commentary by Christopher Hyde

As an ardent Brahmsian I have always been disappointed with the so-called Double Concerto (violin and cello). No matter who plays it, the work never seems to strike the right chord, so to speak.

I was doubly disappointed then to have missed the performance recently by the Portland Symphony Orchestra under Eckhardt Preu, one of the three finalists for the position of PSO music director.

Preu’s version of “American in Paris,” during his all-Gershwin program earlier this season, was little short of miraculous, revealing qualities in the work that I had never heard before. I thought that if he could do that with movie-music by Gershwin, he might be able to give the Brahms concerto the performance it deserved.

All was not lost, however. I learned that Maino Public Broadcasting was to air a recording of the PSO performance at 8:00 p.m. on Wednesday, March 21. I have three computers and several good FM receivers, so I could listen to the performance in the comfort of my music room. How wrong I was!

First, as everyone knows, MPBN no longer plays classical music on its regular stations. It has been relegated to new positions on the dial, like a crazy uncle locked up in the attic. I have never listened to it there, being averse to segregation in any form. But hey, how difficult could it be? Find the new location, dial it up on a good receiver and turn on the stereo. Wrong again.

Either we do not have the right kind of receiver, or the signal from the nearest tower does not reach Pownal. There was absolutely nothing on the dial at the designated position.

By this time it was past 8:00 p.m., but I hoped that Preu would begin with the usual bit of fluff.

My wife recalled that we had stopped subscribing to MPBN when they prevented antenna-using listeners from viewing their programs unless they purchased a particular kind of digital box. Maybe they had done the same with classical music broadcasting.

There was still the computer and something called “live streaming,” I think. Boot up and see. Yes, there it was! IF you purchased a special app (whatever that is) for $99.00. There was a free trial, so we installed it, hoping against hope hat we could unsubscribe after the Brahms ( difficult to do in most circumstances).

There it was, the familiar strains of the vexed concerto, very faint and sounding as if being broadcast through a tin can. This lasted a few seconds and then vanished into the ether, never to return.
By this time,, the concerto was over, prompting a few choice words about MPBN, which has opted to join the talk radio gaggle.

If I want to hear loud, uninformed opinions, poorly and ungrammatically expressed, I can listen to any number of AM stations. If I want to read corporate news, sponsored by the CIA, I can subscribe to the Washington Post.

Enough vilification. The entire pubic broadcasting situation is too sad to contemplate, as organizations that should be supported by public funding turn to corporations for money, self-censor, and take on the coloring of their donors.

I long for the days when Robert J. began one’s day with the quirky “Morning Pro Musica;” when the radio was left on all the time for good music and occasional unbiased news; when the opera was broadcast every weekend; and no one believed they were a member of an intellectual elite just for listening.

So next time they tell you to silence candy wrappers because they’re recording at Merrill Auditorium, don’t believe it. You’ll never hear that concert again. Robert J. will never return, and most of his song birds are extinct.

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

A Flawed “Emperor”

Portland Symphony Orchestra
Merrill Auditorium
Mar. 20, 2018
by Christopher Hyde

“Even Homer sometimes nods.” Great composers have their off days, even Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in the late opera “La clemenza di Tito,” whose overture led off the program of the Portland Symphony Orchestra Tuesday night at Merrill Auditorium.

A packed house had come to hear one of the candidates for music director, Ken-David Masur, lead the orchestra in Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto, (No. 5 in E-flat Major, Opus 73), with Russian-born pianist Natasha Paremski.

An added bonus, after intermission, was the seldom-heard Symphony No. 6 in D Major, Op. 60, of Antonín Dvorák, the reason I added the familiar quote about Homer. In most cases there is a reason why works are seldom heard, and the No. 6 is not one of Dvorák’s most inspired compositions.

Sometimes conductors, or soloists, contrive to make a work sound better than it is, but that was not the case on Tuesday. The symphony was certainly pleasant and well played, but lacked inspiration or excitement. Even the Furiant third movement did not come up to the level of any of the Slavonic Dances, which it resembled. Could it have been a dance left out of that set? Waste not, want not.

The rest of the work has the composer’s authentic Bohemian flavor, but in it he lacks the confidence to utilize Slavonic themes to the full extent, which makes it sound somewhat derivative.

Getting back to the main event, one of my favorite concertos of all time, it was also well-played, tempo giusto and accurate to a fault. Paremski has one of the most beautiful portamento techniques I have ever heard—like a string of well-matched pearls, as my piano teacher used to say. In that regard, she was perfectly suited to Beethoven’s writing for piano.

In other regards, not so much. The bass lacked power, and the sforzando chords often sounded febrile rather than powerful. The orchestra and piano occasionally ran on different tracks, and the whole lacked coherence and drive, in spite of some memorable passage work and interplay between the piano and orchestral sections.

The audience gave it the usual standing ovation, and Paremski, thankfully, did not play an encore, but all-in-all, the performance was not the transcendent experience it could have been. I was once admonished: “A musical performance is not a religious experience.” To quote Woody Allen in another context: “It is if it’s done right.”

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

An Exciting POPS by the Midcoast Symphony

Midcoast Symphony Orchestra
Franco Center, Lewiston
Mar. 17, 2018
by Christopher Hyde

The Midcoast Symphony Orchestra’s “Celebration Pops,” Saturday night at Lewiston’s Franco Center, was just that: popular.  It attracted the largest crowd I have seen at one of the Midcoast’s concerts.

In spite of being about 2 hours long, including intermission with crepes and wine, the pace never flagged, due to the infectious energy of guest conductor Yoichi Udagawa, who was just getting into his stride with a gloriously hokey encore of “The Stars and Stripes Forever,” complete with a three-piccolo obligato and a flag-waving baseball cap. The Boston Pops couldn’t have done it better.

Udagawa has a penchant for fast tempos, which works better with some popular classics than with others. It made the orchestra struggle a bit with the Shostakovich Festive Overture, which opened he program, but was more effective in Copland’s “Hoe-Down” from “Rodeo,” and absolutely perfect with the jigs from Leroy Anderson’s “Irish Suite.”

Anderson has become a little too popular to be taken as seriously as he should be. HIs sensitive arrangement of well-known Irish tunes, however, was one of the high points of the evening.

We came to the event primarily to hear pianist Charles Floyd play “Rhapsody in Blue.” HIs interpretation of the Rachmaninov Concerto No. 2 with the Midcoast, a few years back, was unforgettable.

What happened was one of those irresistible force meets immovable object dilemmas, when Floyd’s long lines and exploration of inner voices came in contact with Udagawa’s up-tempo interpretation. A concerto is always a battle between orchestra and soloist, but this one ended in a truce that was satisfying to both parties, retaining the excitement of Gershwin’s improvisations while revealing some inner harmonies unheard in more technical performances.

I generally detest encores after concerto performances, as detracting from the main event, but Floyd’s deeply felt variations on “America” seemed appropriate. It made me think of the scene in “RIdley Walker,” when the hero comes across the ruins of Salisbury Cathedral and exclaims,”What we been…and what we are now.”

After conducting the audience in clapping for the “Colonel Bogey March,” Udagawa ended the regular program with a sultry and explosive Bacchanale from Saint-Saens’ “Samson and Delila,” that brought out the best from all sections of the orchestra.

I wouldn’t be surprised if today’s (Sunday’s) concert at the Orion Center is sold out, but if tickets are still available it would be well worth hearing.

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

The Piano Monster Tamed

Piano Monster Concert
Snow Pond Center for the Arts, Sidney
Mar. 3, 2018
by Christopher Hyde

What music critic could pass up something called The Piano Monster Concert? Shades of Creole pianist Louis Moreau Gottshalk, who once assembled 64 grand pianos for a play-along in South America. That my grandson, Jordan Seavey, took part in the event  is merely coincidental.

The concert was the brainchild of the Maine Music Teachers Association, Christine KIssack of Falmouth and Ginger Yang Hwalek of Bangor. Hwalek  conducted the ensemble  late Saturday afternoon,  in the jam-packed Alumni Hall of the Snow Pond Center for the Arts in Sidney. Kissack was in charge of the mind-boggling logistics.

There were 98 performers, 12 pianos —two concert grands and 10 spinet-sized consoles- -and 15 teachers, including Hwalek and Kissack. The teachers sometimes performed alongside their students, and sometimes just turned pages. I don’t have the exact numbers in front of me, but the piano players ranged in age from early grade-school to adult, with the majority skewed toward youth.

All of them were good—due to advances in pedagogy most Juilliard graduates have better technique than Liszt or Paderewski—and more surprising, watched the conductor closely for tempo and volume instructions. The unity was remarkable, even in the first two numbers, “Tamborine,” and “Magical March,” by Margaret Goldston, played by the youngest pianists.

The numbers of musicians in each piece varied from about a dozen to a maximum of 26, sometimes sitting three to a bench for piano-six-hands performance, as in “Bob’s Blues,” which Seavey has been practicing on our piano.

Recitals can be excruciating, especially those involving stringed instruments. This one, which lasted about an hour, was entertaining throughout, with well-selected pieces that showed off what could be done with the combination of pianos and electronic keyboards. The latter provided some real sostenuto in “Romantic Interlude,” by Beatrice Miller, and added to the authenticity of works in the Blues, Ragtime, country fiddling and and big-band styles. “Brightwood Barn,” by Robert D. Vandall, which ended the program, was a real barn burner to the tune of “What Shall We Do with a Drunken Sailer?”

The classics were not neglected, with some nice up-tempo selections from Beethoven’s “Six Country Dances,” an arrangement of the overture to “Carmen,” a well-known Gigue by Corelli and the first movement of the Mozart Sonata in D Major, K.381. The latter involved a serious attempt to bring out the often unheard voices. Mozart, who wrote for clockwork organs, would have had fun with a keyboard.

I am in awe of the effort and logistics involved in putting The Piano Monster Concert together—just getting all the performers on stage at the right time was a feat in itself. To have transformed it into an enjoyable musical event is extraordinary.

Dimmick Excels in Barber Violin Concerto

Portland Symphony Orchestra
Merrill Auditorium
Feb. 11, 2018
by Christopher Hyde

Guest conductor Paul Polivnik did a fine job with the Portland Symphony Orchestra Sunday afternoon at Merrill Auditorium, when Music director Robert Moody was unable to officiate due to the death of his father.

Polivnik, currently music director and conductor emeritus of the New Hampshire Music Festival, has worked with many of the world’s leading orchestras and,  in spite of a few technical glitches by individual players, was able to get the best out of the PSO at short notice, earning several standing ovations.

The high point of the afternoon was a performance of Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto, Op. 16, by concert master Charles Dimmick., who was equally at home in the first two lyrical movements and the fiendish finale.

There is still some controversy about this work, the violinist who commissioned it having turned it down because the finale was too difficult. Critics have said that the explanation can’t be right, since the violinist in question was a virtuoso, but knowing Barber’s piano works—and witnessing Dimmicks prestissimo fingering,— I find the explanation quite satisfactory.

A more important question is the fit of the final presto with what has gone before. No one seems to have noticed the gaelic flavor of the first two movements, with a jig-like motif appearing now and then, even in those funereal sections that are indicated by the beat of a muffled drum. Perhaps the concerto is an American “Death and Transfiguration,” with the flight of the soul portrayed by vastly increasing the tempo of fragments introduced earlier. I loved the ending, with a piano glissando leading up to the final abrupt note on the violin.

Whatever the explanation, the performance by Dimmick was utterly convincing, overcoming some significant lapses in Barber’s orchestration. You do not pit the solo violin against trumpets, the French horn maybe, but not the massed brass, unless you want a string fortissimo to disappear. Polivnik was able to ameliorate the worst of the excesses, but they were still obvious.

The other “modern” work on the program, “Alternative Energy” by Mason Bates (b. 1977), although well played (I think), was not as successful. I could not read all of the program, so I imagined each of the four movements as depicting forms of energy—Fords Farm, the automobile, Chicago, wind power, Xinjiang Province, solar, and Reykjavick, geothermal. Amid the blurts, rumblings and squeaks, the program worked pretty well, down to the recorded seabird calls stolen from Rutavaara’s “Cantus Arcticus.”

It turns out that the symphony depicts an historical dystopia in which a Chinese nuclear plant blows up and the remaining humans, living in a rain forest in Iceland, long for the days of the Model T. Close enough. Syncopated chords tossed around the orchestra get old fast.

The concluding “Bolero” was a miraculously controlled crescendo, with a few nicks in the paint consisting of muffed entrances, which tend to stand out like a sore thumb in Ravel’s orchestration. It nevertheless deserved its own standing ovation.

As usual, the opening work on the program, Brahms’ “Academic Festival” Overture, made me long for college days, which were actually among the more miserable of experiences. Next time, I’ll go to Heidelberg, drink lots of beer and emerge with a duelling scar.

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

The Quintessential Quintet

Berlin Philharmonic Wind Quintet
Hannafod Hall, USM-Portland
Feb. 1, 2018
by Christopher Hyde

I tried to get my son interested in playing the French horn but he became a professional fox hunter instead. (The horn was used primarily as a signal in stag hunting, but close enough.)

That family history crossed my mind while listening to a concert by the Berlin Philharmonic Wind Quintet Thursday night at Hannaford Hall. Portland Ovations has a way of bringing the world’s finest classical musicians to Portland, and the Berlin Quintet is no exception.

Formed in 1988, it comprises Michael Hasel, flute, Andreas Wittmann, oboe, Walter Seyfarth, clarinet, Marion Reinhard, bassoon, and Fergus McWilliam, horn.

Horn? What is so obviously a brass instrument doing in a woodwind quintet? Apparently, the mellow sound of the horn, rather like that of an alto saxophone, blends so well with woodwinds that it often serves as a transitional bridge between that section and the brass in an orchestra, and perfectly rounds out the complement of voices in a woodwind quintet.

It certainly works for the Berlin Quintet, which began the program with three highly unusual pieces by Mozart, originally composed for mechanical organ, a sort of music box in which the cylinder pins open air valves instead of plucking tuned steel bars.

The transcriptions, by Hasel, follow the originals faithfully, without additions or subtractions —the compositions are multi-voiced—and open a window on little-heard works, written during Mozart’s final year of life. They are fascinating glimpses, since Mozart seldom wrote a pedestrian note, but not up to his usual standards, in spite of a delightful fugue and double fugue that indicate a late study of Bach.

They were followed by the Quintet, Op. 10 (1929) of Pavel Haas who, like his contemporary Erwin Schulhof, ended his life in a German concentration camp. Sounding like a melding of Stravinsky and Kurt Weill, it was more interesting than the Mozart, ending in a fiendish dance and a chorale-like epilog.

If civilization survives into the next century, György Ligeti will be remembered, and played, as one of the great masters of Western music. Certainly his Six Bagatelles, (1953) with their homage to Bartok, are masterpieces, exhibiting brand new sounds, rhythmical patterns, and playfulness, all of which are both unexpected and, once heard, perfectly inevitable. They are also immensely difficult, and one hopes that musicians of the 22nd Century will be as accomplished as those of the Berlin Philharmonic are today.

The Carl Nielsen Quintet, Op. 43 (1922), which ended the program, is as unusual, in its own way, as the Ligeti. Nielson is often considered a Danish folk-artist, like Greig in Norway, but he combines his folkish tunes with avant garde flourishes that sometimes border on the absurd, contrasting with his sadder and more melodic sections,

The work also contains some exquisite solos for bassoon and horn, demonstrating the important place both instruments have among the woodwinds.

After a prolonged standing ovation, the quintet played an encore of Blues by American jazz and classical composer Gunther Shuller.

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

PSO Shows Versatility in Well-Received Concert

Portland Symphony Orchestra
Merrill Auditorium
Jan. 30, 2018
by Christopher Hyde

The Portland Symphony Orchestra, now in its final season under music director Robert Moody, hit the trifecta Tuesday night at Merrill Auditorium with three winning performances of modern, late Romantic and classical works. Moody even threw in a bonus not on the program, the quartet from Mozart’s “Idomeneo.” with Maine singers.

The program began with “Eating the Flowers” by American composer Hannah Lash (b. 1981), who was in the audience.
The work is an homage to several late 19th and early 20th Century composers. The “flowers” are their particular styles, especially of orchestration, without reference to recognizable melodies. The more long-limbed passages are supported by a driving rhythmical pattern (or “chug or in modern musical parlance), with the harp, of all instruments, front and center. The instrumentation results in beautiful gong-like effects that reminded me of Debussy’s use of gamelan music. It was much better received than most contemporary works, and its composer deserved her applause.

It was followed, after the “Mozart Moment” from “Idomeneo,” by his Piano Concerto in D-minor No. 20, Opus 466, with pianist Henry Kramer. I am not a great fan of the Opus 466, which seems more dramatic than musical, but Kramer made it sound better than it is.
The balance between orchestra and soloist was well-nigh perfect, especially in the dialogs between the piano and woodwinds.

The cadenzas, by Beethoven, were spectacular.

I reviewed Kramer’s version of the “Elvira Madigan” (Mozart Concerto No. 21) a while ago, and found it technically flawless but without much Romantic sensibility. He still has a little way to go in that repertoire, but took the bit in his teeth during the third movement, forcing the orchestra into an ultra-rapid and exciting tempo. The audience loved it, as they did his more relaxed and flexible encore of the Brahms Romanza, Opus 118, No. 5. Both received a standing ovation.

Finally came a colorful reading of Richard Strauss’ “Ein Heldenleben,” an orchestral tour-de-force that the PSO negotiated (almost) perfectly, and with a wide dynamic range.

The brasses are the heroes of this work, but the brightest star was concert master Charles Dimmick’s violin solo depicting the hero’s love interest. The orchestra, and its various sections, received a standing ovation, but Dimmick received cheers as well. HIs performance of this difficult part combined brilliant technique with emotional depth, plus the ability to stand out against Strauss’s massed horns.

Moody’s interpretation was exciting in the sections depicting struggle and victory, but he was also able to turn the hero’s departure from this world into a moving portrait worthy of “Tod und Verklarung.”

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

Vox Nova Celebrates the Winter Solstice

Vox Nova
Franco Center, Lewiston
Jan. 20, 2018
by Christopher Hyde

“To whose more clear than crystal voice, the frost had joined a crystal spell.” The Vox Nova Winter Solstice concert, Saturday night at the Franco Center, reminded me of Leonie Adams’ line, with a succession of images as sparkling, cold and clear as frost patterns on a window pane.

Where does director Shannon Chase find these works? Stanzas of great poetry set to contemporary music that adds to their effect. She even found an e.e. cummings poem, set by Steve Heizeg (b. 1959), with capitol letters (“Noel Noel”). “little tree” was almost enough to give one the Christmas spirit, ending with a peal of bells from the harp, played by Victoria Flanagan.

Flanagan also decorated — I hesitate to use the word accompanied— a moving setting of Thomas Hardy’s “The Oxen,” by Marjorie Hess (b. 1958) and a truly dolce version of “What Sweeter Music by Robert Herrick, with music by Michael Fink (b. 1955).

Chase  uses instrumentalists to good effect, without diminishing the effectiveness of the perfect intervals attainable with an a cappella choir. The first half of the program was sung by a small group, Intima,” and the second by the full chamber choir, with harp, flute, trumpet, piano and string quartet.

A Latvian folksong, “Northern Lights,” with music by Eriks Ešenvals (b. 1977), included tuned water glasses and chimes, adding to the wonder expressed in the song, which compares the perpetual rise and fall of the northern lights to harp music.

Vox Nova has a strong bass section, fully revealed in “Evensong,” by Stephen Paulus (1949-2014), to a poem by Matthias Claudus (1740-1815). One of the most effective works, however. was “Tundra,” by Ola Gjeilo (b. 1978), setting a poem by Charles A. Silvestri. It was sung by the Women’s Chamber Chorus, Jennifer Caton, soprano, with the piano and string quartet taking the tenor and bass lines.

The last time Vox Nova performed “Come to the Woods” by Jake Runestad (b. 1986) to a poem by John Muir (1838-1914), I gave it a rave review. It was just as good the second time — a concerto for piano and chorus, with Amy Maier at the piano. While listening to the wind during our October hurricane I thought of Muir climbing a pine tree to witness the storm described in his poem.

The program concluded with a wonderful version of “Auld Lang Syne,” which not only uses Burns’ original wording, but alters the traditional melody to give it a more authentic Highlands flavor. The work, by Mairi Campbell (b. 1965), was given a definitive reading by the chorus and Erika Leighton, mezzo-soprano and Julia Nadeau, soprano, with Maier at the piano.

The concert was both a celebration and a catharsis of winter. Now if someone could set Ezra Pound’s ode “Winter is icumen in, Lud sing Goddam. Skiddeth bus and sloppeth us,and how the wind doth ram…” Spike Jones perhaps?

The Winter Solstice program will be repeated today at 3:00 p.m. at the Orion Center for the Performing Arts in Topsham. It should not be missed.

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

Voices from the Renaissance

Renaissance Voices
Cathedral Church of St. Luke
Dec. 16, 17, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

The Christmas concert of the a cappella choir, Renaissance Voices, Saturday night and Sunday afternoon at the Cathedral Church of St. Luke, reminds me of Mathew Arnold’s image, in “Dover Beach,” of a faith that once held the Western World together. The music transports one to that era, when a still, small voice could yet be heard, and reindeer were merely the Lapp’s cattle.

Echoes resound in music director Harold Stover’s programming of modern music and that of the Victorian era, represented in this year’s concert by four motets by Josef Rheinberger (1839-1901). Rheinberger’s “Neun Advent-Motetten, Op. 176, are more difficult than his Renaissance models, especially in their demand for sustained tenuto of difficult intervals. They were worth the effort, however.

This year’s Renaissance-era offerings were relatively well-known, beginning with “Natus est Nobis,” by Tomas Luis de Victoria (1548-1611) and ending with “Canite tuba in Sion” (Blow the trumpets in Zion) by Hieronymus Praetorius (1560-1629).

The latter was something of a revelation, in that the listener knows the intent of the music (apart from the text) and can appreciate the composer’s success in rendering it. In this case,, the work consists entirely of combinations of trumpet calls, imitated by the choir, and is quite magnificent.

An effective juxtaposition was an anonymous “Laudemus Virginum“ (c. 1399), with a traditional English carol, “Blessed be that maid Marie,” similar in mood and perhaps as old.

Modern works included a deeply felt “O Magnum Mysterium,” by American composer Sally Hermon, and a setting of “A little child there is ybore”, by British composer David W. Jepson, sung by soprano Joanne deKay.

As customary at the Renaissance Voices Christmas program, the musical offerings were interspersed with appropriate readings of poetry, in this case two Christmas poems by Jane Kenyon, and “Department Store,” by Carl Dennis.

A work by Orlando de Lasso (1532-1594), seemed particularly appropriate to this season: “Veni Domine, et noli tardare…” (“Come, Lord, and do not delay. Pardon the misdeeds of your people, and bring the dispersed back to your land.”)

Today’s concert will be at 2:00 p.m.

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