Category Archives: Commentary

Noise Into Music, from Sō Percussion

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

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

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

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

I call it “too many marimbas.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First Festival Friday at Bowdoin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Handel and Bach Close Virtuosi Festival

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bach Virtuosi

Bach Virtuosi Festival
Cathedral Church of St.Luke
June 19, 2018
by Christopher Hyde

Olivier Messiaen, whose “Quartet for the End of Time” will grace the Bowdoin International Music Festival next month, once proclaimed that the birds, whom he thought of as angels, were the consummate musicians of the world. He had not heard flautist Emi Ferguson imitate a Goldfinch in Vivaldi’s work of the same name, (Opus 10, No. 3 in D Major), and then go on to out-do the original.

Ferguson, who played Tuesday night at St. Luke’s Cathedral, is just one of the noted Bach specialists brought to Portland by Lewis Kaplan under the auspices of the Bach Virtuosi Festival, formerly known as the Portland Bach Festival, which burst upon the world in 2016.

This concert, the second of the series (June 17-24), was devoted to composers who influenced Bach, and others who were deeply influenced by him. (I use the word “deeply” because virtually every classical musician has been influenced by J.S. Bach in one way or another.

The program opened with a Trio Sonata (Opus 2, No. 5 in A Major), by Dietrich Buxtehude, whom Bach once walked 100 miles to hear, losing his job in the process. The Trio was as much fun as the Vivaldi, a sparkling delight which could have been written by the master himself in one of his lighter moods.

It was rendered with perfect balance and delineation of parts by Ariadne Daskalakis, violin, Beiliang Zhu, cello and Arthur Haas, harpsichord.

Noted Maine pianist Henry Kramer made his debut at the festival by comparing and contrasting the Bach Prelude and Fugue in E-flat Minor (BWV 853), with one in B-flat Major (No. 21) by Dimitri Shostakovich, who wrote his own set of 24, in imitation of Bach’s “Well-Tempered Clavier.”

I thought that Kramer might have chosen two pair in the same key. Instead he contrasted one of Bach’s foremost exercises in long-limbed Baroque counterpoint, with the most virtuosic of the Shostakovich set. For those who love the Russian, it was a dead heat, with Kramer offering equally fine interpretations of each.

Festival founder Lewis Kaplan appeared in the “Tempo di ciaccone,” from Bela Bartok’s Sonata for Solo Violin, heavily influenced by Bach’s Chaconne from the Partita No. 2 in D Minor (BWV 1004), but much more somber. It is perhaps even more difficult to play than its predecessor, and so densely constructed that it would take several hearings to appreciate fully. We don’t have a Brahms or Busoni to make a valid piano transcription.

A “Meditation über den Bach Choral ‘Vor Deinin Thron Tret’ich hiermit,’” by contemporary Russian composer Sofia Gubaidulina (b. 1931), came as a complete revelation, vividly depicting the appearance of J.S. Bach before the Throne of God. Bach has the last word,  as chords based on his name, played on the harpsichord, end the work. And what a work it is, emerging from a fog of mystery, with strange sounds from violins, cello, bass and harpsichord, to eventually coalesce into a variation on the chorale played (loudly) by the bass, in an amazing performance by Kurt Muroki, and eventually into the full chorale in all its sonority. A true masterpiece, and enthralling throughout.

The program concluded with the reappearance of Kramer, with Renee Jolles and Yibin Li. violin, Karina Schmitz, viola, and Paul Dwyer, cello, in the Schumann Piano Quintet in E-flat Major, Opus 44. The final fugue. revealing the composer’s study of Bach, is, to me, the most interesting part of the quintet, like the similar effort by Schubert in the “Wanderer” Fantasy.

For a quintet that has not played before, the ensemble was exemplary, and better than that, exciting. Its last performance in Portland was pedestrian, leading one to wonder if a group of five musicians, rehearsing this work for the first time, might not do better than a string quartet, set in its ways, with an “outside” pianist. Just a thought, but what can easily become a piano concerto, showed an excellent balance of forces.
The next concert of the Festival will be on Thursday, June 21, an all-Bach program of vocal and instrumental music at Etz Chaim Synagogue.

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

Bach His Way

Bach His Way

by Christopher Hyde

In June of 2016, Lewis Kaplan, co-founder of the Bowdoin International Music Festival, launched a new enterprise in Portland that came as a revelation to many—the Portland Bach Festival, now known as the Bach Virtuosi Festival (June 17-24).

If, as I believe, performance is all, the festival dispelled any notion that J.S. Bach, arguably the finest musician who ever lived, was staid, or God-forbid, as boring as Hector Berlioz thought he was.

All of the performers, and a chamber orchestra, reminded me of Wanda Landowska’s aphorism: “You play Bach your way, and I’ll play him his way.” In many instances, during both the 2016 and 2017 season, it was as if the audience was hearing a familiar work for the first time. The reason, of course, was that Kaplan, a long-term professor of violin at Juilliard and an authority on Bach, was able to draw together some of the world’s foremost Bach interpreters, who also got along famously—in ensemble playing egging each other on until one began to believe that the court of Frederick the Great had come to the Age of Jazz.

This year’s Festival will include most of the original musicians, and expand its scope somewhat, to include composers deeply influenced by Bach, such as Bartok and Shostakovich (“Before Bach and Beyond,” June 19 at St. Luke’s Cathedral) and those who influenced him, such as Vivaldi and Buxtehude.

The final concert, June 24 at St. Luke’s will also include works by another giant, George Frederic Handel, plus another of my favorite Brandenburg Concertos, No. 4

The June 19 program will mark the first appearance of noted Maine pianist Henry Kramer, who will play a prelude and fugue from “The Well Tempered Clavier,” compared to a similar work by Dmitri Shosakovich. He will also appear in the Schumann Piano Quintet in E-flat Major, Opus 44, influenced by the Romanic composer’s study of Bach.

The program at Etz Chaim Synagogue, on June 21, will feature two sonatas, for violin and for flute, with Arthur Haas at the harpsichord, plus two contatas, “Vernugte Ruh, BWV 170, and “Weichet nur, betruebte Schatten, BWV 202. It will be followed by a panel discussion on “Music and Religion between Haas, professor of Harpsichord and Early Music at SUNY Stonybrook, the Rev. Cannon Frank M. Harron II, former Executive Director of Program and Ministry at the National Cathedral, and Gary S. Berenson, Rabbi, Etz Chaim Synagogue.

Two new venues this year will include a free concert at Falmouth Congregational Church on June 23 to support the Falmouth Food Pantry, and an evening celebration of Bach and Bacchus at the Cumberland Club on June 22.

Detailed descriptions of each program are available at www.bachvirtuosofestival.org/proram. Tickets are available through PortTIX.

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

Pianist Excels in Final Concert of Franco Center Series

Jonathan Bass, Pianist
Franco Center, Lewiston
June 1, 2018
by Christopher Hyde

The final concert of the 2017-18 Piano Series, June 1 at Lewiston’s Franco Center, ended on a low note— “D” three octaves below Middle “C,” to be exact.

Sorry, I always wanted to write that, now that I don’t have to worry about an editor or headline composer.

The concert did end on the lowest note of Chopin’s Prelude 24, Opus 28, but Jonathan Bass, Professor of Piano at Boston Conservatory at Berklee, had just played a concert that exemplified everything that was best about the series—which deserves to be better known throughout Maine.

Bass is everything a pianist should be, encompassing technical brilliance without showiness, musical and emotional depth, careful thought and an architectural sense of structure. He has a huge dynamic range, and what impressed me most about his performance was his extremely delicate and controlled pianissimo, probably the hardest thing to do well on the piano. After his interpretation of Debussy’s “L’isle joyeuse,“ I would dearly love to hear his “Serenade for the Doll.”

The Debussy was preceded by a little known Nocturne No. 6 in D-flat Major, Op. 63, of Gabriel Fauré, a sonata-like work with abundant pianistic filagree,  that established an historical context for the more Impressionist piece. The coloring of both was superb.

Bass is no slouch in conveying drama, either, as evidenced by the Beethoven Sonata No. 26 in E-flat Major, Op. 81a, with its three movements entitled “Farewell,” “Absence” and “Return.” The final “very lively” section was Beethoven at his wildest, with crashing sforzandos, violent but joyous contrasts and virtuoso passagework. It also had more false cadences than the Gobi Desert has mirages. The small but enlightened audience didn’t bite on a single one.

After intermission, with its traditional wine, crepes and tortieres, everything came together with a rare performance of all  24 Chopin Preludes of Opus 28. in numerical order. Andre Gide called these Chopin’s “eagle feathers” and Bass pointed out that if the composer had written nothing else, the Preludes would have made him world-famous anyway.

The Preludes run the gamut of emotions from Beethoven-esque violence, through rain in Majorca, to a wistful and short waltz, and the world’s most somber funeral march. I had virtually no quarrel with any of Bass’ readings. In fact, a recording of the set could serve as a model for aspiring pianists.

I did think that the difficult No. 8 was a bit fast, but I’d like to be able to play it at that tempo, then slow down if necessary, instead of vice versa.

After that astonishing performance, there was no need for an encore.

A friend in the audience, who agrees with my prejudice against encores, especially after soul-wrenching concertos, had a brilliant suggestion. Why not play the encore first? A bit of technically demanding fluff would warm up the soloist and show his or her ability to play the most difficult cadenzas of the premiere work on the program. The audience would not have to worry about whether the soprano could hit high C and they could go home whistling themes from the concerto.  Just a suggestion…

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

Students Shine at Piano Recital

Ginger Hwalek Student Recital
Minsky Recital Hall, UMO
May 20, 2018
by Christopher Hyde

A well-tempered Steinway concert grand must be a powerful incentive to piano students. The recital Sunday afternoon at the University of Maine’s MInsky Recital Hall, by students of Ginger Yang Hwalek, was not only impressive in terms of technical achievement, but also enjoyable musically. The 20-some compositions ranged from Bach to Stravinsky, without a piano-method special in the bunch.

In fact, the technical expertise of the performers led a critic to evaluate them in terms of interpretation or realization of the composer’s intent rather than the ability to play the notes correctly. The first on stage, 10-year-old Jordan Seavey,* emphasized the easy flow of the Sonatina in A Minor by Anton Benda, and achieved a good Stravinsky coloration in that composer’s “Five Finger Toccata.”

Later on in the program, Julia Hammond’s “Golliwog’s Cakewalk “ painted a minstrel in brilliant colors. Her “Doctor Gradus ad Parnassus,” from the same “Children’s Corner “ suite, generated beautiful waves of sound, but I prefer the image of a student plodding through a five-finger exercise, slyly changing key or soaring off in flights of fantasy from the boredom before him. But that’s just an opinion. Debussy, unlike Stravinsky, is always open to alternative readings.

Speaking of waves of sound, some of the works were of a high degree of difficulty, navigated almost perfectly. The Schumann “Aufschwung,” by Ha Do, was one example. Others included Anh Tran’s Fantasie-Impromptu, Op. 66 (Chopin), the Beethoven “Moonlight” Sonata, by Helen Shearer, the Beethoven Sonata in F Minor, Op. 2, No. 1, by Lilja Hanson, and a rousing piano four-hands version of the Mozart Sonata in D Major (KV 381), by Cecilia Doering and her teacher.(The sonata selections were excerpts, which did not make them any the less entertaining.)

While most of the works were by prominent composers, some of the lesser-known were also interesting. Shearer played “The Story of Gaydar” by Russian composer Grigori Frid, a Brahms Ballade written by Grieg. Sofie Rueter sketched two animal portraits by Linda Namath, and Mei Tian played a brilliantly syncopated “Crimson,” from “Sketches in Color” by Robert Starer.

Fine intermediate composers had their place too: an Allegro by William Friedmann Bach and an Etude by Dimiry Kabaalevsky, played by William Xu, were followed by Vetri Vel’s interpretation of the Sonatina in C Major, Op. 55, No. 1 of Friedrich Kuhlau, plus the better-known “Siciliano” of Schumann.

The program ended with some fine pianistic coloration by Emma Shearer of “Two Arabesques” by Debussy. The works on display had one thing in common, as Hwalek pointed out: Each of the students had made them their own.

*Jordan Seavey is the grandson of Christopher Hyde, a writer and musician who lives in Pownal and can be reached at classbeat@netscape.net.

Portland Symphony’s Apotheosis of the Dance

Portland Symphony Orchestra
Merrill Auditorium
May 13, 2018
by Christopher Hyde

Once in a great while there comes a relatively unknown work that is truly worth reviving. The Concerto in A Minor for Violin and Orchestra, Opus 82, by Alexander Glazunov (1865-1936). is a prime example. As played by the Portland Symphony Orchestra under Daniel Meyer, with violinist Chee-Yun, Sunday afternoon at Merrill Auditorium, it brought something new to late Romanticism, with a voice all its own.

The first section of the concerto seemed a little hum-drum, with statements and development of not very memorable tunes. Then came a very long and technically ferocious cadenza, managed superbly by the soloist. It was followed by a peal of thunder and trumpet calls, and it was off to the races.

Glazunov explores just about every instrumental combination in the book at a high rate of speed, somewhere between a quick march and a jig. The violin quizzically answers massed trumpets, plays duets with various sections and imitates the oboe, all of it held together beautifully by the forgotten opening melodies, transformed by the faster tempo.

A tour de force, and something new under the sun to anyone who had not heard the work before. Then Chee-Yun spoiled it with an encore– a piece of prestidigitation (Recitative and Scherzo by Fritz Kreisler) without any redeeming musical value. Any lasting enjoyment of the concerto, replaying its beauties in the mind, was obliterated. Chee-Yun, who has a fine musical sense as well as technique to burn, should have known better, and Meyer, one of three finalists for the post of PSO music director, should have talked her out of it.

As a young romantic, I imagined impossibilities, such as taking the great hornist Dennis Brain on a fox hunt to perform the calls, or getting the Philadelphia Orchestra into the pit for a performance of “Swan Lake” by the Bolshoi Ballet (even though their own orchestra was pretty good). Meyer’s version of a suite from “Swan Lake” fulfilled more than half of the dream, conjuring up elegant images at every bar.

The music is divinely Romantic, without an ounce of the cuteness that sometimes mars “The Nutcracker.” The violin solo by concert master Charles Dimmick was worth the price of admission; when combined with a cello part, played by David Paschke, it was little short of spectacular. Every part of the suite was danceable, although the tempo in Czardas was a trifle fast.

I have always had a problem with Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances, Opus 45. HIs last works, they seem less inspired than autobiographical. It is fun trying to identify all the snippets of previous works, the orchestration is striking, and the emotion obvious, but they fail to move one like the concertos or the earlier instrumental pieces, such as “Isle of the Dead.”  Speaking of which, the dances comes alive in the finale with a ferocious treatment of the Dies Irae. It finishes with a prolonged cymbal clash which may, or may not, portray the soul leaving the body.

I won’t go so far as to say that Meyer made the music sound better than it is, but he and the orchestra gave it the best possible reading.

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

Midcoast Ends Season on a High Note

Midcoast Symphony Orchestra
Franco Center, Lewiston
May 12, 2018
by Christopher Hyde

The young French pianist, Lise de la Salle, impressed audiences of the Midcoast Symphony a while ago with an astonishing performance of the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 3.  Last night at Lewiston’s Franco Center, she showed that she could be equally impressive in a more intimate role, with the Schumann Piano Concerto in A Minor.

One of my first recordings was an LP with the Schumann concerto on one side and the Grieg Piano Concerto in A Minor on the other (could it have been Dinu LIpatti?). I have never lost my affection for either work, the Schumann in particular, which is a strange animal indeed. It makes a real attempt to avoid the heroism of the Romantic concerto, opting instead for its membership in a brotherhood of the culturally elite —the Davidsbundler, whose march is incorporated in the final movement.

There are sections in which the piano not only blends with the orchestra, but actually takes on an accessory role, like a motor that can be heard purring in the background.

The score nevertheless demands a high degree of virtuosity, especially in the exclamatory chords, and rapid passage work, which de la Salle has in abundance. Her playing is both precise—fitting a cascade of notes perfectly into a bar, but emotionally satisfying as well, something I had been concerned about after hearing the Rachmaninoff.

The Midcoast, under Rohan Smith, supported the piano ably, realizing Shumann’s concept of “first among equals.” There was a little tug of war in the beginning between the conductor’s favorite tempo and that of the pianist, but that was soon worked out.

The program began on a less successful note with three dance episodes from Leonard Bernstein’s “On the Town.”  Bernstein’s orchestral arrangements are are difficult in both scoring and rhythm, and one questions whether their performance by an amateur orchestra is worth the effort.

Many of this popular composer’s works have come to seem dated, and this tribute to a Broadway that never was is a case in point.

After the last dance, Smith admonished the large audience not to applaud between movements. In their defense, each of the dances stands on is own, without being part of an un-interruptible whole. And even highly-structured classical works were historically cheered (and sometimes repeated) after each movement.

Smith concluded the program with the best-known symphony that is never heard: Beethoven’s Fifth. It should be programmed more often, so that new generations can understand why it is so famous. It is simply a miracle. Just one of its triumphs is the orchestration, which allowed all sections of the Midcoast their moment in the sun– especially the woodwinds. It was a fitting way to close out the season.

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

Mahler No. 2 a Tribute to Robert Moody

Portland Symphony Orchestra
Merrill Auditorium
May 1, 2018
by Christopher Hyde

The Robert Moody era of the Portland Symphony Orchestra ended with a very loud bang Tuesday night at Merrill Auditorium, when the music director conducted the final work of his 10-year sojourn, a monumental performance of the Mahler Symphony No.. 2 (“Resurrection”).

A full orchestra, with major additions on and off stage, two operatic sopranos, and the ChoralArt Masterworks chorus, were at Moody’s disposal, and he made the most of them. The percussion section had a field day, producing a decibel level heard before only in the engine room of a diesel submarine. Three sets of timpani, one offstage? I was surprised that Moody didn’t throw in a few bass notes from the Kotzschmar organ.

The capacity audience loved it, erupting in a lively standing ovation, with cheers, after an emotionally grueling 90-minutes (with one short interruption). In the orchestra there were hugs all around and an unusual bouquet for the maestro.

In a survey of 150 conductors of major orchestras, the Mahler No. 2 was in the top three of favorites. It is easy to see why. The symphony has something for everyone, from massed brasses and trumpets to rival the angel Gabriel to nursery rhymes, from harps to hautboys, from clarinets to contrabassoons.

In addition to bad poetry after Klopstock, Mahler wrote his own program notes, useful in trying to know what is going on. Before Pulitzer-Winning hip-hop, how did a composer describe the meaninglessness of life?

“The first movement represents a funeral and asks questions such as “Is there life after death?”; the second movement is a remembrance of happy times in the life of the deceased; the third movement represents a view of life as meaningless activity; the fourth movement is a wish for release from life without meaning ; and the fifth movement – after a return of the doubts of the third movement and the questions of the first – ends with a fervent hope for everlasting, transcendent renewal.”

The orchestra was in top form and enthusiastic;  the Masterworks Chorus, under Robert Russell, gave one of its best performances, with plenty of bass, and the soloists, soprano Twyla Robinson and mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Bishop, were outstanding, both in their depiction of the emotions desired by the composer and in their ability to soar above a tremendous orchestra.

The contrast and variety Moody was able to coax from the vast ensemble were little short of miraculous. Finally, the choral sections, as the composer intended, were like cool water after a day in the desert. There were live effects could never be duplicated on a recording.

So why didn’t the symphony become a religious experience, as it is for many? Too much going on? Too long? The composer’s conceit about the value of his suffering? Supertitles in English? (Like the Catholic mass in Latin, the poetry works best in German.) Perhaps most off-putting was overdramatized emotion, tearing a passion to tatters. Mahler’s most effective expressions are ironic or gentle reminders of weltschmerz. Speak softly and you won’t have to carry a big stick.

All in all, however, the symphony was a marvelously performed tribute and a grand farewell to a friend.