Category Archives: Commentary

Something About Grieg

Something About Grieg
by Christopher Hyde

The Portland Symphony Orchestra will conclude its 2015-2016 season with an all- Norwegian concert on June 21, ending with Edward Grieg’s two “Peer Gynt” Suites—incidental music to Henrik Ibsen’s play of the same name.

Greig’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King” from “Peer Gynt” Suite No. 1, was the first piece of music I can recall hearing. I played the 78-RPM record until it wore out. The music was so exciting that I ran around the house screaming (in a good way). Then an older girl introduced me to a dual recording of Greig’s Piano Concerto in A Minor, coupled with Schumann’s concerto in the same key, (Dinu Lipatti?) and I never looked back. My own small-size 33-1/3 of the concerto, in a heavier plastic than vinyl, pictured Danish pianist Victor Schiøler on the red cover, smoking a cigarette. (This was shortly after World War II, when virtually everyone smoked.)

Grieg (1843-1907) was in the forefront of the nationalist movement in music, although he preferred to think of himself as a composer in the universal classical tradition. He referred to one of his folk-loreish works as “redolent of cow flops.” In fact, many of his best compositions, such as the Piano Sonata and the Ballade, are no more Norwegian than Schumann’s are Germanic. As well as I can remember, the concerto never conjured up any visions of fiords, either, nor did trolls appear during “The Hall of the Mountain King.”

A long time later, when acting in “Hedda Gabler,” I read the script of “Peer Gynt,” and was surprised by what Ibsen had done with the fairy tale. The title character is much like Thomas Mann’s confidence man, Felix Krull, always running away from any sort of commitment. The play is surrealistic, combining dreams and stark reality, and in the last scene Peer encounters the button molder, who proposes to melt him down and start over again. The anti-hero is saved by the intercession of his mother, Aase, whose death scene, as portrayed by Grieg, is one of the high points of the suite.

The concert will feature Norwegian violinist Henning Kraggerud in selections from his own composition “Equinox,” 24 Postludes in all keys for violin and orchestra. He will also appear in a violin suite by Christian Sinding, a Norwegian composer known to all budding pianists for his “Rustle of Spring.”

The program will open with “Meridian,” orchestrated by Delvyn Case specifically for this performance. It was composed originally for wind by contemporary Norwegian composer Ola Gjeilo. “‘Meridian’ comes very much out of my love for ostinato or groove-based music,” said Gjeilo. I haven’t heard the orchestration, but the original is a pleasant tonal melody over a striking piano ostinato, Keith Jarret, the king of improvisation, would love it. It might be even easier listening than the Greig.

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

It’s Magic: Portland Ovations Materializes The Illusionists

The Illusionists
Merrill Auditorium
April 16, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

Portland Ovations’ blockbuster event, The Illusionists (April 15 and 16 at Merrill Auditorium), brought together some of today’s most popular magicians in a show that was… well, magical. Like most other people, I enjoy magic tricks, so I went without intending to write a review, simply to be amused and mystified.

The show did all that and more —The Trickster, Jeff Hobson, is also a great comedian, with an amazing ability to pull straight men out of the audience—but I was also impressed by how much of a role music played in the performance. The program even lists the company’s composer, Evan Jolly.

A lot of it, emanating from a control room that looked like the command center of a nuclear submarine, was way too loud, but the volume only added to the effects, the first of which was that primary skill of the magician, mis-direction.

The second was to create a rainbow of atmospheric and emotional effects, including extreme tension, martial arts, wistfulness, including a not-too-bad piano rendition of “Claire de Lune,” macabre humor, for Dan Sperry, the Anti-Conjurer, whose persona is a spaced-out zombie with a hipster attitude, circus music, and finally, a sense of wonder, at the final snowstorm created out of a paper napkin by The Inventor (Kevin James).

If there had been an elephant to disappear on stage, Jolly would have come up with an appropriate score.

It was all very effective, especially as Andrew Basso (The Escapologist) struggled, submerged for two-and-a-half minutes, to free himself from a water-filled tank, like Houdini.

One thing about the performance concerned me for the future of magic, and that was the portrayal of the action on a huge screen above the stage. The image was so colorful, clear and sharp, that it took one’s eyes away from what was happening live just below it.

I know, more mis-direction, plus the ability to let everyone in a large auditorium see the action.

However, to an audience accustomed to movie and video special effects, what happens on a screen is often absent the sense of wonder, since any illusion can be accomplished electronically with the push of a button. Magic, like music, is best experienced live.

The beauty of live magic is that it restores, without computers or other paraphernalia, a sense of wonder at what man or woman can accomplish unaided.

What we do now without thinking about it—- fly through the air on metal birds, or converse face to face with magicians in other countries– would have gotten our not-so-distant ancestors burned at the stake. But we’re not doing it ourselves, and, like the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, we don’t even know how it works.

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

Celebration at Back Cove Honors Elliott Schwartz

Back Cove Contemporary Music Festival
Woodfords Congregational Church
April 8, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

There are several reasons to attend today’s concerts of the Back Cove Contemporary Music Festival, 3:00 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. at Woodfords Congregational Church.

One is to celebrate the 80th birthday of Maine’s pre-eminent composer, Elliott Schwartz.

Two is to hear a wide selection of the best contemporary music, which, no matter what you think of it, is unfailingly interesting, even to children.

Three is to obtain a copy of an Elliott Schwartz Festschrift (celebration writing), which contains 30 short musical scores by a Who’s Who of modern composers, many of them playable by any moderately accomplished pianist, and some by anyone with no musical skills whatsoever. At $10.00 it is an absolute steal.

All of the miniatures in the book, based on a tone row built from the letters of the composer’s name, are being premiered at the festival, now in its 8th annual session under the auspices of the Portland Conservatory of Music.

The opening night of the festival, on Friday, offered a highly varied selection of works, from improvisations on “Daphnis and Chloe,” through some characteristic Elliott Schwartz compositions, to the latest in audio-visual and electronic music.

It began with a pensive “Blue Prelude” on the organ by Harold lStover, evoking the Art Deco era of New York, and sometimes proving, like Fats Waller’s work, that the ponderous instrument can dance.

It was followed by an appropriately soothing (and sometimes growling) Lullaby for contrabass and piano, played by the composer, Joshua DeScherer, and pianist Jesse Feinberg, calling up images of waves and swaying grass.

Feinberg returned with pianist Gregory Hall for Improvisations on “Daphnis and Chloe,” which floated on a veritable cloud of notes, using “templates” published by Hall. The templates are like a jazz pianist’s cheat sheets written by Einstein. They contain information about melodies, keys, scales and chord progressions, among other indications, and enabled the two musicians to coordinate their playing perfectly. I am not a fan of electronic pianos, but in this case the contrasting sounds of a keyboard and a concert grand provided sonic variety in a virtuoso performance.

“Cycles” by Jonathan Hallstrom, combined projected images of emerging biomorphic forms with an electronic score that made one think of alligators in a swamp with peep frogs—delicious—as was Bill Matthews’ totally acoustical “Island” for stereo loudspeakers, a perfectly executed tribute to the soundscape of the Maine coast.

“small hands”(sic) by Frank Mauceri, digital video generation, and Macief Walczak, saxophone and digital signal processing, concluded the program on a somewhat disturbing note, whether or not the piece refers to a subject of the recent political debates. The composers describe it as a depiction of “the collective anxiety of living in a society organized in contradiction to our needs.”

Schwartz himself was represented by two characteristic works, his Prelude, Memorial and Aria, written for the memorial service of his friend, Ezra Lamdin, and “Dialog No. 1,” composed circa 1970 for bass player Bertram Turetsky.

Both are masterpieces, in different ways. The first, for cello and piano, begins as a cello solo interrupted by the piano, which eventually takes over, progresses through an interlude based on Lambdin’s age, (Nine by Nine), and ends with a waltz that although abbreviated, ranks with Ravel’s. The piece progresses from an unembellished “modern” style to end in a comforting tonality. It was lovingly played by Feinberg and Philip Carlsen, cello.

The composer’s noted sense of humor comes out in “Dialog No.1,” played by DeScherer. The dialog is between the musician and his instrument, and involves shouts, muttering, drumming, slaps and physical contortions, as well as some virtuoso playing, until the two resolve their differences.

What one will come away with from any of the concerts is an expanded awareness of what is happening in music today, and a better sense of Schwartz’ contribution to almost every aspect of the art.

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

“Sweetest in the Gale” Is

Oratorio Chorale
Sweetest in the Gale
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church
Brunswick
Apr. 3, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

It is an article of faith among feminists that the reason there have been no women composers among the ranks of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms, is because they were so severely limited by the mores of their times, some even having to resort to male pseudonyms to have their work published at all.

The recent concert of Emily Isaacson’s new women’s chorus, “Sweetest in the Gale,” at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church on Sunday, made a strong case for this view.

While every work on the program, in chronological order from Hildegard of Bingen to Gwyneth Walker, was written by a woman, and all were beautifully sung, the quality of the compositions seemed to improve as their writers began to shake off the shackles of male domination.

The final works on the program, “Three Heavens and Hells,” by Meredith Monk (b. 1942) and “Love is a Rain of Diamonds,” by Gwyneth Walker (b. 1947), are masterpieces that excel most of what I have heard from contemporary male composers of choral music.

The concert was led by assistant conductor Mark Rossnagel rather than Isaacson, who is expecting the birth of her second child this week.

None of the above implies that the earlier works were not masterpieces, although it was hard to tell about Clara Schumann’s Nocturne, Opus 6, No. 2, which accompanist Derek Herzer had to play on an electric piano. Having tried to do something similar, after being used to a real grand piano, I can testify that making anything at all of the score was a minor miracle.

Soprano Mary Sullivan was in rare form in three display pieces that I had not heard before, all of them works of high drama and fiendish difficulty. The first, like Bernini’s sculpture of St. Theresa in ecstasy, is enough to make a normal concert goer blush. It was written by Augusta Holmes (1847-1903), setting verses by St. Teresa of Avila, in which she “dramatically reimagines her intense and transporting encounter with God, which builds to a climax of ecstasy.” Shades of the Tantra.

The second, with members of the chorus, was “Les sirènes,” by Lili Boulanger (1893-1918), who might have rivaled Debussy had she lived longer. It is equally erotic, but in a more classical way. One can hear how the seductive immortals might have tempted Ulysses.

The obligatory Amy Beach (1867-1944) came in the form of a charming “Through the house give glimmering light,” Op. 39, No. 3, reminiscent of bird song, with some unusual and well-done sforzando stops.

Sullivan returned for a heart wrenching rendition of “Anne Boleyn,” from “Try Me, Good King: Last Words of the Wives of Henry VIII,” by Libby Larsen (b. 1950). Needless to say, in spite of her eloquent pleading, she does not get her wish and hopes that the executioner knows his job.

I have already mentioned the final works on a short but brilliant program. “Three heavens and hells” has everything a modern choral work should have, but usually doesn’t. A round is illustrated by a round dance of the singers. The words generate the music, instead of being accompanied by them, and the little details, such as a singer in a monotone totally off key, are both fitting and remarkable. The entire thing, based on a poem by an 11 year old boy, is delightful and make one ponder the corollary of Sartre’s dictum that “Hell is other people.”
“Love Is a Rain of Diamonds,” setting a poem by May Swensen, exudes pure joy, and resulted in a standing ovation from the capacity audience.
Sweetest in the Gale (from “Hope Is a Thing with Feathers,” by Emily Dickinson), is a group of 20 auditioned sopranos and altos formed by Emily Isaacson and the Oratorio Chorale last Fall. After Sunday’s concert one hopes to hear more from them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bach and Beer

Bach and Beer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The eye looked but the mouth made no reply.

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

‘Three thousand miles,’ corrected Knopf.

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

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

J.S. Bach
Mass in B Minor

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

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

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

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

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

Dancers and Musicians Shine in “Play and Play”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First Day of Bowdoin Klavierfest Will Honor Elliott Schwartz

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Midcoast Symphony Changes the Climate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eroticism in Music

Classical Beat Column
by Christopher Hyde

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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