Category Archives: Commentary

PORTopera Delivers a Landmark “Carmen”

PORTopera “Carmen”
Merrill Auditorium
July 27
by Christopher Hyde

Bizet’s “Carmen” can be summed up by a well-known pornographic postcard from the composer’s Paris, in which a beautiful young woman accepts a bouquet from a Romantic lover. A drapery or curtain conceals her lower half, which is receiving the intimate attentions of a well-endowed brute.

In PORTopera’s new production, premiered Wednesday night at Merrill Autditorium, artistic director Dona D. Vaughn has elevated the love-lust dichotomy into to a tragedy worthy of “Macbeth.”

She is ably abetted by a fine orchestra, conducted by Stephen Lord, a cast like that of the Metropolitan Opera, and a set, with its sometimes solid and sometimes broken adobe walls, that mirrors the tragedy. The setting and authentic costumes, from Franco’s Spain of the 1930’s, also make a substantial contribution to Vaughn’s characterizations.

To take just one example, the bullfighter Escamilio’s absurd suit of lights emphasizes his role as Carmen’s ticket out of the gypsy life. He is not an heroic figure but the handsome boy next door, strutting his bravado but totally unsure of himself. Carmen can wrap him around her little finger. unlike Don José, who even wins a knife-fight with the toreador. The role is played with appropriate nonchalance by bass-baritone Edward Parks

If there were ever a mezzo-soprano perfectly suited to sing Carmen, it is Israeli-born Maya Lahyani, who combines a voice to die for with acting ability, beauty and stage presence. She is one of the few Carmens I have seen who makes Don Jose’s and Escamillo’s infatuation entirely believable.

After setting the stage, the tragedy begins when Carmen, uncharacteristically, waits for Don José because he has gone to prison for her. She is trying to break out of the flirtatious, man-killing pattern she has set, but after seducing Don José to join the bandit troop, she begins to regret her decision. Still, she stays with him longer than any other man in her life, until she finds herself outgunned by the traditional world, in the person of Micaëla, allied with Don José’s mother.

Tenor Adam Diegel, as Don José, has just the right mixture of passion and conventionality as the deeply divided anti-hero.

Soprano Amanda Woodbury is spectacular as Micaëla, whose seeming timidity and religiosity disguise a will as strong as Carmen’s and more sure.

Like Macbeth, Carmen consults an oracle about her future, always a bad idea, and finds nothing but death, impossible in the full Tarot deck (I think), reflecting her own subconscious knowledge that she is losing her youth and beauty.

She refuses to give in, and takes up with Escamillo, either as a last fling or an anchor against old age. In the final act we see her and her delightful friends Mercédes, mezzo-soprano Sahoko Sata, and Frasquita, soprano Maeve Höglund, dressed in the 1930s version of Spanish ladies of fashion. Carmen’s wild hair is in a bun, and she is dressed in an outfit that seems sedate, at least for her.

In the final confrontation with Don José, she could easily have diverted his wrath, but decides once more to tempt fate, and defies him, while addressing her persona in the third person: “Carmen never gives in.” It is this hubris that precipitates the tragedy.

After the stabbing, Carmen’s body is surrounded by a squad of soldiers, all with their rifles pointed at her body, and incidentally, her murderer Don José. The scene returns us to the beginning of the opera, in which Carmen is flirting with the same soldiers.

In my rewrite, there’s a happy ending. Don José gets a suspended sentence for a crime of passion, (It’s Spain after all) marries Micaëla and lives happily ever after, his mother having recovered from her terminal illness due to joy at seeing her son again.

Seriously, this version of “Carmen,” the third in the history of PORTopera, will stand as a landmark. Every part of the world’s most popular opera is there, down to the last syllable, through four acts, two intermissions and a pause, but it is riveting throughout. Every role is almost perfectly sung and acted, and the crowd scenes with the children’s chorus set off the tragedy by their sheer exuberance. There are a few seats left for Friday’s performance, and this is an experience worth having, no matter how far up in the balcony one has to sit.

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

Bowdoin Festival’s Piazzolla Doesn’t Bite

Bowdoin International Music Festival
Wednesday Upbeat! concert
Studzinski Hall
July 20, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

Throughout my career as a critic, I have advanced the idea that performance is all when it comes to classical music. Perhaps I should also have pointed out that it is a necessary but not sufficient condition. Arturo Michelangeli can make the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 1 sound good, but even he might fail with a lesser work.

I attended the Wednesday Upbeat! concert at Studzinski Hall primarily to hear Astor Piazzolla’s “L’histoire du Tango,” written around 1980. It portrays the evolution of the tango from the bordellos of Buenos Aires through cafes and night clubs to the concert hall. It does exactly that but is more satisfying in an historical than a musical sense
.
The work was originally written for guitar and flute, but on Wednesday was transcribed for violin and marimba, played by Susie Park and Luke Rinderknecht respectively.

Maybe Piazzolla was getting old, or maybe he wanted his history sanitized for music students, but each tango in the set of four lacks the bite of his earlier work. A true Piazzolla tango is full of dark passion with a black hole of nihilism in its center, around which the dance revolves.

The history is, well, pretty, and never catches fire until it is almost over, with tributes to Bartok and Stravinsky.

Park and Rinderknecht played the transcription very well, but the violin cannot imitate the timbre of the flute, and a little bit of marimba goes a long way. The latter iinstrument is incapable of despair, in which the guitar is right at home.

The high point of the concert was its beginning– the Beethoven Sextet in E-flat Major, Opus 81b, which is not a sextet at all, but a concerto for two French horns, in the style of Mozart. It is indeed written for six instruments, but the strings, for the most part, accompany the horns, played with virtuosity by Stewart Rose and his student at the Festival, Jason Friedman. The two made an outstanding pair.

The final work on the program was the Schumann Piano Trio No. 3 in G Minor, Opus 110. also known as “no rests for the weary” or “the forsaken fermata.” The piece is so densely written, in a waterfall of notes, without a single empty space, that it soon became tiring, in spite of the best efforts of Nelson Lee, violin, Rosemary Elliott, cello and Elinor Freer, piano.

The piece is so driven in nature that it appears symptomatic of the mental illness that would soon claim its composer. It has redeeming features, however, such as echoes of the humorous but triumphant march of the Davidsbundler. It received a standing ovation from the near-capacity audience.

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

A New Star in the Bowdoin Festival Heavens

Bowdoin International Music Festival
Festival Friday
Crooker Theater, Brunswick High School
July 15, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

Gabriela Lena Frank, whose “Tres Homenajes, Compadrazgo,” was performed Friday night at the Festival Friday concert of the Bowdoin International Music Festival, may be our new Bartok.

The work in question, three tributes to the Latin American spirit of brotherly love, inspired by ethnic Peruvian music, is a masterpiece. While it stems from the ethnomusicology of the composer, the folk motifs and rhythms are the starting point for inspired music in a distinctive and universal classical style. It is what Astor Piazzolla did for the Argentine tango, but carried to an even higher level and capable of being appreciated across cultural divides.

Its rapid, driving rhythms and abrupt changes of pitch and volume are a challenge for any group, but the Ying Quartet, and pianist Tao Lin, conquered its awesome chasms like mountain goats (if you’ll pardon the analogy.).

The three movements depict the windswept northern plains of Peru, a desolate island in Lake Titicaca and T’inku, a ritual combat between village heroes, now symbolic but previously a matter of life and death. (Both victor and vanquished share in the good harvest resulting from the conflict.)

While the composer’s images may have been her inspiration, listeners are free to imagine what they will. There are no overt references or musical imagery. The slow second movement, to me, would make a fantastic score for Pablo Neruda’s great poem about Machu Picchu.

Frank is a composer in residence at this year’s festival. They are fortunate indeed to have her.

If I were not exclaiming over Frank’s work, I would have begun with Robin Scott, first violinist of the Ying Quartet, who deserves some kind of Iron Man award. He appeared first in a charming rendition of Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante in E-flat Major (K. 364/320d), with a virtuoso cadenza, then in the extremely difficult Frank work, and finally in Gabriel Faure’s Piano Quartet No. 1 in C minor (Op. 15).

The Fauré, while not exactly a lollipop, is a rich late-Romantic piece with delicious twilight harmonies and soothing melodies. The slow movement is said to depict an unhappy broken engagement to the daughter of famous singer-composer Pauline Viardot.

The official biography says no to the story, but the evidence is there for anyone with an ear to hear. (Some musicologist must have checked references to Viardot’s scores in the quartet.) In fact, the sweet cheat appears as a spirit in the Allegro Molto, like a fountain of light. Unfortunately Fauré doesn’t know what to do with her and cobbles together an ending with the piano, superbly played by Elinor Freer, as the lone hero.

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

PORTopera Offers Major New Production of “Carmen”

“Carmen”
Merrill Auditorium
July 27 and 29
by Christopher Hyde

PORTopera’s 2016 production of George Bizet’s “Carmen” promises to be a landmark in the company’s long history in Maine. It was first performed 22 years ago at the State Theater, 11 years ago at Merrill Auditorium, and this year in a fully staged version at Merrill, with lead singers from the Metropolitan Opera.

Dona D. Vaughn has directed all three productions, and, as usual, has a surprise in store for audiences. She won’t say what it is, but it occurs in the third act. “Carmen” is scheduled for two performances at Merrill Auditorium: Wednesday, July 27 and Friday, July 29, and there are still a few tickets left. Maestro Stephen Lord will conduct a full orchestra, an auditioned adult chorus is being rehearsed by Robert Russell, and a children’s chorus by Sarah Bailey.

Why “Carmen” (again)? “It’s the most popular opera in the repertoire, surpassing “La Boheme” and ”Madame Butterfly,” and every time you see it, you find something new,” said Vaughn.

The opera has appeared in many guises, including the movie “Carmen Jones” with Harry Belafonte. Vaughn’s version will be traditional, sung in French with English supertitles, but set in the 1930’s around the time of the Spanish Civil War.

“Google is wonderful for authenticity,” Vaughn remarked. “You want Spanish wine bottles or rifles from the Franco era, and there they are. There’s no guesswork.”

The period sets were designed by Judy Gailen. “Just the change in style makes a difference in stage direction,” Vaughn points out. “The actors move differently in different costumes.”

The cast of the new production is a blend of Met singers and audience favorites from previous PORTopera presentations.

Maya Lahyani, mezzo-soprano, will sing the role of “Carmen.” The Israeli opera singer is a 2010 grand finalist of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions and the recipient of an Adler Fellowship at San Francisco Opera. Highlights of Lahyani’s 2015-2016 season include performances at the Metropolitan Opera as Maddalena in “Rigoletto,” and Lola in “Cavalleria Rusticana.” “She not only has a wonderful voice, but is also a good actress and an artist passionately devoted to her role,” said Vaughn.

Adam Diegel, tenor, returns to PORTopera as Don Jose. This season, Diegel will also perform as Pinkerton in “Madama Butterfly” at Opera San Antonio, a role in which he was greatly admired a few seasons back by PORTopera fans.

Amanda Woodbury, soprano, will sing the role of Micaëla, in which she made her professional debut at LA Opera in 2013.

Ed Parks, baritone, will sing the role of Escamillo. Parks sang in Metropolitan Opera productions of “La Bohème,” “Die Zauberflöte,” and “Don Carlo” in the 2014-2015 season. This is his third time singing with PORTopera Previously he played Marcello in “La Bohème” and made his debut as Sharpless in “Madama Butterfly,”

Kenneth Kellogg, bass, will sing the role of Zuniga. .

Sahoko Sato, mezzo soprano, will sing the role of Mercédès. She is a native of Tokyo and grew up in Japan, Germany and the US.

Robert Mellon, baritone, returns to PORTopera to sing the role of Le Danca. He performed with PORTopera as Marullo (“Rigoletto”), in the title role in “Gianni Schicchi,” as Prince Yamadori (“Madama Butterfly”), as the Corporal (“La fille du régiment”) and as the Man (“Café Vienna”).

Lucas Levy, tenor, returns to PORTopera to sing Le Remendado while covering the leading role of Don José. In the summer of 2015, Levy joined PORTopera as a Young Artist, singing Spoletta in “Tosca” and the trio tenor in “Trouble in Tahiti.” Previously, Lucas appeared as Borsa in “Rigoletto” and Gherardo in “Gianni Schicchi.”

The role of Morales will be sung by Jorelle Williams and Maeve Höglund will sing Frasquita.

While we’re on the subject of PORTopera, the company’s Young Artists production of Gian Carlo Menotti’s “The Medium,” can be seen tonight (Friday) at the St. Lawrence Theater in Portland, and at Ocean Park in Old Orchard Beach on Sunday.

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

Bach Festival Sets New Standard

Portland Bach Festival
St. Luke’s Cathedral
June 20, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

In Phillip Glass’ new autobiography ”Words Without Music, “ he makes a good case for music as a trinity in equal collaboration—composer, performer, audience —(even if the audience is also the performer.)
The second concert of the new Portland Bach Festival, Monday night at St. Lukes’s Cathedral in Portland, had all three in abundance. It also had another sine qua non— fine instruments, including an Amati cello and one of Rob Regier’s magnificent harpsichords, made in Freeport, Maine.
The Bach Sonata for Violin and Basso Continuo in E Minor, BWV 1023, played by Ariadne Daskalakis, violin, Arthur Haas, harpsichord, and Beiliang Zhu, cello, was played at a pitch used by Bach (“A”-415), slightly lower than the modern “A”-440.
The next work, the Brandenburg Concerto No. 6, BWV 1051, was played at the modern pitch, and all Haas had to do was push a lever on the harpsichord to switch over. Before that I was wondering if Regier, who was in the audience, would have to retune the entire instrument between numbers, or wheel in a new one.
Technicalities aside, the concert made me think I had been away from New York for too long. Nothing is perfect, or the world would come to an end. Still, the Bach Festival, like its predecessor in Bethlehem, Pa, sets a new standard.
Having the concerts in the round, like last night’s in the small rotunda at the back of the cathedral, gives them an authentic intimacy, to say nothing of improved acoustics. The final Brandenburg No. 6, played by a concertino of two violas. Nicholas Corda and Danielle Farina, with a small chamber ensemble, had exactly the right volume and tempo.
Every detail was clear, and the rapport between the musicians, who were obviously enjoying themselves, was a delight to behold. This was virtuosity as play, in a genre that is often taken much too seriously. Bach can be a joy to hear without being any less profound.
Even the pauses between movements would have fascinated John Cage. No rustling, no coughing. You could have heard a pin drop. And there was that tiny fermata after the last note, and before the standing ovation, that signifies a truly musical experience.
The contrast between the concerto and the preceding sonata, played at a lower —and very satisfying— pitch, was a stroke of programming legerdemain. The interplay of violin and cello in the sonata gave a new meaning to the form of basso continuo.
The program began with the Cello Suite No. 1 in G Major, BWV 1007, played by Nicholas Canellakis, sounding like an entire orchestra. In spite of dramatic leaps and sudden changes in tonal color, his reading was both relaxed and melodic, setting the tone for what came after.
It was followed by the Trio Sonata from “The Musical Offering,” BWV 1079, by Renée Jolles.violin, Emi Ferguson, flute, Zhu, cello and Haas, harpsichord. I should have been listening for all the appearances and transformations of the tune Frederic the Great gave Bach to improvise upon. Instead, I was watching Emi Ferguson on the baroque flute, looking like a musician from a mosaic uncovered at Pompei.
(I’m sorry I won’t be able to attend the Bach and Beer Festival this afternoon. I hope someone has thought to brew some Bock.)

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

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.