Category Archives: Commentary

VentiCordi Explores the Unusual

VentiCordi
Studzinsky Recital Hall, Bowdoin College
Oct. 29, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

While the musical avant garde set off in various directions, some rewarding and some not, many composers continued to write good, solid and interesting music in traditional forms, while also taking advantage of what Schoenberg called “the liberation of the dissonance.”

Last night’s concert by VentiCordi (wind and strings) at Bowdoin’s Studzinsky Hall, provided substantial proof of just how rewarding this style of music can be. All of the works were thoroughly enjoyable and some broke new ground with old tools, like St.-Saens. It is doubtful that anyone in the audience had heard these works before, but they were all readily accessible, beginning with a fine Trio for Flute, Oboe and Piano by British composer Madeleine Dring,(1923-1977) who wrote it for her husband.

It explores (very) close harmony between the woodwind instruments, and their subtle differences in timbre. One sometimes felt that the oboe became less “reedy” in close collaboration with the flute. It was given an outstanding performance by Bridget Convey, piano, Sarah Brady, flute and Kathleen McNerney, oboe.

McNerney appeared again, with noted double bass player William Blossom, in “Three Songs for Oboe and Double Bass, after poems by Pablo Neruda,” by Andrea Clearfield (b. 1960). The combination of instruments, as unusual as it is, was ideal for exploring the interplay of male and female as portrayed in Neruda’s erotic poems: “Body of a Woman,” “The Light Wraps You,” and “Every Day You Play.”

Erwin Schulhoff (1894-1942), who died of tuberculosis in a Nazi concentration camp, was once known for a relatively few works and the tragedy of a career cut short. Now that more of his compositions have been uncovered, he seems rather like Prokofiev, both daring and playful. As VentiCordi co-founder, violinist Dean Stein, said in opening remarks, Schulhoff wrote a piano piece consisting entirely of rests and indications, long before John Cage’s “4-33.”

His Concertino for Flute, Viola and Double Bass, played by Stein, Brady and Convey, sounded a bit like Prokofiev, without the Russian influences, especially in the comically quick-step Rondino that ends the work, in which the flautist switches to a piccolo for the final squeak.

I had heard the “Schilflieder” (Songs of the Reeds) for Oboe, Viola and Piano of August Klughardt (1847-1902) once before and remarked that it sounded like Brahms after one too many steins at the Red Hedgehog. Convey muted the piano part a bit this time, for a better balance of the parts, and a more lyrical, less bombastic, feel. No matter how interpreted, it is a thoroughly enjoyable piece of late Romanticism, full of Brahmsian harmonies and gentle melancholy.

The Trio for Flute, Violin and Piano (1958), that ended the program, was a virtuosic tour de force by Nino Rota, composer of the first two “Godfather” scores. Not very emotionally moving, without the images on the screen, but exciting throughout, concluding with a fantastically rapid Allegro vivace con spirito.

The program will be repeated Sunday, Nov. 6, at 2:00 pm. at Woodfords Congregational Church in Portland.

“Duke Bluebeard’s Castle”

“Duke Bluebeard’s Castle”
by Christopher Hyde
Oct. 25, 2016

“Behind every great fortune is a crime.” I used to repeat that quote from Balzac to get a rise out of my friends in New York, who were utterly convinced that great wealth was an outward sign of inner virtue. But that was long ago and in another country, and besides, the wench is dead. Today the quote is a truism, and I thought of it only in connection with the Portland Symphony Orchestra’s production of “Duke Bluebeard’s Castle” on Nov. 1, a daring must-see presentation if there ever was one.

Volumes have been written about the opera, Bartok’s earliest stage work. (The final version was written in 1921.). Like Brahms, he found it difficult to summon up the requisite stupidity. It is most probably an allegory of the artist’s relations with the world, the castle being his mind, and his final wife the public. Bartok was feeling very alone at the time, striking out in new directions that were not very well received, if at all. In a letter to his mother he stated his belief that he would be alone forever.

In the opera, every door that the new wife, Judith, opens, reveals something beautiful but awful—the jewels are stained with blood and the lake is composed of tears. The last chamber, which contains the wraiths of former wives, holds nothing but darkness. The dark secrets behind each door are portrayed by a minor second chord.

Intellectually, the blood represents the pain and struggle of the composer to realize his visions—something he wishes to conceal from his audience, as an artist destroys his preliminary sketches.

There is another reading, however, that also makes sense. Bartok was becoming increasingly alarmed by the rise of fascism in Hungary and wanted to show, on some level, that all of its promises, and the great fortunes of a few, were tainted by blood and tears, and eventually would come to nothing except destruction. As the man, Bluebeard, reveals more and more, the woman, Judith, becomes weaker and weaker, finally vanishing into the darkness, while her husband (in his vocal line) becomes ever stronger.

With its use of folk idiom to portray the tragedy, the opera can also be read as “curiosity killed the cat.” The story of Bluebeard, and woman’s frailty, is as old as the hills.

Bartok’s vision of the castle is dark indeed, but the music, which owes a great deal to Debussy, raises it to the level of Greek tragedy. In this silly season, we could all use a good catharsis.

And there is always the delightful Bach Concerto for Two Violins—also on the program— to remind us that there is still goodness on the earth.

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

Roman Legions Triumph at First Portland Symphony Concert

Portland Symphony Orchestra
Merrill Auditorium
Oct. 9, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

Until Sunday’s concert of the Portland Symphony Orchestra at Merrill Auditorium, complete with Kotzschmar Organ, I had never realized just how good Ottorino Respighi’s “Pines of Rome” was. It was a shining example, if any were needed, of the absolute necessity of live performance. To think that any substantial percentage of its excitement could be captured electronically is palpably absurd.

Music director Robert Moody pulled out all the stops for this crowd-pleasing conclusion to the first concert of the season—a terrific nightingale recording, off-stage trumpets, reinforced brass and the growl of the afore-mentioned organ. The entire orchestra was on its best behavior in a score that for gorgeousness of orchestral color puts even Rimsky-Korsakov, Respighi’s teacher, to shame.

All four movements of the work were superb examples of musical scene-painting. One could almost feel the warm winds blowing through the pine branches or visualize the ancient Christians chanting in the catacombs, but the final triumphant procession of the Roman legions was sui generis. Compare it to Ravel’s infinitely long crescendo in “Bolero”, the only composition that comes anywhere near to its spectacular climax. It was held to imperceptible gradations in volume by the terrific work of John Tanzer on timpani.

If there are seats left for today’s (Monday, Oct. 10)) performance, it is not to be missed. You will be able to hear it just fine from the nosebleed sections.

The program began with an excellent performance of the Beethoven Symphony No. 4 in B-flat Major (Op. 60), marred somewhat by over-attention to detail and over-blown dynamic contrasts, perhaps resorted to because the piece lacks the inherent appeal of the other eight. The details, however, such as the soaring flute solo in the adagio, posed yet another argument for live performance.

In listening to this seldom-heard symphony, I find it helps to imagine it as aspects of water, beginning with a still lake, eventually ruffled by a breeze. The Fourth doesn’t compel visions, like the Sixth, but the water imagery helps one follow its development.

The most disappointing aspect of the afternoon was a new concerto by Mason Bates (b. 1977), written for cellist Joshua Roman, who performed it as well as could be expected, accompanied by a huge orchestra with no place to go. I believe some of the instruments were used only once in three movements. Their purpose seemed to be the simulation of electronically generated sounds.

In the final movement, a kind of jazzy Irish pub improvisation that goes on forever, without even the consolation of beer, Roman resorted to a guitar pick for some involved pizzicato passages. I guess it’s easier on the fingers.
The audience gave the talented young cellist a standing ovation, but the concerto is the kind of music that would sound better on a CD.

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

Asakawa Shines in Contemporary Piano Music

Mari Asakawa, Piano
Bates College
Sept. 28, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

Lewiston is becoming the piano music capital of Maine. The Franco Center’s excellent piano series is gaining a wide following and ever since the residency of the late Frank Glazer, Bates College has been showcasing some of the world’s finest talents at Olin Hall. For music lovers on a limited budget, many of the Bates concerts are free and open to the pubic.

Wednesday night’s recital by Mari Asakawa, a world-renowned specialist in contemporary piano music, was one of the most unusual I have attended, except perhaps for the Gamper Festival of Contemporary Music at Bowdoin.

Asakawa began her program with Contrapuncti I, V and VII from Bach’s “The Art of Fugue,” (BWV1080) remarking from the stage that many of the techniques employed by both serial and avant garde composers were already prominent in Bach’s counterpoint..

Her piano interpretations, the first I have heard since Glenn Gould’s, were remarkable in their sharp delineation of voices. Unlike Gould’s, they were played from memory, while the rest of the works on the program were “read” from a score. Asakawa turns her own pages, since I doubt that many page turners could follow the music well enough to be of any assistance.

The Bach was followed by “Eventide” (2016) written specifically for the concert by Hiroya Miura, who was in the audience. The two movements, “In Blue,” and “In Purple,” were in an impressionistic, stream of consciousness style, somewhat reminiscent of Persichetti. One incorporates a quote from the opening guitar solo of “When Doves Cry,” by Prince, who died suddenly at the time that Miura was writing the work.

My favorite of the evening was “Ciaccona” (1998) by Claudio Ambrosini, perhaps because it was easy to follow on first hearing. The theme, modeled on the ancient slow-dance form, is a descending chromatic scale, with treble embellishments that become more and more virtuosic as the dance progresses, reaching the near impossible by the end.

Perhaps serial (twelve-tone) music will catch on eventually, although I doubt that audiences will go home whistling the tunes, as Schoenberg hoped. That thought was prompted by “Post-Partitions” (1966) of Milton Babbitt, so well and carefully constructed that it stands out like a granite monument among ephemera.

A lengthy work by Eliott Carrter, “Night Fantasies,” (1980) concluded the program. As an attempt to capture the thoughts and dreams that dominate the mind late at night, it was unsuccessful, although beautifully played by an artist strongly associated with Carter. There was too little contrast between moments of calm and the lightning flashes of insight, and the dynamics ranged from mezzo-forte to fortissimo.

Strangely enough, Carter was trying to imitate the “poetic moodiness” of certain works by Schumann; like his model, he wound up with too many notes, as if dreading an instant of silence.

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

How Do You Know When to Stand Up? A Short History of the National Anthem

“Whoever plays, sings or renders “The Star Spangled Banner” in any public place, theater, motion picture hall, restaurant or cafe, or at any public entertainment other than as a whole and separate composition or number, without embellishment or addition in the way of national or other melodies, or whoever plays sings or renders “The Star Spangled Banner” or any part thereof as dance music, as an exit march, or as part of a medley of any kind shall be punished by a fine of not more than one hundred dollars.”

I came across this gem of Boston law while reading articles on Stravinsky during the centennial of “The Rite of Spring.” It seems appropriate today with the controversy over an athlete sitting out the Star Spangled Banner because of its racist overtones. (The offending verses are usually removed from the text, as they were in my grade school songbook.)

My first thought was eureka! now we’ve got them, all the singers at baseball and football games who like to show off just how much they can “embellish” the song while still retaining a slight vestige of its original melody. It has gotten to the point where anyone who sings the tune straight is regarded as a novelty. It would be different if the pop artists (and even opera stars) were trying to make it more compelling, but they’re not. Maybe it’s just that they’re trying to disguise wrong or unreachable notes in a difficult composition.

Unfortunately, it seems that there has been only one instance of the ordinance’s application–against Igor Stravinsky on Jan. 15, 1944, about the time I belted out the song from the balcony before a performance of “Oklahoma” in New York. (My father told me that it was on opening night, but that would have been in 1943.)

I mention that incident only to illustrate the unreliability of hindsight, which has perpetuated the myth that Stravinsky was actually arrested, complete with a mug shot (taken of a look-alike criminal four years earlier).

In reality, Stravinsky wrote his arrangement of “The Star Spangled Banner” in token of his appreciation of his adopted country. It includes contrapuntal counter-subjects and a modulation into the subdominant by means of a “blue note”–a passing seventh. (The original version has been recorded.)

After the first performance with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, a concerned citizen phoned the police to complain and they attended the second performance, on the 15th, en masse. Stravinsky, however, had been tipped off and played the work straight. The 14 policemen are said not to have remained for the rest of the concert, which included some of Stravinsky’s latest compositions, including the “Circus Polka.”

Stravinsky’s reaction to the peculiarities of his adopted country has not been recorded. It probably took the form of an extra vodka martini.

The composer’s musical taste, in this instance, leaves something to be desired, since he referred to “The Star Spangled Banner” as “a beautiful sacred anthem.” The tune, of course, is that of a risque British drinking song, “Anacreon in Heaven,” which doesn’t even fit slave-holder Francis Scott Key’s verses very well.

It caught on after 1865, when it was played at the restoration of the flag to Fort Sumter (not Ft. McHenry) and later was taken up by John Philip Sousa, who made it popular. It was named the official anthem of the United States by Congress in 1931, just before Sousa’s death.

A phrase from the anthem,”In God is our trust,” inspired Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase to put “In God We Trust” on the dollar bill during the Civil War.

So next time the Patriots play in Gillette Stadium, I expect a phalanx of Boston’s finest to be present, with copies of the original score and a paddywagon.

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

Salt Bay Chamberfest: Then and Now

Salt Bay Chamberfest
Darrows Barn, Round Top Center, Damariscotta
Aug. 12, 2016

“If you build it, they will come.” Twenty two years ago, when I first reviewed a concert at the Salt Bay Chamberfest, the founder. cellist Wilhelmina Smith, was happy to have Darrows Barn half filled. But word gets around. On Friday, in spite of a heat wave, it was standing room only, and that is now typical.

The secret is quite simple—-everyone is satisfied with the best. The festival offers the finest in classical and contemporary music, played by outstanding musicians who devote just as much attention, and affection, to new music as to the classics.

Imaginative programming doesn’t hurt either. On Friday, Haydn’s last quartet (Opus 103) was paired with the early Brahms Sextet for Strings in B-flat, Opus 18. In the middle was some quite fiendish new music by Marc Neikrug (b. 1946), Philip Glass, (b. 1937), Zosha Di Castri (b.1985) and Julia Wolfe (b. 1958). The audience loved it all.

I had visions of Haydn spending his last days playing his favorite tune, the Kaiser Hymn. Instead, he was occupied with a final string quartet, the form that he practically invented and passed on to Mozart and Beethoven. What Opus 103 lacked in cheerfulness it made up in invention. An unusual amount of chromaticism led to unexpected developments. Only two movements were completed, but they show that the old dog could still learn new tricks.

The composers mentioned above were each commissioned by violinist Jennifer Koh, a Chamberfest regular, as part of a project she calls “Shared Madness.” It was. I won’t describe each of these short works, but all explored some aspect of contemporary virtuosity, pushing the violin to extremes, but without resorting to ancillary devices such as drumming on the wood.

One bow-shredding piece came close to being impossible, a melody played on one string while a second produced a sort of growling wolf note. Another explored overtones in registers at the limit of human hearing. One hopes that Koh will soon have enough madness in her collection to produce a CD.

Before intermission came the premiere of a new work by Marc Neikrug, entitled “Ruminations,” commissioned by the Chamberfest. As lovingly rendered by a string trio of Jennifer Koh, violin, Hsin-Yun Huang, viola, and Wilhelmina Smith, cello, it is one of the few “modern” works that appeals to the senses on first hearing. Going by the title, it seems composed of random musical thoughts that eventual;lay coalesce, like clouds into a tornado or leaves into a tree (depending on your mood). The process is satisfying, musically and intellectually.

There was nothing unexpected about the Brahms Sextet, except perhaps for its genius. The young Brahms knows exactly where he’s going with every theme and its development, all of which seems ineveitable— once you hear it. One could see the musicians smiling as the drama unfolded, now in its predictably glorious way. One thing the youthful Brahms has over Mendelssohn at the same period in his life; he is not afraid of being obvious.

There’s more to come at Salt Bay, August 16 and Aug.19. The latter concert includes the (very) early Mendelssohn Piano Quartet in B Minor, Op. 3.

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

Gamper Festival Never Fails to Entertain

Gamper Festival of Contemporary Music
Studzinski Recital Hall, Bowdoin College
July 30, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

Every time I go to the Gamper Festival of Contemporary Music (July 29, 30, 31 at Bowdoin’s Studzinski Recital Hall) I wonder about the number of empty seats. Here is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to hear the best of 20th and 21st Century music, played by some of the world’s finest musicians, and it’s absolutely free!

Is it because of a generalized dislike of contemporary music? Saying you don’t like “modern” music is like saying you don’t like cheese. With several thousand varieties to choose from, the opinion is fatuous at best.

And what about the kids? People are always advocating things, like Sunday School, for the betterment of children, which they don’t do themselves. And here is something that they might actually like. Grandchildren pester me to play Bartok because it goes against the rule of not banging on the piano.

Saturday night’s program, as usual, had something for everyone to love or hate. It gave new meaning to “contemporary,” since all the composers, except for Luke DuBois, (b. 1975), whose installation, “A Jupiter Portrait,” greeted early arrivals, are deceased.

“Jupiter” is a large, high-definition video with close-ups of musicians playing a work composed for the recording—a nice amuse bouche, creating a hushed museum-like atmosphere instead of the usual seating bustle.

The imagery theme carried through with “Les citations,” by Henri Dutilleux (1916-2013), and “From My Garden,” by Ursula Mamlok (1923-2016). Both are in the Impressionist tradition, while Mamlok also uses a 12-tone row for her pointillist scene, described by solo violist Jing Peng.

The Dutilleux was notable for its unusual combination of timbres— oboe, percussion, harpsichord and double bass.

It was followed by a clever homage to Bach, Steven Stucky’s (1949-2016) “Partita-Pastorale, after J.S.B,” most successful when the imitation was closest.

The mercurial Alfred Schnittke (1934-1998) was represented by “Hymn No. 4.” I don’t know why it was entitled “Hymn,” except for the chimes, added to a heady combination of bassoon (lovely low notes), harp, cello, double bass, timpani and harpsichord, under the baton of Luke Rinderknecht. It is easy to see why Schnittke is one of the most popular contemporary composers, with over 50 CDs to his credit. The piece has an hypnotic drive and the unusual combination of instruments provides some wonderful effects.

The high point of the evening was the finale, the “Quintet for Clarinet and Strngs” of William Albright (1944-1998), played by Derek Bermel, clarinet, Renée
Jolles, violin, Janet Sung, violin, Phillip Ying, viola and David Ying, cello.

The Quintet is a long work, consisting of an introduction, a theme, and 12 variations on a long, intricate and baroque heme with seemingly no possibilities whatsoever. Albright then proceeds to surprise us, pleasantly, with variations that are sometimes musical in-jokes, sometimes moving, and sometimes spectacular, such as the Klezmer Fantasy that ends the piece. Bermel is a fantastic clarinet virtuoso and gave the fantasy his all.

The haunting “Night Music” variations are the equal of Bartok’s efforts at creating the same atmosphere.

I’m sure that tonight’s concert will be equally entertaining, moving, detestable and unfailingly interesting. Bring the kids.

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

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.