Category Archives: Commentary

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.

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.