Category Archives: Music criticism

A Spectacular American Debut for Ukrainian Organist

Elena Udras, Organist
Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul, Lewiston
Oct. 4, 2018
by Christopher Hyde

You haven’t lived musically until you have heard “The Great Gate of Kiev,” from Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition,” played on a world-class pipe organ. One is immersed in a sea of sound surpassing that of a full orchestra.

Such was the case Thursday night at Lewiston’s Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul as Ukranian organist Elena Udras made her American debut.

Well-known in Europe, Udras is also an accomplished transcriber and composer for organ. Her “Song of a Dolphin,” as played on Thursday, is a tour-de-force of watery imagery that should have been the theme song of TV’s late lamented “Flipper.”

The famed 1938 Casavant organ in the Basilica is a treasure, now being restored, helped by donations at concerts during the Spring and Summer. Under Udras’ capable hands (and feet) it did not seem in need of much help. She calls it “an inspiration.”

The program began with religious works by Ukrainian and Russian composers who deserve to be better known in this country. Their settings of a Sanctus Dei and Ave Maria compare favorably to those of composers in the Western tradition.

More “modern” sounding were two fine symphonic fugues by Igor Asseive (1921-1996). and “Carpathian Meditations” by Valeri Kikta (b. 1941), which had a true regional flavor, somewhere between Bartok and Borodin.

They were followed by a lugubrious Passacaglia by Shostakovich, based on themes from his opera “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk,” highly unusual in its use of a low bass stop as the primary voice.

Like that of the Great Gate of Kiev, Udras’ transcription of the famous Rachmaninoff Prelude ini C-sharp Minor made it seem to have been written specifically for the organ, giving its sonorous bell-like chords their full value.

The following “Waltz of the Flowers,” from Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker,” was ponderous, like the dance of an elephant, perhaps indicating that new electronics might make the Casavant capable of a little more rapid response. It was, however, quite elegant in its own way.

Speaking of rapid response, a Toccata by Vladimir Nazarov (b. 1952) was a fantastic (and ferocious) sequel to the great Bach Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, adding more and more voices and themes to the first familiar bars until the edifice was just of the verge of collapse—and rescued in the nick of time. So spectacular that it should be looked at for next year’s concert series by the Bach Virtuosi in Portland.

The program concluded with a sentimental “When Blue Mountains Sleep,” by Anatol Kos-Anatolsky. and long applause from the audience standing and turning to face the organ loft.

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

The PSO and the Power of Suggestion

Portland Symphony Orchestra
Merrill Auditorium
Sept 30, 2018
By Christopher Hyde

As we approached Merrill Auditorium Sunday afternoon for the-season- opening concert of the Portland Symphony Orchestra, we noticed a long line snaking around the corner and almost a block up Congress Street. The matinees are well attended, but this was unheard of. We learned later that the first arrivals had used only one of the three doors and that those coming later assumed incorrectly that it was the only one open . Hence the traffic back-up.

It was an eye-opening introduction to the power of suggestion, affirmed during the concert by guest conductor Jeffrey Kahane’s monumental interpretation of Tchaikovsky’s opera-for-orchestra “Francesca da Rimini” (Opus 32).

The music is supposed to depict a descent into Dante’s Inferno by two illici lovers, with a romantic interlude describing their passion—so it is said—in highly graphic terms, rather like Wagner’s Liebestod from “Tristan und Isolde.”

Suppose, however, that one was unfamiliar with the plot of “Francesca da Rimini” and was hearing the music for the first time. It would seem like two gigantic sea interludes by Rimsky Korsakov or a scene from “Peter Grimes” or “The Flying Dutchman,” interrupted by a peaceful on-shore stroll accompanied by clarinet solos.

One can feel the tremendous power of the wind and waves as the storm approaches, thrill to the strain of the sail on the creaking foremast, hear the canons in a sea battle, and sympathize with the ship going down in a whirlpool. In other words, one could write an entirely different scenario, equally convincing, based on the music alone. It is words and their power of suggestion that turn it into a tragic love fest. Or maybe Tchaikovsky suffered from sea sickness, and that was his vision of Hell.

Something to think about next time one hears program music, but it did seem like a fine tribute to the Maine coast from a guest to our state.

The stage was set for the opera by one of Tchaikovski’s most lush works for string orchestra, the Èlégie from the Serenade for Strings (Opus 48).

During the first half of the concert one felt a bit sorry for Amadeus, his “Prague” Symphony No. 38 in D Major, K. 504, relegated to a rather low-key opener for an extremely flashy and well played Concerto for Flute and Orchestra, Opus 39, by Lowell Liebermann (b.1961).

Kahane, who is also a concert pianist, balanced the solo part, played by PSO Principal Lisa Hennessy, almost magically, accentuating all of the sections in which the composer demonstrates the virtuosity of James Galway–equalled by Hennessey in this rendition. The work itself, in a Stravinski-like style, without much dissonance, falls just short of greatness. Its combinations of voices are unique in the literature—muted trumpets and flute, piano-like sounds made by bouncing the bow on the strings, a woodwind ensemble that chirped like a nest full of songbirds—there was something new around every corner.

Like the concluding “Francesca,” it drew an enthusiastic standing ovation from the capacity audience.

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

Brahms and Schumann at the Franco Center

Pianist George Lopez
Franco Center Piano SeriesSept. 28, 2018
by Christopher Hyde

The Franco Center Piano series opened its 13th season with a recital Friday night by George Lopez, Beckwith Artist in Residence at Bowdoin College. HIs program, consisting of early works by Robert and Clara Schumann and Johannes Brahms, duplicated a performance earlier this week at Studzinski Recital Hall.

Lopez used an electronic score, which projects the notes on a screen in any desired size and eliminates that need for a page turner (if one is not playing from memory, an accomplishment popularized by Franz Liszt). I don’t know why the device is not seen more often; noted Maine pianist Martin Perry uses one, but it is not traditional, and it can be distracting to the audience. Witness a string quartet a while ago that sported four flashing green screens in a darkened room. Lopez’s was more subtle, almost like a paper score on the Steinway’s music stand.

The program began with “Quatre pièces fugitives,” Opus 15 of Clara Schumann—highly Romanic sketches that could have been written by her husband if he were not a genius. They were, however, thoroughly delightful and played lovingly, not as an academic exercise.

The surprising thing about them was their virtuosity, especially in the final Scherzo. They are not for amateurs, male or female. Clara was a famous concert pianist who supported her large family through appearances throughout Europe. The early works in question might have been written as display pieces.

As Lopez pointed out, the young Brahms appeared on the Schumanns’ doorstep with a gigantic fugue just when they were studying that musical form. It was the finale of his Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Handel (Opus 24) and, although a youthful creation, one of the Romantic period’s towering masterpieces.

Lopez introduced the work with Handel’s original theme plus that composer’s own five variations on it. The contrast in styles highlighted Brahms’ harmonic and rhythmic daring. Although some of the variations seem light years distant from the theme, a recognizable element always remains. The listener never gets lost, at least in Lopez’s interpretation. On the negative side, I would have preferred a slower, more majestic tempo and an emphasis on Brahms’ characteristic bass lines.

The Schumann “Carnaval,” Opus 9, which followed intermission, was also up-tempo, fitting the mercurial nature of the character sketches, all of which were effectively (and brilliantly) portrayed. I have always loved the musical portrait of Chopin, about whom Schumann is said to have exclaimed: Hats off, Gentlemen, a genius.”

Lopez played the “Sphinxes,” A.S.C.H. S.C.H.A., the four notes (in German letters) upon which everything in “Carnaval” is somehow based. They are usually omitted in concert performances, but hearing the sequences helps solve the riddles of at least some of the 21 compositions. The evening ended with a rousing version of the “Marche des Davidsbundler contre les Philistins,” Brahms being one of David’s brotherhood, with Liszt and Wagner as the Philistines.

The next concert in the series will be on Dec. 21, with Diane Walsh. Save the date. This is one not to be missed.

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

Grief and Glory at Salt Bay Chamberfest

Salt Bay Chamberfest
Darrows Barn, Damariscotta
Aug. 14, 2018
by Christopher Hyde

There are many fine classical music festivals in Maine during the summer, but if I had to choose just one, it would be the Salt Bay Chamberfest at Darrows Barn (in what used to be the Round Top Center for the Arts) in Damariscotta.

Founded by cellist Wilhelmina Smith 24 years ago, it always manages to present unusual programs performed by leading artists, in a hall with excellent acoustics.

Tuesday night’s program by the Brentano String Quartet was no exception, although it strayed from the theme of this year’s festival, which was “Troubadours and Tangos,” featuring the guitar and its ancestors.

The theme of the firs half was musical lamentations, which has a tenuous relationship with troubadours in that professional mourners, including musicians, were often hired to express a family’s grief at the loss of a loved one. The earliest examples consisted of two strangely chromatic pieces from 1611 by Carlo Gesualdo (1566-1613). They may have been prompted by remorse, but one doubts it. Gesualdo is best known for killing his wife and her lover and then displaying their bodies as an example of what happens to adulterers.

Probably the most famous example in music is Purcell’s “Dido’s Lament” from “Dido and Aeneas” (1689) which opened the program in a sensitive arrangement for string quartet.

Haydn made it into the category with two of the movements from “Seven Last Words of Christ “(Op. 51) of 1787. It is fascinating to hear how a genius injects musical interest and psychological depth into what could be merely mournful. Just one example is the repeated five-note phrase based on the words “consummatum est” from the final movement. It eventually becomes triumphant.

Shostakovich introduces a note of eroticism to the form in his Elegy (1931), based on a soliloquy from his banned opera “Lady MacBeth of Mtsensk,” in which the heroine laments that she will have no more lovers.

The exploration of grief ended with a work by an obscure French composer, Guillaume Lekeu (1870-1894), a Molto Adagio, written when he was 17, that shows considerably more than promise. Lekeu died of Typhoid Fever at the age of 24.

After intermission, the quartet was joined by pianist Thomas Sauer for the Piano Quintet in F Minor (1879) of César Franck. One could not have devised a greater contrast with what had gone before. The quartet is grand, passionate, sweeping, a little mysterious, and very knobby.

It was played brilliantly throughout, but by the final movement—a grande valse that must have influenced Ravel—there was no doubt who was in charge. There is a strange coda-less ending that may have had something to do with the fact that Franck and Camille St.Saëns, who premiered the work as a pianist, were both in love with student Augusta Holmes. Anyway, St. Saëns is said to have thrown the score into the trash, I wonder what he saw in the notes?

The Darrows Barn audience liked the piece much more than did St. Saens and gave it a well-deserved standing ovation.

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

Guilty Pleasures

Bowdoin International Music Festival
Studzinski Recital Hall
Aug. 1, 2018
by Christopher Hyde

Composer Paul Schoenfield (b. 1947) wonders if his “Café Music,” (1985) played Wednesday night at Bowdoin’s Studzinski Recital Hall, rises to the level of classical music that might be performed on its own, rather than as background in Murray’s Restaurant.

The answer, according to Janet Sung, violin, Ahrim Kim, cello and Tao Lin, piano, is a resounding yes. In fact, were it to be played at Murray’s, it would harsh everyone’s mellow. and render conversation impossible.

The three-movement work is a pastiche of cocktail lounge standards, pushed to their limits and well beyond. It is art, the way Roy Lichtenstein’s Ben Day paintings are art, deconstructing works everyone knows and re-assembling them with fresh meanings. The result, in Café Music, is pure excitement, and a sense of wonder that the transformations can be played at all. There is even sustained melody, as the strings imitate singers in the “andante.”

A vastly entertaining mix of guilty pleasures, but pleasures nevertheless.

“Café Music,” as is customary in concert programming, was sandwiched between two better-known classics—the opening Debussy Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp, and Richard Strauss’ late “Metamorphosen” as it was originally written for string septet.

The Debussy, played by Julie Nah Kyung Lee, flute, Kirsten Docter, viola, and June Han, harp, made one wish that he had been able to complete the proposed set of six, based on ancient French forms, with various, sometimes unusual, combinations of instruments.

The flute-harp-viola combination seems somehow feminine, harking back to “Sirenes” but with greater delicacy. The harp, under Han’s fingers, was the first among equals, often taking the lead.  She sometimes over-did the muting, when one hoped for a bit more resonance behind the strings.

The “Metamorphosen” works better as a septet (two cellos, violins and violas, one double bass) than the more familiar version for string orchestra. The texture of interwoven voices is so dense that it is hard to follow even with the smaller number of players.

When it is done right, as it was on Wednesday night, the result is a tightly woven tapestry of gold, silver and crimson threads stretching all the way back to some of the composer’s most notable works—and to Beethoven. As if the characteristic sound did not identify the composer beyond a doubt, the help-mate violin from “Ein Heldenleben” also makes a cameo appearance, complementing the deep bass of the introduction and finale.

The highly intense performance drew a prolonged standing ovation from Bowdoin Festival students, faculty and subscribers.

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

Serkin Dazzles and Disappoints

Bowdoin International Music Festival
Peter Serkin, PIanist
Studzinski Recttal Hall
July 29, 2018
by Christopher Hyde

Pianist Peter Serkin has it all, tight control over a wide range of dynamics, flawless passage work and ornamentation, an ear for inner voices, architectural phrasing, and an unrivaled musical sensitivity, capable of revealing fresh aspects of familiar works and launching new ones.

Why then, was his recital at Studzinski Hall,  part of the Bowdoin International Music Festival, strangely lacking in excitement?
Admittedly, it was a hot and somnolent Sunday afternoon, but this is one of the finest pianists of a generation, in a concert that had been sold out for months. Maybe it was Mozart who conjured up the spirit of Morpheus.

Amadeus was never at his best in a minor-key, tragic mode, and Serkin played two of his most lugubrious compositions—the Adagio in B Minor, K. 540 and the Piano Sonata No. 8 in A Minor, K 310. (Rachmaninoff used the indication “Lugubre” in his early Piano Trio, played a couple of weeks ago at the festival.)

The realizations of these two works, and the more cheerful Piano Sonata No. 17 in B-flat Major, K. 570, brought out voices never heard before, perhaps not even to the composer.

Most of Mozart’s published piano sonatas began life as keyboard improvisations. Unlike the Haydn sonatas, they can be sight-read by any moderately proficient pianist.

Could it be that their appeal lies largely on the surface, that simplicity in their rendering might be a virtue? And skip the repeats as soon as the audience begins to cough.

The most exciting part of the afternoon was its beginning, hearing the Variations, Op. 24, by Oliver Knussen, a British composer who was a close friend of the pianist and wrote the Variations for him. The tragic Mozart works may have been intended as a memorial to Knussen, who died this year.

The variations are indeed “concise,” to the point of making Anton Webern seem long-winded. Indeed, the theme of the variations sounds like half a tone row, and Serkin never loses sight of it through thick and thin, with some virtuoso etudes thrown in. Its six minutes, passed rapidly.

It was also a treat to hear Schumann’s “Waldszenen,” Op. 82, outside the confines of a student piano recital. Serkin made the ephemeral vignettes seem more profound than they are, in particular the “Vogel als Prophet,” in which the bird’s prophecy is a melodic peace and harmony that escaped the composer.

Serkin has an irritating habit of pausing for what seems an eternity with his hands on the keys, before he allows the awe-struck audience to applaud,. It goes with his huge fermatas, which have enough room to recapitulate an entire theme.

But who else would dare to perform one of Bach’s two-part inventions as an encore?

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

A Memorable “Marriage”

Opera Maine
“Marriage of Figaro”
Merrill Auditorium
July 25, 2018
by Christopher Hyde

If you don’t have tickets already, buy whatever is available for Opera Maine’s new production of “The Marriage of Figaro.” on Friday. It has everything—a great cast of singers, an interesting Downton Abbey-style set by Portland’s Christopher Akerlind, an understandable plot (if chaotic at times), Mozart’s music played by a fine orchestra under maestro Stephen Lord, humor, romance and sex. Even the supertitles are good.

Thanks to artistic director Dona D. Vaughn for one of the most memorable presentations of this work in recent years.

Where to begin? Probably with Figaro himself, sung by bass-baritone Robert Mellon. If he were not a world-class singer, he could make a career as a stand-up comic. HIs facial expressions as he tries desperately to explain events in the countess’ chamber are priceless, like his antics with the dowdy Marcellina, sung by mezzo-soprano MaryAnn McCormick. He is perfectly cast.

Speaking of perfect, soprano Maeve Höglund as Figaro’s betrothed, Susanna, had better be careful or she will be type-cast as Mozart’s favorite heroine. She is a fine actress, and her voice has remarkable clarity and power without a hint of shrillness. Her duets with soprano Danielle Pastin, as Countess Almaviva, are enthralling in their subtle contrasts of tone and timbre.

Baritone Keith Phares makes an ideal foil for Figaro and Susanna’s machinations as the pretty-boy Count Almaviva who has abolished his droit de seigneur powers because he can fool around quite as well without them. I got the impression that the lovely flower-girl chorus was composed primarily of his conquests among the servants.

Among the principals, mezzo-soprano Hongni Wu stole the show as the equally lecherous Cherubino, the teenaged go-between who loves the Countess but will take anything he can get. He/she lightens up the stage whenever she appears. My theory is that she is Mozart, who puts himself in his operas the way Alfred Hitchcock did in movies.

The ancillary roles are sung and acted with humor and authenticity. Special mention should be made of bass Kevin Glavin, as the scheming Dr. Bartolo. His rapid-fire rendition of legal polysyllables must have inspired Rossini’s “Largo al factotum,” in his own “Barber of Seville.”

The Victorian sets work quite well, as do the costumes by Millie Hiibel. The first three acts take place in rooms typical of those in a British manor, suggested by a tapestry-like background. They provide a feeling of intimacy, yet with ample room for Mozart’s characteristic device of characters at odds with each other singing from opposite sides of the stage.

The final seduction scene, however, takes place in a “pine grove” portrayed by huge pinecone-like scales in the background, with the foreground dominated by two giant segmented horns. Tree trunks, phallic symbols, or the duplicate horns of a cuckold? The characters in their cloaks look like wraiths, indicating that something serious is at stake.

But all is resolved in the end, the lighting becomes more cheerful, Susanna and Figaro, and the Count and Countess are reconciled, and the entire cast joins in a gigantic chorus. The curtain falls and it is time for the cheers, bravos and flowers.
Next year “The Magic Flute.”

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

A Tribute to Youthful Enthusiasm at Bowdoin

Bowdoin International Music Festival
Studzinski Recital Hall
July 20, 2018
by Christopher Hyde

An evening of youthful effusions made for a bumpy ride Friday night at Studzinski Hall as the Bowdoin International Music Festival entered its final two weeks.

The early opus numbers by Rachmaninoff and Brahms had the virtues and defects of their kind, while “Space Jump” (2013), Opus 46 of Fazil Say, explored the brave new world of classical mixed media, with mixed results.

Say, a Turkish piano prodigy and well-known composer, wrote “Space Jump” to memorialize the descent of daredevil Felix Baumgartner from the stratosphere to earth, during which he seems to have exceeded the speed of sound (not that of light, as stated in the accompanying video clip, which really would have been spectacular). He landed alone in desert scrubland, which made me worry about rattlesnakes.

The musical depiction, for piano, violin and cello, would have been fine on its own, rather like a transcription of “Also Sprach Zarathustra” for music box, but was accompanied by a rather pedestrian video and even worse text. Years ago, I was one of those who thought a poet should be the first man in space, but alas, it was not to be.

What spoiled it completely, however, was the logo of an energy drink on the space suit and its name dominating the film credits.

The evening began with the Rachmaninoff Trio élégiaque No. 1 in G Minor, written when he was 19, but not as a memorial to Tchaikovsky, although one of its themes is an inversion of the first four notes of that composer’s Concerto No. 1.

It shows a lack of experience in writing for strings, but already has the characteristic Rachmaninoff sound in the dominating piano part. Its best section is the concluding funeral march, in which the muted bass of the piano perfectly supports a melodic duet of violin and cello.

The Brahms Piano Quartet No. 1 in G Minor, Op. 25, which concluded the program, was written as a display piece, with flashy show-off sections that must have made the composer blush in later years. It gave his friend Clara Schumann a fine vehicle for her virtuosity.

Whether because of the composer’s youthful exuberance (and plethora of themes), or lack of rehearsal time, the performance seemed lacking in continuity. The piano part, played with bravura by Yong Hi Moon, took center stage, with two movements ending in solo cadenzas. The final one, a fiendishly rapid czardas, brought the house down, as Brahms intended.

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

A Definitive “Quartet for the End of Time” at BIMF

Bowdoin International Music Festival
Studzinski Recital Hall
July 11, 2018
by Christopher Hyde

Olivier Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time” is not generally considered a vehicle for virtuoso display, but its sublime beauty can be revealed only by those with extraordinary musical ability.
Such was the case Wednesday night at Studzinski Recital Hall, when Amir Eldan, cello, Derek Bermel, clarinet, Pei-Shan Lee, piano, and Ayano Ninomiya, violin, gave a definitive reading of this seminal work.

The players are faculty members of the Bowdoin International Music Festival, taking place now through the beginning August, but they might have been playing the quartet together for years, judging by the ensemble supporting three outstanding solo performances.
Lee held it all together and assisted as ably as the composer directing from the piano.

I never tire of hearing this work, which is said to have had a lifelong effect on those who first heard it performed in a German prison camp. Too often, however, it is played as a curiosity, as a memorial to the victims of World War II, or even as evidence of Messiaen’s quaint beliefs. It stands alone, without historical trappings, as a musical masterpiece, and so it was treated on Wednesday night

It began characteristically with nightingale and blackbird opening the “Liturgie de crystal” for the full quartet, followed by a “Vocalize, pour l’Ange qui announce la fin due Temps.”

The first of the major solos is by the clarinet, played very slowly, with huge fermatas and sustained notes that test the lungs of any performer. It is called “Abîme des oiseaux.” The abyss is time, in all its sadness, according to the composer, while the birds, also imitated by the clarinet, represent freedom and joy. Bermel painted the picture perfectly, testing the limits of his instrument.

After a brief interlude without piano, it was the turn of the cello, also playing very slowly and “ecstatically,” in the “Louange (praise) à l’Éternité de Jésus.” The melody, often repeated, evokes Genesis: “In the beginning was the Word, and Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

The most rhythmic, verging on jazzy, movement is the “Danse de la fureur, pour les sept trumpets.” announcing the apocalypse. It is also more terrifying than any other composer’s Dies Irae, and includes some impossibly loud tutti, which must have reached the far rows of its original 5000-man audience.

The “rainbow tangles” of the seventh movement give the composer a chance to play with his favorite blue-orange chords, during which Lee brought out some striking inner voices

In the final movement, “Louange à L’Immortalité de Jésus,” the violin speaks, like the cello before it, but this time of Christ’s life on earth—a long limbed melody that dies away into the almost imperceptible reaches of the upper register. The large audience, which included many festival students, stayed entranced for several moments before giving it a loud standing ovation.

The gods, which do not permit human perfection, smuggled in cellphones, not once but twice during this solo, the first a piano ringtone and the second a beep. Please people, I beg of you, leave that electronic junk at home. You can never be sure that it is silenced.

The Quartet obscured a lively and brilliant rendition of a work never intended to be profound, the Hayden Piano Trio in C Major (Hob. XV:27), played by Julian Martin, piano, Robin Scott, violin, and Julia Lichten, cello. Thanks to Martin for pointing out the Janissary Band references, which predate Mozart’s famous Turkish March.

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

Noise Into Music, from Sō Percussion

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

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

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

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

I call it “too many marimbas.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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