Category Archives: Music criticism

Cumming Honors Glazer at Bates College

Pianist Duncan Cumming
Olin Hall, Bates College
Oct. 9, 2015

Pianist Duncan Cumming’s tribute to his teacher, the late Frank Glazer, Friday night at Bates College, was a compelling musical evening. (You can judge for yourself tonight—Saturday— at USM’s Corthell Hall). It also raised some fundamental questions about concertizing in the electronic age: the role of memory and standard vs. innovative performance of the classics.

The program consisted of popular works in the repertoire that Cumming, now on the music faculty of the University of Albany, studied with Glazer, artist in residence at Bates College from 1980 until his death in January at age 99.

Cumming. like Maine-based pianist Martin Perry, is one of the pioneers at playing from the score, rather than relying on the memorization now expected of every concert pianist. I couldn’t notice any difference in tempo or technique, compared to Gilmore Award-winning pianist Rafel Blechacz, who was brought to Merrill Auditorium by Portland Ovations on Oct. 4.

Comparison was easy, since Blechacz and Cumming both played the Brahms Intermezzo, Opus 118, No. 2, and the Chopin Polonaise in A-flat Major, Op. 53.

I found Cumming’s Brahms a bit more “authentic” -—Glazer was a Brahms specialist who once played all of the master’s piano works at one concert– and Blechacz is an iconoclast who has his own thought-provoking take on everything he plays.

Cumming’s rendition of the lesser-known “Edward” Ballade in D minor, Op.10, No.1, emphasized the young Brahms’ dramatic tendencies.

In the famous Polonaise, which became a pop song with the title “‘Till the End of Time,” Cumming’s technique was actually superior, but Blechacz’s version more interesting, with a distinct Polish flavor.

The influence of Glazer was most notable in the Beethoven “Moonlight” Sonata, Op. 27 No. 2. The presto agitato was taken at breakneck speed, as advocated by Artur Schnabel, Glazer’s most notable teacher, but without Schnabel’s characteristic wrong notes.

The Beethoven was the greatest test of reading from the score. It would seem virtually impossible to play it at tempo without storing most passages in the memory bank. Perhaps having a reference handy reduces anxiety about becoming lost, which has happened to many world-renowned pianists at awkward moments (most of them know how to fake it.)

Cumming used an electronic tablet similar to a Kindle, on which pages can be turned by pushing a button. It was so unobtrusive that one could not tell it was there, lying flat on the folded-down music stand. I foresee a day when pianists wear glasses with the score right in from of their eyes, advancing at a predetermined tempo.

Schubert was represented by the great Impromptu in C minor, Op. 90, No. 1, which is always a delight to hear. I just wish all pianists, not just Cumming, would pay more attention to the delicious modulation to C Major near the end of the work, as Paul Badura-Skoda used to do.

The most moving performance of the evening was the encore, an arrangement of “Annie Laurie” played at the funeral of Ruth Glazer in 2006.

DaPonte Solves Mozart Mystery

DaPonte String Quartet
Walpole Meeting House
Sept. 13, 2015

In each of its 19-year series of benefit concerts for the Walpole Meeting House, the DaPonte String Quartet includes a work written around the time that the meeting house was built—1772. Sunday night’s concert was no exception, beginning with the Mozart String Quartet in A Major K. 464.

The quartet, one of those dedicated to Haydn, has other connections to the New World. It is the first to incorporate Masonic musical symbolism in solidarity with Mozart’s brethren, who included revolutionaries such as Benjamin Franklin—for whom he composed music for the glass harmonica.

The program notes by DaPonte cellist Myles Jordan make a good case that Mozart may indeed have been poisoned, if not by his musical rival Salieri, then by other agents of the Austrian emperor, terrified of the popular young radical’s influence. (The Emperor’s sister, Marie Antoinette, had just lost her head to similar revolutionaries.) Not coincidentally, the DaPonte’s first winter series of concerts will be entitled “Enemies of the State.”

The quartet itself is long and “durch componiert” (thoroughly composed, perhaps too carefully.) It shows a more self-conscious effort at academic perfection than Mozart usually demonstrates. That said, it was a delight to hear in the fine acoustics of the old meeting house, lit only by flickering candles. Jordan excelled in the cello part, whose pizzicati gave the quartet its nickname of “The Drum.”

The Mozart was followed by the String Quartet No. 1 of Czech composer Erwin Schulhoff (1894-1942) who died in a Nazi concentration camp. Written in 1924, the quartet nevertheless shows premonitions of the horror to come.

Its dance-like rhythms and folkish modes remind one of Smetana, but they are accompanied by strange wisps of sound, at the highest register, barely audible and often sul ponte (on the bridge) that make them seem like floating spirits, menacing or not. The final movement, with its ticking clock that eventually winds down, should be a cliche, but instead remains highly effective.

This is a wonderful work, that the DaPonte has made its own and recorded on a CD that captures the soundscape of the old meeting house.

The program concluded with a rousing performance of the Mendelssohn Quartet in D Major Opus 44, No. 1. Its mood swings are those of a young composer who has just married and also lost his beloved sister. It reminded me of the old quote: “I wanted to be a philosopher, but cheerfulness kept breaking out.”

The quartet eventually transforms itself into a violin concerto, which Ferdinand Liva, Jr. managed with aplomb.

A Brave New Work at Portland Chamber Music Festival

Portland Chamber Music Festival
Hannaford Hall, Abromson Community Education Center
USM Portland
Aug. 20

Thursday night’s concert of the Portland Chamber Music Festival at Hannaford Hall was a journey from the drawing room to the music school to the wide world.

The drawing room was represented by a work that Mozart wrote for performance by his friends, the Quartet in A Major, for Flute and Strings, K. 298, a charming piece based on popular tunes of the day, easy enough to be played by gifted amateurs.

It is a thoroughly charming and graceful gift, with the first violin of the typical string quartet replaced by the flute, played by Laura Gilbert.

It raises the question of traditional string quartet make-up. The flute, in the hands of a musician like Gilbert, would seem to offer more versatility and opportunity for contrast and tonal color than another violin, but the combination never caught on. The example of Haydn? The ubiquity of the fiddle? Someone has probably written a doctoral thesis on the subject.

Which brings us to the schoolroom and Debussy, who wrote his Premiere Rhapsody as a test piece for students of the clarinet. Debussy could not approach a five-finger exercise without making it into a musical jewel, and the Rhapsody is no exception.

Clarinet virtuoso Todd Palmer, one of the resident artists at this year’s festival, has arranged the piece for chamber orchestra of flute, harp, violins, viola, cello and bass. It sets off the clarinet solo very well, even though it sometimes sounds more like “La Mer” than an exercise.

Palmer also played a key role in the piece de resistance of the evening, “Ayre,” by Osvaldo Golijov (b. 1960), with the composer in the audience. Palmer played a bass clarinet duet with the French horn, one of the high points of the song cycle.

“Ayre” takes the notion of fusion a step further than other composers, adding the element of historical time to the juxtaposition of musical cultures. The result of combining Renaissance voices with Piazzolla’s Argentinian tango and Sephardic or Arabic styles, is passing strange, but always musical, while conveying moods from tender love to rage. Some of the effective taped backgrounds evoke scenes from the Arab Spring.

The 11-piece band, or orchestra, sounds like a suk on steroids, if readers will pardon the cliche. Everything seems risen from the level of Arabic street musicians to the stage at the Intergalactic Cafe. There is even a “hyper-accordion,” played by Jose Lezcano, that has the power of a reed organ and something of the character of Piazzolla’s beloved bandoneon. (Golijov was brought up in Argentina.)

I’ve saved the best, soprano Ilana Davidson, for last. Her voice is both powerful and melodious, a more rare combination than one might think, and her portrayal of moods in the 11 songs that make up “Ayre” gives the juxtapositions extraordinary power. She also has the vocal elisions of Sephardic and Arabic music down pat, as difficult a feat as singing the ornamentations in Handel.

Golijov shared in the well-deserved standing ovation.

The festival finale, ending in the Brahms Quintet in F minor, Op 34, will be on Saturday (Aug. 22) at 7:30 PM.

Bartok at Salt Bay

Salt Bay Chamberfest
Darrows Barn, Round Top Farm, Damariscotta
Aug. 14
by Christopher Hyde

There is a reason that the Salt Bay Chamberfest, from its home at Damariscotta’s Round Top Farm, has acquired not merely a national but an international reputation, as one of the world’s pre-eminent chamber music festivals and a place where contemporary composers feel welcome and respected.

The acoustics in Darrows Barn are great, the musicians superb, and the programming imaginative and carefully thought out, but there has always been something more, ever since the festival was founded by cellist Wilhelmina Smith 21 years ago. These are world-renowned musicians, not on a vacation but a mission; as Smith puts it, sharing a passion.

Friday night’s program, featuring percussion and the piano as percussion instrument, was a prime example.

It opened with Steve Reich’s Quartet for two pianos, two percussion, written in 2014, played by Thomas Sauer and Amy Yang, piano, and Daniel Druckman and Markus Rhoten, percussion—primarily two vibraphones.

The work has the characteristic “chug,” a word coined by Reich to denote rhythmic drive, but is more complex harmonically and in its development than the composer’s earlier works. It even has traditional fast-slow-fast form, shimmering tonal color, and (gasp) ends on a tonic chord like a Bach fugue, even though no one could distinguish what its key might have been earlier. The gradual development of a simple theme, a la Phillip Glass, is fascinating, and the rhythmical repetition, like the clack of wheels on a train, hypnotic. It was performed with passion and exuberance.

Reich studied drumming in Ghana, so what better to follow his Quartet than two master drummers from Ghana, the father and son duo Sowah Mensah and Nii-Adjetey Mensah. Their humor, while exhibiting incredible skill on traditional drums and wooden xylophones, was infectious, and their sung duet, with a precise, well maintained interval throughout, was surprising.

The song was an example of the power of social regulation by means of music, according to the father, Sowah Mensah. After all, who wants his great-grandchildren to be ashamed of him? They also played the talking drum —“play what you say”— and a communal form of music on two xylophones, with improvisations over a recurring theme.(See column “Democracy in Music”) A drum duet, which concluded the set, glittered with shifting polyrhythms. Reich either didn’t achieve the level of his masters or figured that Western audiences wouldn’t get it.

What preceded it had been at the highest level, but was overshadowed by Bartok’s towering masterpiece, the Sonata (Sz. 110) for two pianos and percussion., played by the same team as the Reich.

I had heard this piece live once before, at Bates College, but Friday night’s performance established it, once and for all, as a landmark of 20th century music, not an experiment in using the piano as a percussion instrument but the result of decades of careful listening, formal genius and inimitable style. A work of the utmost seriousness, but full of charm and invention.

It had too many beauties to enumerate, but a few come to mind without notes, which I was too absorbed to take: cymbals echoing reverberations from the bass strings, xylophones that sounded like the upper treble keys on a grand should, but never do, snare drum whispers, interlocking filagree passages…

I wish I could recommend a recording of Sz. 110, but nothing electronic could even come close to the experience of a live performance. One can only plead with the directors of the festival to do it again…please?

Gamper Festival Delivers

Gamper Festival of Contemporary Music
Studzinski Recital Hall, Bowdoin College
Aug.2, 2015
by Christopher Hyde

The Gamper Festival of Contemporary Music, whose final concert I attended Sunday (Aug. 2) at Studzinski Recital Hall, may not be the most popular series of the Bowdoin International Music Festival, but it is certainly the most interesting. There is always something new, the composer is often in the audience to say a few words, and one has a better than average chance of hearing some real music.

For some reason or other, the high quality of the performances is a given. Perhaps the young musicians like to display each other’s work in the best light when there’s little in the way of fame or fortune to be had.

The first work on the program, “Klang” by Pierre Jalbert (b. 1967) was a fascinating exploration of resonance on the open strings of two topless grand pianos. One can get an idea of the effect by holding down a chord silently and then striking another very hard; the sympathetic vibrations are enchanting, while the instant contrast of loud and soft provides some highly musical effects, as Bartok well knew.

“Klang,” which refers to bell sounds, seemed to have three connected movements, loud and rhythmical, ethereal and rapidly rhythmical again. Percussionist Noah Rosen made the pianos sing all by themselves, aided and abetted by Ann Schaefer and Petya Stavfreva.

George Perle’s (1915-2009) “Bassoon Music,” played by Dillon Meacham, is a rarity—a piece that explores the tonal qualities of the instrument without ever descending into clownishness.

Derek Bermel (b. 1967) introduced his own “Twin Trio,” which treats flute and clarinet as musical twins, shepherded by their mother the piano, and then played the clarinet part. There are many unison (or almost) passages in the work where the only thing that distinguishes one instrument from the other is its timbre

Of the four movements, “Mirror,” “Converse,” “Share” and “Follow,” the final one was by far the best, and the most difficult, a canon at the 16th note. All were well played, with Bermel partnered by Beomjae Kim, flute, and Elinor Freer, piano. The unaccompanied duo, “Share,” sounded like the glissandos of competing sirens in New York City at night.

After intermission came “Shattered Glass,” by Margaret Brouwer (b. 1940) which was as jagged as its name implies but equally enticing, as played by Kim, flute, Minji Kim, cello, Fantee Jones, piano, and Grant Hoechst, percussion. The latter had his hands full. The object is to assemble the fragments into a kaleidoscopic image, at which Brouwer excels. The most effective movement was the most ethereal, imitating drops of water falling into a still pond, with the percussion limited to the click of two pebbles.

The final work on the program, a 1997 violin sonata by Fazil Say (b. 1970), played by Seo Hee Min, violin, and Tao Lin, piano, was also the least effective. It was written by a concert pianist, and the violin plays second fiddle.

The piano part itself is somewhat derivative, including a couple of passages for prepared piano, a la John Cage. The device of repeated notes on prepared strings, while the violin plays the same passage over and over, was quite effective, however. And I’m a sucker for a melody delivered as a series of trills on the piano, which ended the piece. As observed earlier, the sonata could not have received a better reading.

The Role of the Critic

The Role of the Critic

“Still, I felt so deadly dull that I should hardly have survived to tell the tale had not a desperate expedient to wile away the time occurred to me. Why not telegraph to London, I thought, for some music to review? Reviewing has one advantage over suicide. In suicide you take it out of yourself; in reviewing you take it out of other people.”
That was George Bernard Shaw, the greatest music critic who ever lived, on one of the roles of the profession. H.L. Mencken is his American counterpart.
I have been thinking again about the duty of the music critic because of some unfavorable reviews I have written lately. Probably not enough, because unfavorable reviews have become rare indeed, in Maine and elsewhere.
I chose Shaw because the first duty of the critic is to entertain. (Dorothy Parker’s review of Christopher Isherwood’s play “I am a Camera” comes to mind: “No Leica.”) If he or she is not read with interest, nothing can be accomplished.
A long time ago, I went around like the Elephant’s Child asking impertinent questions about what a critic should do. The first to answer was my father, who was the book reviewer, among other things, for the Philadelphia Inquirer. His answer was “to set standards.” Old fashioned perhaps, but still relevant. Western classical music is the greatest achievment of the human race, and it’s important to decide where in the pantheon a new or old composition belongs.
Standards apply to performance even more. A score is a blueprint. Without a concrete performance it does not exist. Bad or mediocre performances can ruin a masterpiece, while exceptional ones, such as Sir Neville Marriner’s version of the Handel Fireworks Music, can make a believer out of the rankest philistine.
Noted American composer Ralph Shapey told me that a critic should be an advocate–to say to readers: “Hey, you’ve got to hear this!” In a world where there’s so much competition for time and attention, and in which contemporary music has received such a bad press, he has a point.
However, to advocate also means to protest degradation of the art. I cannot think of a more criminally ignorant act than playing classical music to keep children out of a park, something that was actually suggested in Portland a while back.
My wife thought that a critic should educate, which is true to an extent, but all the biographies and analyses of Beethoven cannot cannot take the place of the feeling created by the music itself, which must come before anything else.
All one can do here is what Edward Gibbon said of another critic: “He tells me his own feelings and tells them with so much energy that he communicates them.” People read reviews for the same reason that they read accounts of football games–to relive the experience.
It is also the duty of a critic to attack. “It is sometimes said that condemnatory criticism is illegitimate and if a composition or performer is bad the crfitic should ignore it, giving space only to what he can praise. This overlooks what may be called the double duty of the gardener, whose cultivation of the flowers will not be successsfull is he does not remove weeds. Schumann said: ‘The critic who dares not attack what is bad is but a half-hearted supporter of what is good.’ There is much composition and performance which every critic and every musician of experience knows to be vulgar and mere pretension and it is this which an idealist like Schumann would wish to see denounced for the public instruction.
“It is true that in the past a good deal of attack upon novel types of composition or idiom has been later proved mistaken, but it has at least promoted healthy discussion when critical silence would have failed to do so. At all events, a critic who is only expressing half his mind is only half a critic, and the constant repression of deeply felt opinion is bound in time to injure his critical facility.”(to say nothing of his credibility)– Sir Percy Scholes.
Mea culpa. Classical music in Maine is not so weak a plant that it cannot stand a little pruning now and then,