Category Archives: Music criticism

Eroticism in Music

Classical Beat Column
by Christopher Hyde

The Portland Symphony Orchestra’s “Beethoven and Strauss” program, Jan. 24 and 26 at Merrill Auditorium. in addition to Beethoven’s shortest and most unusual symphony, the Eighth, includes some of the most erotic works in the repertoire: Richard Strauss’ Prelude to Act I of “Guntram,” Love Scene from “Feursnot” and the famous “Dance of the Seven Veils” from “Salome,” with guest artist soprano Patricia Racette.

It was reported a few years ago that scientists at the Montreal Neurological Institute have discovered that music activates the same reward centers of the brain as food and sex.

Some pieces of music activate better than others, but the effect has nothing to do with content. Overt or hidden erotic messages, as in the pieces programmed by the PSO, may help, but Beethoven and Bach affect the same pleasure centers as “Der Rosenkavalier.” What other areas they stimulate–memory, discovery, aesthetic beauty or rational intellect–is an entirely different question. (See Oliver Sacks’ “Your Brain on Music.”)

There are a couple of Bach cantatas that have the same erotic effect—Christ as the immortal beloved— as the Bernini sculpture of the Ecstasy of St. Teresa. “Wann kommst du, mein Heil?” from the Cantata No. 140 is one.

Music director Robert Moody has selected two leading candidates for the most erotic piece of music, at least according to some informal surveys on the internet.

Richard Strauss has the largest number of mentions, including “Der Rosenkavalier,” which is full of hidden risque meanings, “Salome” and even the “Domestic Symphony” and the “Four Last Songs.” Strangely enough, no one mentioned “Die Frau Ohne Schatten,” which is about nothing but eroticism.

A Ravel work, the “Bolero,” also had several mentions. I find it quite similar to the “Liebestod” in its gradual build-up to an overwhelming climax, in the case of the Wagner a union of Eros and Thanatos, and in the Ravel, appropriately enough, a change of key.

Among the moderns are, of course, Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” and Schoenberg’s “Pierrot Lunaire,” plus John Adams’ “Harmonium.” Since Adams is one of Moody’s favorite composers it would be interesting to hear this some time near Valentine’s Day.

There was also considerable discussion of Luciano Berio’s tape “Visage” for voice and electronic sounds, although to my mind this one and Pierrot seem more weird than erotic.

One work that I was not familiar with was Karol Szymanovski’s Symphony No. 3. Szymanowski, a friend of pianist Artur Rubinstein, was openly homosexual when that was taboo, and the symphony is supposedly full of homoerotic messages.

I have always wondered exactly how erotic images could be conveyed in music, but an analysis of the images in the Third Symphony told me much more than I wanted to know. The treatise is one of the most abstruse pieces of musical analysis I have ever encountered, having to do (I think) with chordal analysis and progressions, as well as rhythm.

Many of the selections on the internet were equally puzzling, at least to this reader. Scriabin’s grandiose “Poem of Ecstasy” was right up there, but I find it more embarrassing than erotic. His early Chopin-like Preludes are more realistic and Romantic at the same time.

On the subject of eroticism in music one has to fall back on the old dictum about pornography: “I know it when I see it.”

In the meantime, “If music be the food of love, play on.”

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

Music Appreciation 101

George Bernard Shaw, one of my inspirations as a music critic, once observed that music appreciation classes had it all backward. One has to love the music first, and the history, biography and musicology will follow out of a desire to know more about the object of affection. No one ever came to enjoy a Chopin etude because of its masterful enharmonic modulations.

Shaw was lucky enough to have grown up in a musical family. exposed to the classics at an early age, before the development of a recording industry. That still works today, in some instances, but how is an adult to find his or her way into that rewarding and sometimes ecstatic world? All the guides to listening that I have read have done little to enhance my enjoyment and would be virtually useless to anyone looking for that first spark.

I thought of this ancient problem a while ago when the DaPonte String Quartet played the String Quartet No. 8 of Australian composer Peter Sculthorpe. This is certainly a “modern” work (1969), but even traditionalists in the audience told me how much they enjoyed it..

The tragic opening, played by the cello, draws one in immediately. After all, who doesn’t love a cello song, even if it includes some surprising bumps. The musical imagery of the rice harvest continues the fascination, with its blurring of the line between sound effects and written music. The driving rhythm propels the listener from bar to bar.

Then there is the almost subliminal remembrance of ancient work songs, followed by the shock of recognition when the cello song reappears and is repeated by the other instruments.

The way the quartet is organized and the development of the theme are straightforward enough to satisfy even a casual listener, without banality. It left me wanting to hear more.

The first prerequisite to real enjoyment of music is performance. Find the best performance, of anything, that you can. Even the greatest masterpieces are dead on arrival without an equivalent realization. If one doesn’t work, keep looking. You will be surprised. Sometimes an unknown orchestra and conductor capture the essence, at least for me, better than Herbert von Karajan and the Vienna Philharmonic.

The second is repetition. The recording industry has a lot to answer for in its treatment of classical music, but it does offer the opportunity to hear a specific work again and again, which eventually, with luck, will lead to an “aha” moment; what psychologists call the relaxation response and others call shivers up and down the spine. The test of great music is the one Robert Graves suggested for poetry: it should make the hair stand up on the back of your neck.

Another way in is rhythm, which is built into our bodies, and which everyone enjoys in one way or another. I first started listening to Bartok because of his complex and powerful rhythms, and eventually developed a taste for his modal style. This is also a good path from popular to classical.

Imagery is derided by musical purists, but it has led multitudes toward more abstract music. Think of “Peter and the Wolf,” “The Swan of Tuonela,” “The Four Seasons,” or “La Mer,” all of which are great music in themselves.

Recognition, even the vaguest kind, can also lead to enjoyment, as in the work songs of the Sculthorpe quartet. We don’t know their specifics, but the style is universal. This also applies to hymns or marches, as in Charles Ives’ music, or references to popular tunes, as in Bach’s “Goldberg Variations.”

An historical approach sometimes works, but there may be a chasm between a composer’s approachable work and his later output that requires a leap of faith. A good example is Shoenberg’s “Verklarte Nacht” and his later 12-tone music. Another is the early Chopin-like preludes of Scriabin and his later, monstrous tone poems.

Seeing how the mechanism works, as described in the listener’s guides, can also be fun in an intellectual way, but all too often I can’ t hear, in a live performance, what the writers are talking about.

Finally, there are various unmusical ways to acquire a love of music. Many students have used Mozart to improve their grades and come to love him. The greatest motive of all is snobbery. After all, classical music is an aristocratic form that requires a refined sensibility to appreciate. I really don’t care. Anything that gets people to attend concerts or listen to recordings is good — and may transform a life or two.

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

Won’t You Join the Dance? PSO Performs Del Tredici’s “Alice” Symphony

Portland Symphony Orchestra
Merrill Auditorium
Nov. 10, 2015

A story going around music schools a long time ago concerned the oriental potentate who was introduced to a symphony orchestra for the first time. When asked what he liked most on the program he said: “The first piece.” The orchestra repeated it, but the Sultan shook his head. “No, before that…”

He was referring to the tune-up , begun by the oboe on “A” 440, which composer David Del Tredici uses as a motif signifying the dull real world at the beginning and end of his “Alice” Symphony, played Tuesday night at Merrill Auditorium by the Portland Symphony Orchestra.

“Alice” is a quirky and marvelous work, but its musical intricacies, such as counterpoint among massed instruments and canons at the 16th, were obscured by a ballet based on the Lobster Quadrille.

I loved the ballet, brilliantly choreographed by Roberto Forleo and danced superbly by members of the Portland Ballet. It was even more erotically charged than the company’s “Carmina Burana,” with poses that seemed based on the paintings of Egon Schiele, Balthus and Dorothea Tanning.

The Queen of the Lobsters, danced by Erica Deisl, was a dominating presence, the lobsterman in yellow overalls, danced by Derek Clifford, subtly menacing, and Alice herself, played by Kaitlyn Hayes, the picture of gawky adolescence, torn between resistance and desire, as in “Will you, won’t you, will you, won’t you, won’t you join the dance?”

The problem with a ballet so well done is that it rivets the attention, making the subtle effects of the music sometimes go unnoticed. In that way, the symphony was the reverse of a ballet suite, such as the symphonic Prokofiev “Cinderella” Suite No. 1 (Op.107) that preceded it. Perhaps the answer would be to shorten the symphony into a ballet version.

That said, the orchestra, under music director Robert Moody, did an excellent job with a difficult score, aided by soprano Margaret Carpenter Haigh, who is able to sing sweetly, bark like a yapping dog through a megaphone or read nonsense verses with equal aplomb. Del Tredici’s folk band, including mandolin and accordion, also worked effectively, as did an appropriately spooky Theremin.

The performance received a reluctant standing ovation from an audience that didn’t quite know what to make of it, gaining in applause as Del Tredici himself mounted the stage.

The program before intermission was equally good, with a powerful and atmospheric “Cinderella” Suite and an intimate, well-nuanced Haydn Symphony No. 69 in C Major (“Laudon”).

(In the program, the “Cinderella Suite” Pas de Châle (shawl dance) was mis-translated as “Cat’s Dance” (Pas de Chat?) which I mention only because it did sound like a cat dancing. exemplifying the power of suggestion.)

VentiCordi Program Sparkles

VentiCordi Chamber Music
Woodford’s Congregational Church
Nov. 8, 2015
by Christopher Hyde

There are few chamber music concerts without dead spots, but VentiCordi managed that feat on Sunday at Woodfords Congregational Church, under the auspices of the Portland String Quartet. Every piece on the program sparkled, or, in the case of Schoenberg’s “Ein Stelldichein” ( A Rendezvous) glowed like a black opal.

The Schoenberg, unfinished at 77 measures, comprises an entire dark world of loss and sorrow, and transfigures it. A companion piece to the more famous “Verlklarte Nacht,” also based on a work by Richard Dehmel, it goes further in the direction of atonality.

The composition does not follow the poem directly but creates a similar atmosphere, in which “The foliage hangs silently on the wet shrubs as if the leaves had drunk poison…”
It was lovingly performed by Kathleen McNerney, oboe, Kristen Finkbeiner, clarinet, Dean Stein, violin, Andrew Mark, cello, and Bridget Convey, piano.

The score has too many beauties to enumerate in a review, but I was particularly impressed by the winds and strings (VentiCordi) feeding on the overtones of massive piano chords, reminiscent of Brahms. The piano also managed cascades of falling leaves.

The work preceding it, “Fragments for Oboe, Clarinet and Cello,” by Robert Muczynski (1929-2010), also had its moments of sadness, but cheerfulness kept breaking through. The second fragment, “Solitude,” allowed the oboe to describe ripples on a black lake, a la “The Swan of Tuonela,” while the “Reverie” sounded like Copland in an introspective mood. The final “Exit” ended on a surprising tonic chord, like a Bach prelude.

A Trio for Clarinet, Violin and Piano by “Saber Dance” composer Aram Khachaturian (1903-1978) came as a surprise for its professional finish. Written when the composer was still a student, it contains all of the elements of his later work, with ethnic melodies and driving rhythms plus steppes music straight out of Borodin. The interweaving of the three voices was masterful. Either Khachaturian’s talent sprang full-blown or he developed little after his student days.

Eight Duos for Violin and Cello, Op. 39, by Reinhold Glière, were charming, especially to those brought up on his tutorial piano pieces. They too were lessons in form, melodic but exact. The second one, a Gavotte, sounded entirely authentic, as if the composer were writing in the 18th Century. Where his contemporary, Prokofiev, would have parodied it somehow, Glière plays it straight, which is somehow refreshing.

From a compositional standpoint, the only work on the program comparable to the Schoenberg was a Quartet for Piano, Oboe, Violin and Cello, by Bohuslav Martinû.(1890-1959). Written when the composer was recovering from a serious accident, it is nevertheless entirely upbeat, except for a somewhat brooding adagio. The final Poco Allegro, which could have been written by Stravinsky, is a scherzo, with a joke phrase that sounds like “a tisket, a tasket.” If anyone needs an accessible entree to “modern” music, the quartet has it all.

VentiCordi, founded by Stein and McNerney in 2009, deserves our thanks for bringing these delightful works to life. The performance of neglected music is unusual; to have it done so well, without any flavor of academia, is rare indeed.

Behind the “Alice” Symphony

When the Portland Symphony Orchestra released its plans for the 2015-2016 concert season, one item stood out: a symphony that commemorates one of the strangest love affairs in the history of music, between American composer David Del Tredici (b. 1937) and “Alice in Wonderland.”

Since 1968, a great deal of Del Tredici’s work has been devoted to the ‘Wonderland” books and their author, Lewis Carroll, beginning with settings of “Turtle Soup” and “Jabberwocky,” juxtaposed with a Litany and a Bach Chorale.

“Jabberwocky” might well appeal to a contemporary composer, with its musical use of nonsense and “portmanteau” words., but there seems to be a much deeper connection between Del Tredici and Carroll.

The key lies in Martin Gardner’s “The Annotated Alice.”

Gardner provides detailed historical background, sketches of the people involved and the originals of the Victorian poems that Carroll parodied. The combination of the original verses with their distorted reflections triggered something in the composer’s rebellious nature.

Del Tredici, born in 1937, has always been known as a maverick. In a musical world dominated by 12-tone serialism, especially at Princeton, where Del Tredici studied, he eventually returned to the music of Bach, Beethoven and the Beatles, prompting horrified reactions from the critics, followed by acceptance and eventually enthusiasm.

There was also a personal aspect to his fascination with the “Alice” books. When the composer was growing up, homosexuality could be punished by a prison term. The great American composer, Henry Cowell, was sentenced to 10 years for such an offense. Carroll’s affection for little girls, such as Alice Liddell, may have seemed equally transgressive.

The first large-scale work to emerge from this inspiration was “An Alice Symphony,” (1969) which the Portland Symphony Orchestra will play on November 10. One of its most famous sections is “The Lobster Quadrille.” The composer’s original program notes about its construction provide an idea of his methods of work on the “Alice” material:

“What particularly caught my fancy in this scene was the possibility of musically blending together both its humor and it grotesquerie.” For this effect he added a mandolin, a banjo, an accordion and two saxophones. “These are very common instruments indeed; however, in the more rarified symphonic realm their presence is somewhat bizarre, and creates a juxtaposition suggesting to me a kind of musical equivalent to the special atmosphere of the dramatic scene.”

Finding what the composer calls the “folk instrument group” of the quadrille may have the PSO scrambling, but they already have a good ukulele player in hornist Nina Allen Miller, who founded the ukulele group FLUKE.

The quadrille also employs the human voice, accelerando, to portray the lines: “‘Will you walk a little faster?’” said a whiting to a snail. “‘There’s a porpoise close behind us, and he’s treading on my tail.’”

Del Tredici set himself a contrapuntal problem in its composition: “that of writing two different sections (Dance I and Dance II) which would make musical sense not only separately but also when superimposed one upon the other.” In ordinary contrapuntal writing, two or more musical lines are superimposed harmoniously. To superimpose two separate compositions is orders of magnitude more difficult.

The result, according to Harry Neville of the Los Angeles Times, requires no knowledge of counterpoint to appreciate: ”The music is suffused with infectious good spirits — a rare quality these days — and altogether struck this listener as one of the most successful attempts yet to combine ‘serious’ and ‘popular’ musical elements.”

”An Alice Symphony,” written when Del Tredici was initially exploring the possibilities of combining tonality with dissonance, is the most modern sounding of the four symphonic works.

The “Acrostic Poem” for soprano in “The Final Alice” (the last of the four full-length “Alice” works), is written in triads (three-note chords), like a Beatles song. The aria does descend into chaos at the end, but is pulled back by the soprano counting slowly, in Spanish. “An Alice Symphony” is of particular importance since it marks Del Tredici’s initial break with academic tradition in music.

A special aspect of its performance in November will be a staged accompaniment by dancers from the Portland Ballet Company, with choreography by Roberto Forleo. Part of the Portland Symphony’s program of collaboration with local arts groups, it promises to be spectacular.

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

Quality in Music

Since I no longer subscribe to the Press Herald, I have taken to getting my morning news from National Public Radio. One of the more annoying features of NPR news is its regular interviews with pop singer-songwriters and “artists” of whom no one has ever heard. There was one the other day, with an aging female rock star whose rudeness was off the charts. The interviewer continued with his polite obsequiousness, when anyone with a brain in his head would have terminated the conversation immediately.

The other instant turn-off feature of NPR’s Morning Edition is the Writer’s Almanac, whose compiler once decided, on air, to make Kipling’s “If,” which I learned as a child of six, politically correct.

What has all this to do with classical music? I know only two popular songs that have withstood the test of centuries. One is ”Greensleeves.” and the other isn’t. The truth is that, like money, bad music drives out good, and the perceived decline in the audience for the latter has much to do with the “seriousness” accorded the former

I thought, many years ago, that musicology applied to bad pop music was a vampire that had been exposed to the light of day. In the days of 45’s, when I was in college, there were parodies of this kind of exercise all over campus. Alas, no one had driven a holly stake through its heart.

It is hard to believe, but not too long ago most people thought that music, because of its very nature, could not portray evil. Said the Greek philosopher: “Music is a moral law. It gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, a charm to sadness, gaiety and life to everything. It is the essence of order, and leads to all that is good, just and beautiful, of which it is the invisible, but nevertheless, dazzling, passionate, and eternal form.” Plato (c. 428—c. 347 B.C. )

We have learned, to our dismay, that not only can music portray evil; it can be evil. See certain forms of Rap, which some people believe is music, and automobile boom boxes, which can permanently damage the sense of hearing in half an hour.

I am not intending to dismiss music that appeals to a mass audience, merely to point out that the notion that “all musics are created equal,” which now seems a media truism. is fatuous nonsense, and does real harm. In another recent NPR interview, the music directors of two of Maine’s symphony orchestras also succumbed to the leveling virus, one going so far as to entertain the idea of programming concert versions of background music for video games.

Sir Percy Scholes, author and editor of the Oxford Companion to Music, an indispensable reference, lists the characteristics one should look for in evaluating a piece of music: vitality, originality, workmanship, proportion and fitness, feeling, personal taste, and the test of time. Except for the last item, music for mass audiences may show some or even all of these characteristics. But it is just this final one that makes the best of popular composers aspire to the classical.

Scholes tells of overhearing a conversation in Blackpool, in which one girl complained to another that music in a shop window was out-dated, being at least a year old. He pointed out that at that moment, Schubert had been dead for a century, but still endured.

“Probably bad popular music now lives a shorter time than ever before, since its incessant repetition by radio, television, juke-box, cinema and taped music tends to speed the judgement of Time” he writes. I-Tunes, Pandora, and the like have further speeded the process, while reducing the value of even good music, by making it a commodity available upon demand.

The opportunity to hear good music, played live, still exists in Maine. Some of the performances are free, and everyone, young or old, should take advantage of them while they last.

A Musical Enormity: PSO Tackles the Berlioz Te Deum

Portland Symphony Orchestra
Merrill Auditorium
Oct. 11, 2015

To paraphrase Lady Bracknell: “A work crowded with incident, I see, but somewhat too loud for Merrill Auditorium.” The Berlioz Te Deum, performed by the Portland Symphony Orchestra before a large audience on Sunday, Oct. 11, is the 19th Century equivalent of a boombox. A few minutes more and the result would have been mass hearing loss.

During the final Judex crederis (the last judgement), tenor René Barbera, who has a rich, powerful voice that could fill La Scala, was totally drowned out by the massed forces of a full orchestra (with plenty of harps), the Kotzschmar Organ, played by Ray Cornils, and three large choruses-—the Masterworks Chorus of the Choral Art Society, the Boston Children’s Chorus, and members of Shannon Chase’s Vox Nova Chamber Choir.

The Te Deum begins with orchestra and organ exchanging fortissimo chords like the blows of heavyweight boxers at the beginning of a bout, and continues that way until all parties, including the audience, are exhausted.

There are a few respites, most notably the great tenor solo in Te ergo quaesumus, but for the most part Berlioz simply tries unsuccessfully to outdo, in volume and cataclysmic dramatics, his opening passage.

The composer gives the organ every opportunity to demonstrate its magnificence—the first performance, in 1855, commemorated the installation of a new organ at the church of Saint-Eustache in Paris, during that year’s World’s Fair—but is much less successful in the few pensive moments of the score, when the chosen organ stops sound like background music at a funeral parlor. An organ always sounds like an organ, no matter what its maker is trying to imitate.

There is not much attempt to differentiate the choruses, although the children’s voices and Vox Nova stood out at times, and there were some characteristic Berlioz effects, such as an unusual interaction between the brass choir and the basses. There was also a fine, distinctive Latinate chant in the Christie, rex gloriae.

The entire Te Deum was beautifully performed, by all parties, but as Ravel said of his Bolero, ”unfortunately, it is not music.” Still, like a performance of the Bolero, the audience, this writer included, enjoyed it immensely, as evidenced by a prolonged standing ovation.

I urge anyone who can do so, to get a ticket for Tuesday night’s (Oct. 13) performance. This is music that can only be experienced live, and it will probably not be heard again in Maine for a very long time.

Music director Robert Moody paired the Te Deum with a charming performance of the Beethoven Symphony No. 1 in C Major, Op. 21, emphasizing its similarities with the work of his predecessors. The minuet movement, which is supposed to mark Beethoven’s break with tradition, sounded like something straight from the pages of Haydn.

I mention this about the symphony only because it was so odd: a pizzicato note from the violin section before Moody indicated the downbeat. The first time was merely a regrettable error, but it happened again before the minuet. Not enough to spoil anything, but a little intrusive nevertheless, and perhaps rattling to other musicians.

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.