Category Archives: Music criticism

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,