Category Archives: Previews

An Outstanding Symphonie Fantastique by the Midcoast

Midcoast Symphony Orchestra
Franco Center, Lewiston
Oct. 20, 2018
by Christopher Hyde

Hector Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique is one of the longest and most difficult works in the orchestral repertoire, and also one of the most exciting. Last night’s performance by the Midcoast Symphony Orchestra under Rohan Smith, was one of the best I have heard, and more dramatic than most.

The performance will be repeated this afternoon at the Orion Center for the Performing Arts in Topsham, and should not be missed. Live performances are few and far between, due to lack of resources, and the piece probably will not be scheduled next time you visit New York or Vienna, if you want to hear a comparable rendition.

Smith went for broke in evoking contrasts between movements and within them, reflecting the mercurial Romantic moods of the composer. He unified the structure by emphasis on the recurring “beloved” theme. The glorious waltz of the second movement, for example, almost degenerates, presaging what Ravel did with the form many years later.

The dialog between oboes —the English horn is a large oboe— in the third movement, set in the bucolic countryside, was perfection, with the horn soloist located about halfway up the incline of the Franco Center,  providing a sense of open space. The movement itself, suspended between delight and horror, is the essential interlude.

The final witches’ sabbath, following the famous scene in which the hero, having murdered his inamorata, imagines his affair with the guillotine, is one of the most colorful and imaginative in music. It has everything, from a supernatural flight of locusts, sul legno, (played with the wood of the violin bow), to the world’s most terrifying “Dies Irae” on the low brass.

Every section of the orchestra played admirably, but the percussion often took center stage, including the loudest drum roll I have ever heard.

Part of that effect was due to the addition of mallet percussionist Nathaniel Hackworth, to the battery.

Hackworth, from Presque Isle, is the winner of the MIdcoast’s first Judith Elser Concerto Competition, and just before intermission played the Concerto for Marimba and Vibraphone, Op. 27 of Darius Milhaud (1892-1974). The concerto, which Hackworth played brilliantly, sensitively supported by the orchestra, is jazzy and colorful, full of musical in-jokes. One passage, for example, is lifted verbatim from Stravinsky’s piano transcription of “Petrouschka,” where, for a few measures, the piano does sound very much like a marimba.

The orchestra warmed up with the delightful Prelude and Mazurka from “Coppélia” by Leo Délibes (1815-1910), which first got me interested in ballet many years ago. It immediately conjures up grande jetés by Nureyev.

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.

Opera Maine “Marriage of Figaro” Will Surprise

Opera Maine “Marriage of Figaro”

Mozart at his most mischievous is a good characterization of “The Marriage of Figaro,” to be presented July 25 and 27 by Opera Maine at Merrill Auditorium.

The composer must have jumped at the chance to paint musical portraits of a count and countess, the cunning barber (of Seville), a horny teenager (himself?) a silly girl, a conniving doctor and an unconventional young woman, all wrapped up in a bawdy tale that had to be cleaned up a little to pass the Viennese censors. (The libretto is based on a popular play by Beaumarchais, adapted by Lorenzo DaPonte.)

The combination of aristocracy, romance, humor and great music has made The Marriage of Figaro” one of the ten most popular operas of all time.

Opera Maine artistic director Dona D. Vaughn finds it relevant in the “me too,” age, when men still use wealth and authority in an attempt to control women like Susanna (Figaro’s bride to be). “You often hear ‘I was afraid to speak up,’ but Susanna isn’t afraid at all.” She outfoxes Count Almaviva, who is trying to cheat on the Countess and assert his droit de seigneur before the wedding.

Vaughn likens the play to an Alice-in-Wonderland world, where anything can happen. It makes it possible for the music to range from heart-breaking to farcical without missing a beat.

“When we scheduled the opera (for the second time in 17 years), I thought ‘What have I done?’ but every time you produce it you find something different. Several of the cast and our conductor, Stephen Lord, have done it before, and everyone has an idea of how it should go. The result is a collaborative effort, and something new.

As usual, Vaughn has some surprises in store. They are not in the role of Susanna—she has portrayed strong women before—but in the setting. Originally staged in Count Almaviva’s palace not far from Seville, in the18th Century, the Marriage will take place in a lavish country manor, in a different country, around 1900, when class distinctions were more evident, and all sorts of eccentricities were tolerated: “You can do anything you like here, just don’t do it in the yard and scare the horses.”

Props lent by the Victoria Mansion will provide period authenticity.

Vaughn is enthusiastic about this year’s cast, which includes several who have sung at the Metropolitan Opera and other world-famous venues, plus others who are on the cusp of major careers.

Keith Phares will perform the role of Count Almaviva and soprano Danielle Pastin is the Countess. Returning to perform with Opera Maine are tenor Robert Brubaker as Basilio, baritone Robert Mellon as Figaro, and soprano Maeve Höglund as Susanna. Mezzo-soprano Hongni Wu joins the cast having just won the Metropolitan Council Auditions. Also featured are soprano MaryAnn McCormick as Marcellina, and bass Kevin Glavin as Bartolo.

The opera will be sung in Italian, with supertitles in English.

In another current production by Opera Maine, mezzo-soprano Raehann Bryce-Davis leads the cast of Jake Heggie’s “Three Decembers,” which also features Studio Artists soprano Symone Harcum, and tenor Yazid Gray. This opera was composed in 2008 with librettist Gene Scheer. Set in the Decembers of 1986, 1996, and 2006, the 90-minute opera tells the story of a famous stage actress, Madeline Mitchell, and her two adult children, Beatrice and Charlie, as they struggle to know and love one another.

“Three Decembers” can be heard Friday, July 13 at Deertrees Theater, Harrison; Sunday, July 15 at The Temple, Ocean Park; and Monday, July 16, at Camden Opera House.

First Festival Friday at Bowdoin

Bowdoin International Music Festival
Studzinski Hall
June 29, 2018
by Christopher Hyde

The first of what used to be called “Festival Fridays” at the Bowdoin International Music Festival, took place June 29 in Studzinski Hall rather than the larger Crooker Theater, where they had been performed for many years. The change of venue, and the addition of reserved seats, seems a step forward, in terms of both acoustics and ambience. The stage is not large enough for the festival orchestra, whose programs will continue to be held at Crooker.

The evening began with a work by Ravi Shankar, which inspired a devout wish that he had written more for flute and harp, such as “L’Aube Enchantée sur le Raga ‘Todi,’” than for the Sitar. One can only imagine the difficulties of producing raga-like pitch relations on a pedal harp, let alone the intricate meters of the music, but harpist June Han managed it with surpassing ease. (Her gilded harp was a work of art in itself.)

The “melody” of the work, written for flutist Jean-Pierre Rampal, was carried with bravura by Laura del Sol Jiménez, whom we heard most recently in the outstanding Bach Virtuosi Festival performance of the Brandenburg Concerto No. 4.

Almost as unusual in its own way was the Violin Sonata in B Minor of Ottorino Respighi (1879-1936), played by sisters Almita Vamos, violin and Eugenia Monacelli, piano. While looking back to the late Romantic era, the sonata also combines Respighi’s fascination with the Baroque and his skill at painting tone poems, such as “The Pines of Rome.”

What made this reading special—causing cheers from a large audience of students—was the singular rapport of the musicians, who seemed able to respond to each other’s most intimate thoughts. H.L. Mencken used to proclaim that the most important characteristic of a great musician, such as Brahms, was brains. Intellectual ability, as well as musicality, marked both the work and its performance.

The evening ended with a magical performance of the Brahms Piano Trio No. 3 in C Minor, Op. 101, by David Bowlin, violin, Amir Eldan, cello and Pei-Shan Lee, piano. The work has everything that makes Brahms special, plus brevity. After hearing the ensemble in the low to mid registers, I would not have cared if Brahms never penned another treble note.

Next Friday’s concert will take place at Crooker, Theater, where the Festival Orchestra, under Angel Gil-Ordóñez, will play Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme, Op. 33,  with Narek Hakhnazaryan, cello.

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

Bach His Way

Bach His Way

by Christopher Hyde

In June of 2016, Lewis Kaplan, co-founder of the Bowdoin International Music Festival, launched a new enterprise in Portland that came as a revelation to many—the Portland Bach Festival, now known as the Bach Virtuosi Festival (June 17-24).

If, as I believe, performance is all, the festival dispelled any notion that J.S. Bach, arguably the finest musician who ever lived, was staid, or God-forbid, as boring as Hector Berlioz thought he was.

All of the performers, and a chamber orchestra, reminded me of Wanda Landowska’s aphorism: “You play Bach your way, and I’ll play him his way.” In many instances, during both the 2016 and 2017 season, it was as if the audience was hearing a familiar work for the first time. The reason, of course, was that Kaplan, a long-term professor of violin at Juilliard and an authority on Bach, was able to draw together some of the world’s foremost Bach interpreters, who also got along famously—in ensemble playing egging each other on until one began to believe that the court of Frederick the Great had come to the Age of Jazz.

This year’s Festival will include most of the original musicians, and expand its scope somewhat, to include composers deeply influenced by Bach, such as Bartok and Shostakovich (“Before Bach and Beyond,” June 19 at St. Luke’s Cathedral) and those who influenced him, such as Vivaldi and Buxtehude.

The final concert, June 24 at St. Luke’s will also include works by another giant, George Frederic Handel, plus another of my favorite Brandenburg Concertos, No. 4

The June 19 program will mark the first appearance of noted Maine pianist Henry Kramer, who will play a prelude and fugue from “The Well Tempered Clavier,” compared to a similar work by Dmitri Shosakovich. He will also appear in the Schumann Piano Quintet in E-flat Major, Opus 44, influenced by the Romanic composer’s study of Bach.

The program at Etz Chaim Synagogue, on June 21, will feature two sonatas, for violin and for flute, with Arthur Haas at the harpsichord, plus two contatas, “Vernugte Ruh, BWV 170, and “Weichet nur, betruebte Schatten, BWV 202. It will be followed by a panel discussion on “Music and Religion between Haas, professor of Harpsichord and Early Music at SUNY Stonybrook, the Rev. Cannon Frank M. Harron II, former Executive Director of Program and Ministry at the National Cathedral, and Gary S. Berenson, Rabbi, Etz Chaim Synagogue.

Two new venues this year will include a free concert at Falmouth Congregational Church on June 23 to support the Falmouth Food Pantry, and an evening celebration of Bach and Bacchus at the Cumberland Club on June 22.

Detailed descriptions of each program are available at www.bachvirtuosofestival.org/proram. Tickets are available through PortTIX.

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

Broadway at its Best

Portland Symphony Orchestra
Merrill Auditorium
April 21, 2018
by Christopher Hyde

I had forgotten just how good the American musical theater once was. The opening bars of “Oklahoma,” played by the Portland Symphony Orchestra in a Pops concert Sunday afternoon at Merrill Auditorium, were a forcible reminder.

My father, who was a critic, took me to opening night. We sat in the front row of the balcony and I set the stage with a loud impromptu version of “The Star Spangled Banner,” in my best boy soprano. Later, my sister and I learned every single word of every single song —“Oklahoma” is a cornucopia—and sang them at an audition. The producers found them too “adult” for a children’s program in Philadelphia, but we refused to learn anything else. (We did Cab Calloway too.)

But I digress. The orchestra, under music director finalist Daniel Meyer, was on its best behavior, the arrangements were truly symphonic, and soprano Lisa Vroman was the very model of what a Broadway leading lady should be. She has a marvelous voice, a warm and friendly stage presence, dances gracefully and is also a pretty good stand-up comedienne. Her tales of mishaps on stage and her demure and lethal version of “To Keep My Love Alive” from Rogers’ “Connecticut Yankee” had even the orchestra members laughing into their cellos.

The selections favored Rogers and Hart and Rogers and Hammerstein, but Sondheim, Willson and Loewe were also well represented. The composer of the plaintive “Take of My Solitude,” Tom Megan, was in the audience and received a round of applause.

There was also a charming, humorous version of Irving Berlin’s “I love a Piano,” in which Vroman was perfectly accompanied by PSO keyboardist Janet Reeves.

Vroman spoke of her childhood desire to be Julie Andrews, but her opening “The Sound of Music,” and finale “My Favorite Things” (with an impromptu verse for Portland) placed her firmly in the same league. She even had the near-capacity audience singing “Edelweiss” at the end.

Meyer elicited fresh and enthusiastic performances of favorites so popular that orchestras sometimes merely go through the motions. Fine and cleverly orchestrated arrangements didn’t hurt the cause either. He also has a good singing voice, as evidenced by a duet from “Phantom of the Opera” illustrating one of Vroman’s stories.

It will be interesting to see how he conducts other classics, “Swan Lake” and a Glazunov Violin Concerto, on May 13.

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

A Welcome Addition to the Maine Music Scene

Amethyst Chamber Ensemble
Unitarian Universalist Church, Brunswick
Apr. 15, 2018
By Christopher Hyde

A new star has risen on the Maine (and Massachusetts) musical horizon. On Sunday, the Amethyst Chamber Ensemble, in its first Maine performance, at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Brunswick, transformed what could have been a lugubrious afternoon—sort of a “Songs and Dances of Death”—into a lively celebration of life.

The concert began with a set of three songs, “Let Evening Come,” by American composer William Bolcom (b. 1938) The songs are masterful settings of poems by Maya Angelou, Emily Dickinson and Jane Kenyon, dealing with human reactions to death.

Bolcom is a master at portraying psychological states through music, and the last song, to a poem by Kenyon, turns a funeral march into a triumphant procession. The set was effectively performed by Mary Sullivan, soprano, Scott Nicholas, piano, and Jon Poupore, viola. The latter instrument takes the place of a singer, who died before Bolcom could complete a commission written for two sopranos.

I loved Emily Dickinson’s image of birds in winter accepting the penance of the farmer.

The next selection on the program, the great Brahms Viola Sonata in F Minor, Op. 120, No. 1, was more cheerful, with echoes of his “Liebeslieder Waltzes” coming after more introspective sections, including some surprisingly songful double stops on the viola.

For something entirely different, the trio, with the addition of mezzo-soprano Joëlle Morris, performed 13 of “Fifteen Songs for Voice, Viola and Piano,” by Irving Schlein (1905-1986). Schlein, a familiar figure on Broadway, composed a large number of classical works, which have remained virtually undiscovered.

The songs are short, well-written, and often comical– musical one-liners, such as No. 5, which, while praising bird song, ends in a discordant minor second. The next, extoling harmony, takes the tonic to ridiculous extremes. No. 13, however, harks back to the theme of the concert, recalling the despair of unrequited love.

German weltschmerz was on full display in two wonderful, darkly Romantic songs for Voice and Viola (Op. 91) by Brahms: “Stilled Longing” and “You Who Hover “(“Gestillte Sehnsucht” and “Geistliches Wiegenlied”). They were movingly sung by Morris with just the right degree of restrained emotion, and tones complementing those of the viola.

Three tangos by Astor Piazzolla provided just the right combination of darkness and light, all of them, however a little more melodic than most of that composer’s concert tangos. The first, a Milonga, was sung by Morris, the second “El Titere,” about a Mack the Knife-like character, by Sullivan,and the third, “Song of the Zamba Girl,” by both, as alternating solos and a duet.

Sullivan and Morris form a near-perfect duet, as significant differences in pitch and timbre make the combination of voices most effective. Their coordination was most striking in a programmed encore, a vocalization of Brahms’ Hungarian Dance No. 5 by his friend Pauline Viardot (1821-1910) entitled “Les Bohemiennes.”

I usually cannot understand sung words in English, so Viardot’s French was beyond me. I’ll take it on faith that it was clever, funny and perhaps a bit risqué, judging by the fun that the singers, and the audience, had with it.

The next concert in Maine is scheduled for November. Too far off.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at classbeat@netscape.net.
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An Exciting POPS by the Midcoast Symphony

Midcoast Symphony Orchestra
Franco Center, Lewiston
Mar. 17, 2018
by Christopher Hyde

The Midcoast Symphony Orchestra’s “Celebration Pops,” Saturday night at Lewiston’s Franco Center, was just that: popular.  It attracted the largest crowd I have seen at one of the Midcoast’s concerts.

In spite of being about 2 hours long, including intermission with crepes and wine, the pace never flagged, due to the infectious energy of guest conductor Yoichi Udagawa, who was just getting into his stride with a gloriously hokey encore of “The Stars and Stripes Forever,” complete with a three-piccolo obligato and a flag-waving baseball cap. The Boston Pops couldn’t have done it better.

Udagawa has a penchant for fast tempos, which works better with some popular classics than with others. It made the orchestra struggle a bit with the Shostakovich Festive Overture, which opened he program, but was more effective in Copland’s “Hoe-Down” from “Rodeo,” and absolutely perfect with the jigs from Leroy Anderson’s “Irish Suite.”

Anderson has become a little too popular to be taken as seriously as he should be. HIs sensitive arrangement of well-known Irish tunes, however, was one of the high points of the evening.

We came to the event primarily to hear pianist Charles Floyd play “Rhapsody in Blue.” HIs interpretation of the Rachmaninov Concerto No. 2 with the Midcoast, a few years back, was unforgettable.

What happened was one of those irresistible force meets immovable object dilemmas, when Floyd’s long lines and exploration of inner voices came in contact with Udagawa’s up-tempo interpretation. A concerto is always a battle between orchestra and soloist, but this one ended in a truce that was satisfying to both parties, retaining the excitement of Gershwin’s improvisations while revealing some inner harmonies unheard in more technical performances.

I generally detest encores after concerto performances, as detracting from the main event, but Floyd’s deeply felt variations on “America” seemed appropriate. It made me think of the scene in “RIdley Walker,” when the hero comes across the ruins of Salisbury Cathedral and exclaims,”What we been…and what we are now.”

After conducting the audience in clapping for the “Colonel Bogey March,” Udagawa ended the regular program with a sultry and explosive Bacchanale from Saint-Saens’ “Samson and Delila,” that brought out the best from all sections of the orchestra.

I wouldn’t be surprised if today’s (Sunday’s) concert at the Orion Center is sold out, but if tickets are still available it would be well worth hearing.

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

Vox Nova Celebrates the Winter Solstice

Vox Nova
Franco Center, Lewiston
Jan. 20, 2018
by Christopher Hyde

“To whose more clear than crystal voice, the frost had joined a crystal spell.” The Vox Nova Winter Solstice concert, Saturday night at the Franco Center, reminded me of Leonie Adams’ line, with a succession of images as sparkling, cold and clear as frost patterns on a window pane.

Where does director Shannon Chase find these works? Stanzas of great poetry set to contemporary music that adds to their effect. She even found an e.e. cummings poem, set by Steve Heizeg (b. 1959), with capitol letters (“Noel Noel”). “little tree” was almost enough to give one the Christmas spirit, ending with a peal of bells from the harp, played by Victoria Flanagan.

Flanagan also decorated — I hesitate to use the word accompanied— a moving setting of Thomas Hardy’s “The Oxen,” by Marjorie Hess (b. 1958) and a truly dolce version of “What Sweeter Music by Robert Herrick, with music by Michael Fink (b. 1955).

Chase  uses instrumentalists to good effect, without diminishing the effectiveness of the perfect intervals attainable with an a cappella choir. The first half of the program was sung by a small group, Intima,” and the second by the full chamber choir, with harp, flute, trumpet, piano and string quartet.

A Latvian folksong, “Northern Lights,” with music by Eriks Ešenvals (b. 1977), included tuned water glasses and chimes, adding to the wonder expressed in the song, which compares the perpetual rise and fall of the northern lights to harp music.

Vox Nova has a strong bass section, fully revealed in “Evensong,” by Stephen Paulus (1949-2014), to a poem by Matthias Claudus (1740-1815). One of the most effective works, however. was “Tundra,” by Ola Gjeilo (b. 1978), setting a poem by Charles A. Silvestri. It was sung by the Women’s Chamber Chorus, Jennifer Caton, soprano, with the piano and string quartet taking the tenor and bass lines.

The last time Vox Nova performed “Come to the Woods” by Jake Runestad (b. 1986) to a poem by John Muir (1838-1914), I gave it a rave review. It was just as good the second time — a concerto for piano and chorus, with Amy Maier at the piano. While listening to the wind during our October hurricane I thought of Muir climbing a pine tree to witness the storm described in his poem.

The program concluded with a wonderful version of “Auld Lang Syne,” which not only uses Burns’ original wording, but alters the traditional melody to give it a more authentic Highlands flavor. The work, by Mairi Campbell (b. 1965), was given a definitive reading by the chorus and Erika Leighton, mezzo-soprano and Julia Nadeau, soprano, with Maier at the piano.

The concert was both a celebration and a catharsis of winter. Now if someone could set Ezra Pound’s ode “Winter is icumen in, Lud sing Goddam. Skiddeth bus and sloppeth us,and how the wind doth ram…” Spike Jones perhaps?

The Winter Solstice program will be repeated today at 3:00 p.m. at the Orion Center for the Performing Arts in Topsham. It should not be missed.

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

Voices from the Renaissance

Renaissance Voices
Cathedral Church of St. Luke
Dec. 16, 17, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

The Christmas concert of the a cappella choir, Renaissance Voices, Saturday night and Sunday afternoon at the Cathedral Church of St. Luke, reminds me of Mathew Arnold’s image, in “Dover Beach,” of a faith that once held the Western World together. The music transports one to that era, when a still, small voice could yet be heard, and reindeer were merely the Lapp’s cattle.

Echoes resound in music director Harold Stover’s programming of modern music and that of the Victorian era, represented in this year’s concert by four motets by Josef Rheinberger (1839-1901). Rheinberger’s “Neun Advent-Motetten, Op. 176, are more difficult than his Renaissance models, especially in their demand for sustained tenuto of difficult intervals. They were worth the effort, however.

This year’s Renaissance-era offerings were relatively well-known, beginning with “Natus est Nobis,” by Tomas Luis de Victoria (1548-1611) and ending with “Canite tuba in Sion” (Blow the trumpets in Zion) by Hieronymus Praetorius (1560-1629).

The latter was something of a revelation, in that the listener knows the intent of the music (apart from the text) and can appreciate the composer’s success in rendering it. In this case,, the work consists entirely of combinations of trumpet calls, imitated by the choir, and is quite magnificent.

An effective juxtaposition was an anonymous “Laudemus Virginum“ (c. 1399), with a traditional English carol, “Blessed be that maid Marie,” similar in mood and perhaps as old.

Modern works included a deeply felt “O Magnum Mysterium,” by American composer Sally Hermon, and a setting of “A little child there is ybore”, by British composer David W. Jepson, sung by soprano Joanne deKay.

As customary at the Renaissance Voices Christmas program, the musical offerings were interspersed with appropriate readings of poetry, in this case two Christmas poems by Jane Kenyon, and “Department Store,” by Carl Dennis.

A work by Orlando de Lasso (1532-1594), seemed particularly appropriate to this season: “Veni Domine, et noli tardare…” (“Come, Lord, and do not delay. Pardon the misdeeds of your people, and bring the dispersed back to your land.”)

Today’s concert will be at 2:00 p.m.

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