Category Archives: Previews

Midcoast Premiers Shemaria Trumpet Concerto

Midcoast Symphony Orchestra
Franco Center, Lewiston
Jan. 12, 2019
by Christopher Hyde

Concertos often turn into contests of will between the soloist and the conductor.  Rich Shemaria has written a Concerto for Trumpet and Orchestra, given its world premier at the Franco Center last night by the Midcoast Symphony Orchestra under Rohan Smith, that virtually eliminates the problem.

In the hands of Wayne du Maine, the trumpet is always first among equals. “Equals” being the operative word, as the soloist interacts with smaller groups of instruments, rather like a concerto grosso, persuading rather than dominating.

There is a section for brass chorus immediately after the opening notes, in which any one of the orchestra members could be the soloist, while du Maine saves his considerable virtuosity for the final riff of the piece. (Shemaria is noted as a jazz composer.)

There are various unifying motifs and melodic lines through the work, which is somewhat dissonant in a post-Gershwin American style. Philosophically, however, the over-arching theme is the ability of the trumpet to lead, like the Pied Piper of Hamelin.

The most notable example comes near the end of the second movement, when complete chaos is converted in a few measures to a melodic episode on the strings, arranged by the trumpet, which pulls everything together. In another, it changes the direction of a brutalist march.

The Midcoast gave the concerto, which I consider a seminal composition, its best possible introduction, while du Maine was spectacular in a score that is difficult without being flashy.

I usually dislike encores, but du Maine’s brilliant improvisation referenced some of the sources of Shemaria’s work, besides being a lot of fun.

The program began with an unusual reading of the Serenade for 13 Wind Instruments in E-flat Major (Op. 7), written by Richard Strauss when he was 17. Critics of Strauss take him at his word when he refers to himself as the best second-rate composer, but if juvenilia are any indication, he is right up there with Mozart and Mendelssohn.

The Serenade is as good as anything they wrote at that age, with the added difficulty of orchestration. What clinches it is the fact that from the first notes, one knows it is by Strauss, even if one has never heard it before—the hallmark of genius.

I have never been a great admirer of Schumann’s “Spring” Symphony, No. 1 in B-flat Major (Op. 38), but the Midcoast’s version changed my mind, bringing out beauties that I had not heard on recordings.

The tempo was perfect and the execution so accomplished that one could concentrate on the music, with the small but telling details Rohan Smith was able to emphasize in the midst of broad melodic sweeps.

The brass choir opening harked back to the Shemaria Concerto, as did a wonderful figure for French horns that ended on a descending phrase from the flute. (The concerto offered a lovely upward harp glissando that ended with a note from the triangle.)

The concert will be repeated today, Sunday, at 2:30 in the Orion Center in Topsham. It would be a sovereign antidote for a week’s zero weather.

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

Magical Music and Musical Magic

“Magic of Christmas”
Portland Symphony Orchestra
Merrill Auditorium
Dec. 14-23, 2018
by Christopher Hyde

Bruce Hangen has returned after 39 years to conduct another series of the Portland Symphony Orchestra’s “Magic of Christmas” concerts at Merrill Auditorium. He has put the emphasis on the music to create a truly magical experience.

Assistance from one of Maine’s glorious sopranos, Elisabeth Marshall, the Windham Chamber Singers under Dr. Richard Nickerson, the 80-strong Magic of Christmas Chorus under Nicolás Alberto Dosman, Christopher Pelonzi on the Kotzschmar Organ and narrator Zach Handlen, helped make the season brighter for a couple of hours.

The orchestra and chorus collaborated well on the opening “A Christmas Festival,” a much better medley than is usually arranged, and an unusual Festival Gloria, which was powerful yet clear.

The orchestral arrangement of Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” that followed, was worth the price of admission, but things got better still, with Marshall’s rendition of “Rejoice” from “Messiah,” one of the most difficult and highly ornamented arias in the repertoire.

I have never heard it performed as well. Most sopranos just sweat it out, but Marshall revealed its inner beauties with seeming ease. The orchestra and chorus sang the “Hallelujah” very well, but it was not this sort of revelation.

She was equally spectacular following intermission in a piece called “The Twelve Gifts of Christmas, in which her true love gives her gifts of individual instruments and sections of the orchestra. To add to the fun, each of the sections, when possible,  plays an easily recognizable passage from the classics. A sort of Christmas “Young People’s Guide to the Orchestra.”

Marshall joined the Windham Chamber Singers, of which she is an alumna, in an authentic gospel version of “Go, Tell It On the Mountain.”

Handlen did a fine job of projecting over the orchestra in a clever musical version of “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” and paired with Marshall, the orchestra and choruses in a rousing “PSO Polar Express Suite.”

The Magic of Christmas Chorus was at its best in “Many Moods of Christmas,” with a tremendous march-like rendering of “Adeste Fideles.”

No “Magic” concert would be complete without a raucous version of “Sleigh Ride,” but Hangen killed two birds with one stone by having a youngster conduct it (as used to be the case with “Waltz of the Flowers”). “See, it’s easy, all you have to do is wave your arms until the music stops and then take a bow,” Hangen quipped. The requisite “Nutcracker” selection was filled by the “March,” with scurrying mice.

If I had any quibble with this year’s version of “Magic,’ it would be with the sing-along carols, which seemed a little heavy on the “Frosty the Snowman/Rudolf” side. Still, the most relevant and vital side of the holiday had already been covered by the orchestra and chorus, and the kids in the audience knew most of the words without a program.

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

Christmas Gifts Old and New

St. Mary Schola
Cathedral Church of St. Luke
Dec. 11, 2018
by Christopher Hyde

St. Mary Schola, the early music choir founded by Bruce Fithian a decade ago, celebrated its anniversary this week with three concerts, two at its namesake church in Falmouth and one Tuesday night at the Cathedral Church of St. Luke in Portland.

Their Christmas gift was a complete performance, with baroque chamber orchestra, of “The Christmas Story” by Heinrich Schütz, first sung in 1660, when the composer was 75.

The work is operatic in nature, with a long narrative recitative telling the familiar tale, interrupted at key points by musical interludes that highlight the more important—and dramatic— scenes. It is based on passages from the translation of the Bible into German by Martin Luther.

The translation in the program would have been more moving to most English speakers if it had used the King James version of the selected verses.

That said, the part of the Evangelist (who narrates the story) was masterfully sung by tenor Martin Lescault, who managed a flood of rapid German with aplomb. The Evangelist is generally matter-of-fact, but where emotion does break out, as in Rachel weeping for her children, or the joyous conclusion, he made the most of it.

The interludes, or intermedia, are early examples of tone painting in music, and must have been highly effective to an audience with senses innocent of moving images on a screen. For the most part they remain viable today. The bucolic recorders portraying the Shepherds in the Field, or the shrill trumpets that accompany Herod, worked very well. The angel urging Joseph to get up and get out of Egypt, sung by mezzo-soprano Jenna Guiggey, reminded me of Bach’s “Wachet Auf.”

The orchestra was excellent, especially in the concluding passages with full chorus, in which its full volume was realized.

It was in volume that the performance was a little short of ideal. I did not hear the concerts at St. Mary’s, but what might have worked perfectly there was not loud enough to fill the larger space at St. Luke’s, especially with the larger audience.

The same was true of the spoken interludes during the first half of the program. Those doing the readings were not professional actors, and did not have the clarity and resonance to make themselves understood in the back of the hall.

The first half had some beautiful,and unusual touches, mostly repeats of works performed at previous St. Mary Schola Christmas concerts. Of note was the “Learned of Angel,” by the Sabbathday Lake Shakers and a grand “Jerusalem gaude gaudio magno” by Jacob Handl (1550-1585). The bright star, however, was an enchanting “Videte miraculam” of Thomas Tallis (c.1505-1585), which was truly miraculous.

The Christmas season has an embarrassment of musical riches, but I want to mention two of the more unusual: a screening of “Messiah” sponsored by the Bach Virtuosi Festival at Cinemagic in Westbrook at 7:30 on Dec. 18, and pianist Diane Walsh at Lewiston’s Franco Center, Dec. 21 at 7:00 p.m. Walsh is one of the foremost interpreters of modern piano music and will be playing “A Little Suite for Christmas, A.D. 1979” by George Crumb, in addition to more familiar classics.
Admission to the “Messiah” simulcast, live from Trinity Church in Manhattan and featuring members of the Bach Virtuosi, is free for up to four people with a message requesting tickets to bachvirtuosifestival.org.

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

A Tribute to the North Woods

Premiere of “The Allagash Suite”
Augusta Symphony Orchestra
South Parish Congregational Church, Augusta
Nov. 17, 2018
by Christopher Hyde

I haven’t paddled the Allagash Wilderness Waterway—I prefer the less strenuous St. John, a few miles west—but when I heard that Nate Saunders (b. 1960), a Maine guide, mechanical engineer and second violinist with the Augusta Symphony Orchestra, had written an orchestral suite describing such a descent, I had to hear it.

The Saunders work was given its world premiere on Saturday at South Parish Congregational Church by the Augusta Symphony Orchestra under Paul Ross. It will be played again at L.L. Bean’s in Freeport on Dec. 16.

While it is not Beethoven’s Sixth (What is?), it was unfailingly entertaining, descriptive, and well written in a traditional tonal style. It made me wonder why the Maine Woods has not inspired more musical tributes. It has its own distinctive soundscape.

The Suite’s degree of musical sophistication and innovative orchestration, for example a wet shoestring on a coffee can to capture the bellowing of a moose, or a charming male-female interchange between oboe and clarinet, are impressive for anyone and quite incredible for a non-professional musician. Saunders once contemplated a career in violin making, but turned to engineering as a more supportable vocation.

(Concerning amateur vs. professional, I like to quote Schopenhauer to the effect that we deride one who practices an art for love and praise those who do it for money.)

The program begins with a tonal description, complete with the cry of the loon, of the 50 miles of lake-like river that begin the trip, comparing early morning calm to the typical afternoon’s wind and waves. There is a rollicking dance-like interlude involving a visit to the logging locomotives buried in the woods nearby, and a dream of their coming to life. Plus a flinger-snapping, toe-tapping rainstorm (in the orchestra) that is quite effective.

“Campfire Lullaby” is characterized by a romantic melody and the aforementioned duet between clarinet and oboe.

“Chase Rips/Umsaskis Meadows” depicts the trip’s major rapids and the moose-haunted meadows that follow them. The river becomes more defined and majestic in the next two movements, culminating in a musical descent of Allagash Falls (which has to be portaged in the real world)) and the snap of a broken paddle. The suite ends further down the river, in “A Quiet Peace.”

Saunders’ use of the French horn leads me to believe that he is an admirer of Brahms, whose repeated four-tone descending theme, from the early Piano Sonata No. 3 in F Minor, appears in the Allagash River section, with a different resolution. An intentional reference or not —themes lurk in our minds forever—it is a lovely touch.

If I had any suggestion about improving the flow of the work, it would be perhaps to eliminate the verbal preludes and let the musical descriptions speak for themselves,  with a short hint in the program. Everyone has to find his own way through the rapids.

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

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.