Category Archives: Previews

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.

The Magic of Christmas

Portland Symphony Orchestra
“Magic of Christmas”
Merrill Auditorium
Dec. 8-17, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

The 38th annual “Magic of Christmas” series by the Portland Symphony Orchestra at Merrill Auditorium, omitted some of the bells and whistles of previous productions, but was alll the better for it, letting the music stand on its own, aided by sopranos Suzanne Nance and Susie Pepper.

The first half of the program was the least successful, consisting largely of medleys featuring the kind of holiday music played in department stores, albeit by a better orchestra.

Notable exceptions were an unknown Romanian carol, “O, ce vesti minuntã,” sung by Nance, and a bluesy version of “All I Want for Christmas is You,” by Pepper.

The solo orchestra was on display in a lively version of Prokofiev’s “Troika” from the “Lieutenant Kijė” Suite, which could have used a little more rehearsal time. This review is of opening night, and things are bound to improve over the next two weeks.

The prize for “it seemed like a good idea a the time” goes to a medley of songs with the word “magic” in them, with the orchestra backing up Pepper and Nance. Containing the word does not confer any distinction to the songs, but the light show was spectacular.

The second half of the show was marvelous, beginning with “Fanfare and Flourishes for a Festive Occasion,” played by a brass choir, with organ accompaniment by Ray Cornils.

The “Magic of Christmas” chorus, under chorus master Nicolás Dosman, contributed a striking chant-like “Gloria in Excelsis Deo” by Mack Wilberg, the arranger of three of the evening’s show pieces.

It was followed by a moving performance of “O Holy Night” by Nance, who sang it as well as any operatic soprano could. (Note to future PSO conductors: For full effect, it requires a boy soprano.)

The highlight of the evening was Handel’s “Hallelujah” chorus. It is always good to hear this from a a major chorus and orchestra but both outdid themselves on Friday. The part singing by the chorus was perfectly delineated and balanced, without the muddiness that often mars its performance by a large group.

Pepper’s expansive version of “Let it Go,” from “Frozen,” captivated the younger members of the audience, dressed in holiday finery, some with reindeer antlers.

Music director Robert Moody, conducting his last “Magic of Christmas” series of concerts, sang “My Grown Up Christmas List,” with the orchestra conducted by Dosman. Moody has a surprisingly good voice, which sometimes reminded me of a French horn.

The traditional holiday carol sing-along seemed louder and livelier than usual, with Moody quipping that the audience was auditioning for next-year’s chorus.

The final “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” with chorus and soloists in a Wilberg arrangement, was especially appropriate in these times. Now if it could only be sung to the right tune…

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

Midcoast Symphony Rises to Three Challenges

Midcoast Symphony Orchestra
Franco Center, Lewiston
Oct. 21, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

I heard the glorious final bars of “The Fairy Garden,” the last piece in Ravel’s “Mother Goose Suite,” as I was ascending the stairs to the auditorium of Lewiston’s Franco Center. (A recent survey showed that a majority of Midcoast Symphony Orchestra supporters preferred 7:00 to 7:30 as a concert starting time. I didn’t get the memo.)

It was an appropriate beginning to a program of masterpieces in orchestration. Perhaps masterpieces is not the exact word. The works chosen by conductor Rohan Smith were more like a test to determine how much an “amateur” orchestra could handle. The members of the Midcoast, privatum et seriatum, passed with flying colors.

The Ravel suite, his orchestration of a set of four-hand piano works, ranks with his transcription of “Pictures at an Exhibition” in subtlety , tone color and innovation, ending with a climax that shakes the rafters.

The Hindemith “Metamorphoses on Themes by Carl Maria von Weber,” is equally demanding, but more eclectic. Hindemith seems to be trying to outdo his contemporary Bartok in unusual instrumental combinations and a heavy-handed use of percussion. (The percussion section has always been one of the Midcoast’s most reliable.)

Hindemith, however, lacking the genius of Ravel or Bartok, overloads his score, sometimes to the point of muddiness, when no one can decide which way to go. A fermata or two would be nice. HIs choice of von Weber melodies also seems odd. There are many of that composer’s tunes that would be more suitable for orchestral variations.

All is redeemed, however, by the final march-like tune from von Weber’s incidental music to “Turandot,” which supposedly stems from China. Wherever it came from, it crowns the entire work, and the Midcoast attacked it with renewed gusto. I haven’t head he final fugue rendered any better.

The instrumentation of Dvorak’s Symphony No. 6 in D Major, while more traditional, is almost as dense, seeking to emulate his mentor Brahms and his predecessor Beethoven. Could I also have detected a smidgen of Tchaikovsky-like whirling snow music? The  flavor, however, is distinctly Dvorak, even in this, his first published symphony. He is not quite as daring in his use of Czech folk materials (except in the Furiant), but there is more than a hint of the “Slavonic Dances.”

The symphony exposes strings, woodwinds, brass and percussion shamelessly, including the Brahms-like French horn, but there was not a single off-color note. Bravo!

I urge anyone interested in well-performed classical music to attend today’s (Sunday, Oct. 22) repeat performance at the Orion Perfuming Arts Center in Topsham, 2:30 sharp.

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

Franco Center Piano Series Opens with Innovations

David Fung, Pianist
Gendron Franco Center, Lewiston
Sept. 22, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

One of the most unusual concerts in many a season opened the 12th annual piano series of the Gendron Franco Center in Lewiston Friday night. Its innovations were matched by the quality of the performances by pianist David Fung and Daniel Moody, countertenor.

The first half of the program was devoted to piano works with unusual (or zero) rhythmic patterns, beginning with the Mozart Sonata No. 5 in G Major, one of the complete Mozart sonata cycle that Fung is compiling for the Steinway “Spiro” high-resolution player piano.

It was followed by “Impressões Seresteiras,” W.374, by Heitor Villa-Lobos, a compilation of “street songs” in 3/4 time, which manages to be avant-garde and nostalgic at the same time.

The “Île de feu, 1” from “Four Studies in Rhythm” by Olivier Messiaen, has no bar lines at all, its rhythm being dictated by the feel of note patterns. Under Fung’s hands,it was a tour de force of technique, complete with one of the composer’s beloved bird calls (I think it was a blackbird).

Fung, who holds a doctorate from the Yale School of Music, and has taught there, prefaced each work with revelatory remarks. In describing his arrangement of Ravel’s “La Valse,” he noted that the work has been compared to Poe’s tale, “The Masque of the Red Death,” and occasioned a challenge to Ravel by choreographer Serge Diaghilev, who had commissioned the work. The duel, apparently, was never fought.

Whatever the work’s history, Fung’s arrangement captures its brooding nature perfectly, in a manner even more virtuosic than the popular two-piano transcription.

After intermission, Fung accompanied countertenor David Moody in works by Dowling, Handel, and contemporary William Bolcom, all which were thoroughly delightful. Countertenors combine the power of the male voice with the vocal range of a mezzo-soprano. They were most popular in heroic roles at the time of Purcell, but they seem to be making a welcome comeback nowadays. Moody is one of the best. He also showed a sense of humor in the very short Bolcom pieces, one of which consists of two lines: “I’ll never forgive you. For my behavior.”

Fung concluded the program with a brilliant interpretation of Schubert’s great “Wanderer” Fantasy in C Major, D. 760. After this grueling effort —Schubert himself and a hard time with it—Fung managed a spritely encore of a Scarlatti Sonata in D Minor.

If I had any quarrel at all with the pianist’s approach, which was technically flawless, it would be with a young man’s typical predilection for speed, and abhorrence of seeming to “drag.” Some passages need a little more time to breathe, even at the expense of metronomic time.

I have written his before, but it bears repeating: the Franco Center’s piano series is the best kept secret, and the foremost value ($10.00 for seniors) of any concert series in Maine. The talent is always of the highest order, the venue is comfortable, with fine acoustics, the ladies serve crepes at intermission, and one can chat with the performers over champagne after the concert. The music starts at 7:00 to accommodate younger students.

The next artist to appear in the series will be French pianist Hélène Papadopoulos, on Friday, Nov. 3.

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

Ragtime at Studzinski Hall

Adam Swanson, Ragtime Piano
Studzinski Hall, Bowdoin College
Sept. 18, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

Adam Swanson’s piano recital, Monday night at Bowdoin’s Studzinski Hall, tracing the roots of American popular music from ragtime to Moss Hart, was like a seven-course dinner consisting of varied colors of cotton candy. Always entertaining but eventually monotonous and unsatisfying.

Swanson, an award-winning interpreter of early 20th century American music, is 25, but already has a wide following, and the audience for a Monday night concert was large and enthusiastic. The composers, especially ragtime giants such as Scott Joplin, could have been better served.

Swanson began the program with “The Entertainer,” made famous by “The Sting, and as expected, was more faithful to the movie than to the original.

It was followed by James Scotts “Frog Legs.” I play “Frog Legs,” just for fun, and Swanson’s arrangement was so gussied up as to be virtually unrecognizable, and way, way too fast.

If one examines a collection of Rags, the indications “slow,” “not fast,” “not too fast,” “tempo di rag,” and “don’t fake,” pop up regularly, barroom pianists having discovered that it is a lot easier, and more tip-producing, to play fast than slow.

A good rag, with its strong syncopated rhythm, characteristic modulations, and clever turns, is a delicate flower, and like the lilies of the field, needs no embellishment.

Joseph Lamb’s ”Bohemia Rag,” which followed, is specifically marked “Not Fast.” I didn’t bring my metronome, but it was well over quarter-note equals 100, as indicated.

The rags were followed by examples of their successors in stride piano, blues, boogie-woogie, 20’s movies and Broadway, concluding with a nice Moss Hart medley.

One of the surprising aspects of the concert was the number of obscure tunes stored in one’s memory bank, never to be recovered until hearing them again many years later. All of the melodies, however, were accompanied by a strong, rhythmical left hand, with melodies and ornaments in the right. While exciting at first, the combination eventually becomes predictable. It has the added disadvantage of blurring the effect of syncopation and leaving no room for error in the embellishments. In Chopin, a rubato style leaves plenty of room for flourishes. With a strict rhythmical style, the slightest change in tempo, to accommodate grace notes and appoggiaturas, becomes glaringly obvious.

Swanson is young and personable, and it is to be hoped that he wiill follow James Scott’s advice: “Don’t Jazz Me—I’m Music,” the title of one of his later Rags.

It will be interesting on Sept. 30 to compare what Richard Dowling does with Joplin in his “Great Scott” recital at Studzinski Hall.

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

Salt Bay Chamberfest Shares the Madness

Salt Bay Chamberfest
Darrows Barn, Damariscotta
Aug. 8, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

The opening concert of the Salt Bay Chamberfest, before an over-flow crowd Tuesday night at Darrows Barn, continued its tradition of making unusual works not only accessible but enjoyable.

The evening started out with the most avant of the avant garde— two works for solo violin played by virtuoso Jennifer Koh. “Moto Perpetuo,” by David Ludwig, was commissioned by Koh as part of her “Shared Madness” series, now up to 34 pieces that explore the most far-out possibilities of the violin.

She began with a shorter work from the same “Madness” series, “Kinski Paganini,” by Missy Mazzoli, that references Paganini’s 24th Caprice and the film “Paganini” by Klaus KInsky, as inspired by the Devil as the violinist.

If that work was wild, the perpetual motion piece was even further out, with a series of variations interrupted by shrieks, sul ponte hollow sounds, and col legno (playing on the wood), that sounds like crumpling paper. I don’t think Paganini could have played it, Devil or not. The audience loved it.

The shift in mood to mezzo-soprano Kate Aldrich, with pianist Thomas Sauer, was not as radical as it might have been, since she began with “Riedi al soglio” from Rossini’s “Zelmira,” an aria that requires as much virtuosity to sing as a Paganini Caprice does to play.

Aldrich is a soprano on the verge of greatness, if not already there, and her aria was spectacular. For emotional intensity, however, I preferred the four Strauss songs that followed. I know enough German to appreciate the dark poetry of love and loss that the songs portray, but merely the variations in tone and phrasing were enough to bring tears to your eyes. I want to hear Aldrich in “Der Rosenkavalier.”

Sauer did not so much as accompany the singer as collaborate with her in creating dramatic scenes. HIs dynamic range and tempi were a perfect match for Aldrich’s sensitive portrayals.

Sauer demonstrated another sort of technical fireworks and endurance in the final work on the program, the Piano Quartet No. 2 in G minor, Op. 45, of Gabriel Fauré. The turbulent and virtually unceasing piano part often seems as if the composer feared being penalized for a rest.

The quartet is a strange work indeed, Fauré has been called the Brahms of France, but I think he is closer to Max Reger, flirting with atonality but never quite taking the leap. It also owes a great deal to the composer’s friend St.Saens, who showed how much life remained in “old fashioned” forms.

In spite of the continuous presence of the piano, it blended surprisingly well with the strings—Koh on violin, Cynthia Phelps, viola, and festival founder Wilhelmina Smith, cello— producing harmonies that could belong only to Fauré.

The quartet ends with a glorious waltz that doesn’t climax, but simply ends when the composer decides that it’s gone on long enough. It earned a long and boisterous standing ovation.

Future concerts of the Chamberfest will take place on Tuesdays and Fridays until August 18. For information see www.saltbaychamberfest.org.

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

The Best and the Brightest at Bowdoin

Bowdoin International Music Festival
Studzinski Recital Hall
July 31, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

The Ying Brothers’ strategy of presenting some of the world’s finest string quartets (including their own) at the Bowdoin International Music Festival, seems to be paying off. The Monday night concerts, at which most of the groups appear, have been sold out for weeks.

When I was a student, I was advised that string quartets were the highest form of music, enjoyed only by the cognoscenti. Maine seems to have a lot of cognoscenti, since I heard another quartet, at the Sebago-Long Lake Music Festival, play the Schumann Piano Quintet in E-flat Major, Op. 44, which concluded Monday’s program, just a week before.

Last night’s performance, by the Borromeo String Quartet, saw Studzinski Hall so full that ranks of students were seated on both sides of the stage, as at an old Vladimir Horowitz concert.

I did not care for the quartet’s use of glowing lap-top computer scores, but that is merely the personal prejudice of a confirmed Luddite.

The first notes of the Mendelssohn String Quartet No. 2 in A Minor, Op. 13, proclaimed that the audience was in the presence of something special. The harmony of four instruments, each with its own timbre, was so startlingly clear and precise that one could have listened to that chord for the entire evening.

Fortunately, that time warp did not happen, but the familiar score took on new meaning, with an emphasis on polyphony, and other characteristics of the late Beethoven, that influenced the young composer—right down to infuriating false cadences. The quiet ending held the audience spellbound for a moment before the first applause. (Or were they expecting another fake ending?)

My favorite of the evening was the String Quartet No. 1 (“Metamorphoses Nocturnes”) by Györgi Ligeti,  a highly imaginative and resourceful work that requires the utmost virtuosity. Unlike the motifs in much “contemporary music,” the germ that generates all of the metamorphoses is easy to follow. Violinist Nicholas Kitchen referred to it as “slime crawling upwards,” and pointed out that, unlike Waldo, it is everywhere. It is also capable of generating some beautiful patterns, including a Viennese waltz. The work owes a great deal to Bartok’s Nocturnes, and surpasses them in some ways. The tricky polyrhythms and prestissimo passages seem virtually impossible, but the quartet did not miss a beat.

I must confess that I liked the Sebago-Long Lake version of the Schumann Quintet better than the Borromeo’s, which seemed almost too perfect. There were also some balance problems with the Steinway concert grand, played by Pei-Shan Lee, which might have been solved by a lid partially closed.

The last two movements were more exciting. In the third,  Lee seems to have said the hell with it, it’s a piano concerto, and in the fourth the quartet let their hair down and made a real contest of it. The result was the loudest and most prolonged standing ovation I’ve seen at Studzinski Hall.

The final concerts of the Festival, excluding those of the Young Artists series, will be on Wednesday, Aug. 2, at Studzinski Hall, and Friday, Aug. 4, at Crooker Theater. The latter will feature the Beethoven “Emperor” Concerto, with Joseph Kalichstein as pianist and conductor.

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