Category Archives: Previews

VentiCordi: Food for Thought

VentiCordi
Unitarian Universalist Church, Brunswick
Aug. 17, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

VentiCordi (Winds and Strings), is one of Maine’s hidden treasures. Founded by violinist Dean Stein and oboist Kathleen McNerney seven years ago, it is devoted to presenting the repertoire of chamber music written for winds and string instruments. In the process it uncovers a few masterpieces, some unknown works and some very strange ones. All are extremely well played by musicians who love them, and all are fascinating.

At the penultimate concert of the season —the last is tonight at South Congregational Church in Kennebunkport—they were joined by Bridget Convey, piano, Laura Jordan, percussion, and Gary Gorczyca, clarinet, in a selection of works that were primarily contemporary but always accessible. The opening piece, “Tangling Shadows” by Nathan Daughtrey, based on a poem by Pablo Neruda, was tonal, light and romantic. The duo of oboe, MacNerney, and vibraphone, Jordan, was a marriage made in heaven.

Lou Harrison (1917-2003) was an eccentric composer who studied with the equally iconoclastic Henry Cowell. His “Varied Trio,” for Violin, Piano and Percussion, is an eclectic romp that can be enjoyed by anyone. Its percussion effects, which include pitched rice bowls filled with water (not Sake), plucking on the piano strings and hypnotic drum patterns, were especially effective, and his “Rondeau in Honor of Fragonard” also honored Ravel, whose “Tombeau de Couperin” it rivals.

Even more unexpected was the Suite for Violin, Clarinet and Piano, Op. 157b, by Darius Milhaud (1892-1974) which has everything. The other day I disrespected the marimba as being incapable of tragedy. Its bass notes in the suite’s Divertissement proved me wrong, being lugubrious in the extreme, followed by a joyous fete in Jeu, and a totally jazzy Introduction and Final.

After intermission, the “Schilflieder” (Reed Songs) for oboe, viola and piano, of August Klughardt (1847-1902) sounded like Brahms after too many beers—sentimental, showing off gloriously obvious harmonies, and a florid piano accompaniment full of sturm und drang, giving Convey a real workout. It is easy to see why Klughardt was extremely popular in the last days of German Romanticism.

The composer, Stephen Michael Gryc, introduced his “Dream Vegetables” for voice, clarinet, violin and marimba, based on poems by Maggie Anderson, which depict not dreams OF vegetables, but BY vegetables, including exposure, falling, nightmare, insomnia, recurring and flying.

The poems are whimsical, and so are the sometimes minimalist settings, which nevertheless capture dream states unerringly. The bass marimba makes its appearance again in underground sequences. They were dramatically read by McNerney. In case you were wondering, it is the radishes who have insomnia, pacing up and down in their red and white pajamas.

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

A Preview and a Premiere by the DaPonte String Quartet

DaPonte String Quartet
Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens
Aug. 10, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

Is the DaPonte String Quartet spreading itself too thin? In the 25 years of its notable residence in Maine, its mission has been to bring great music, live, to underserved areas of the state. In recent years, however, it has vastly increased its range and the number of venues in which it plays, including those whose acoustics leave something to be desired.

The concert I attended last night, at Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens, was the sixth in a series of seven throughout the state. Add to that a heavy teaching schedule for the quartet’s members and work on a new CD, and it is no wonder that the players seemed a little tired at times.

They began with the holy grail of counterpoint, Bach’s “Art of the Fugue” (BWV 1081). The first Contrapunctus showed the quartet’s characteristic passion, but the second and third succumbed to the academic chill inspired by the presence of greatness. It was a nice historical touch to include the last of the series, left unfinished at Bach’s death, but from a musical standpoint, a climax would have been more satisfying.

I had gone to the concert to hear the premiere of Rocco Havelaar’s String Quartet No. 3, composed in 2015. (Disclaimer: Havelaar is the former husband of Lydia Forbes, who alternates with Ferdinand Liva as first violin of the DaPonte.)

Since I had never heard the work before, it is impossible to critique the performance, but the balance seemed a little off at times, and more could have been made of the composer’s use of motifs to tie the work together.

The quartet is very serious, its opening movement reminding one of Bartok’s visions of nature at night—susurrations and nightingale song punctuated by distant lightening. At the beginning of the Rondo:Scherzo second movement, a dog started to bark. (It was the ringtone on someone’s cell phone.) I thought at first that Havelaar had decided to liven things up, adding to his musical references Chopin’s remark to a badly playing pupil: “Did I just hear a dog barking?”

Alas, it was not to be, and the quartet took the second movement from the top. The entire quartet is too long, but it did catch fire at moments, especially when a theme was presented over a driving ostinato, a la Phillip Glass.

The final adagio is a funeral march without march rhythm, expect for a related pattern from one of Beethoven’s works in that genre. More could have been done with that little motif, but instead, the piece dies away sadly. This is the usual cop-out, but I really would like to hear the piece again, to be able to better follow its developments, whose precision, Havelaar hopes, imitates that of Brahms.

The DaPonte was back to its usual form in the concluding work of the evening, the Mendelssohn String Quartet No. 2 in A Minor, Opus 13, written when he was 19 and recovering from a depression brought on by the rejection of his first and only opera.

It is lovely music, melodic and Beethoven-esque (the DaPonte plays it on the new CD) with all the virtues and vices of youth. Its primary drawback, like the Havelaar quartet, is a dread of appearing obvious, to the extent that Mendelssohn could not think of a novel way to end it, and just quit, leaving the audience unsure whether or not to applaud, especially after all the false cadences the young composer had borrowed from the late Beethoven.

The fugues are miraculous for a 19-year-old, bringing the evening back to the first work on the program.

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

Gamper Festival Never Fails to Entertain

Gamper Festival of Contemporary Music
Studzinski Recital Hall, Bowdoin College
July 30, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

Every time I go to the Gamper Festival of Contemporary Music (July 29, 30, 31 at Bowdoin’s Studzinski Recital Hall) I wonder about the number of empty seats. Here is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to hear the best of 20th and 21st Century music, played by some of the world’s finest musicians, and it’s absolutely free!

Is it because of a generalized dislike of contemporary music? Saying you don’t like “modern” music is like saying you don’t like cheese. With several thousand varieties to choose from, the opinion is fatuous at best.

And what about the kids? People are always advocating things, like Sunday School, for the betterment of children, which they don’t do themselves. And here is something that they might actually like. Grandchildren pester me to play Bartok because it goes against the rule of not banging on the piano.

Saturday night’s program, as usual, had something for everyone to love or hate. It gave new meaning to “contemporary,” since all the composers, except for Luke DuBois, (b. 1975), whose installation, “A Jupiter Portrait,” greeted early arrivals, are deceased.

“Jupiter” is a large, high-definition video with close-ups of musicians playing a work composed for the recording—a nice amuse bouche, creating a hushed museum-like atmosphere instead of the usual seating bustle.

The imagery theme carried through with “Les citations,” by Henri Dutilleux (1916-2013), and “From My Garden,” by Ursula Mamlok (1923-2016). Both are in the Impressionist tradition, while Mamlok also uses a 12-tone row for her pointillist scene, described by solo violist Jing Peng.

The Dutilleux was notable for its unusual combination of timbres— oboe, percussion, harpsichord and double bass.

It was followed by a clever homage to Bach, Steven Stucky’s (1949-2016) “Partita-Pastorale, after J.S.B,” most successful when the imitation was closest.

The mercurial Alfred Schnittke (1934-1998) was represented by “Hymn No. 4.” I don’t know why it was entitled “Hymn,” except for the chimes, added to a heady combination of bassoon (lovely low notes), harp, cello, double bass, timpani and harpsichord, under the baton of Luke Rinderknecht. It is easy to see why Schnittke is one of the most popular contemporary composers, with over 50 CDs to his credit. The piece has an hypnotic drive and the unusual combination of instruments provides some wonderful effects.

The high point of the evening was the finale, the “Quintet for Clarinet and Strngs” of William Albright (1944-1998), played by Derek Bermel, clarinet, Renée
Jolles, violin, Janet Sung, violin, Phillip Ying, viola and David Ying, cello.

The Quintet is a long work, consisting of an introduction, a theme, and 12 variations on a long, intricate and baroque heme with seemingly no possibilities whatsoever. Albright then proceeds to surprise us, pleasantly, with variations that are sometimes musical in-jokes, sometimes moving, and sometimes spectacular, such as the Klezmer Fantasy that ends the piece. Bermel is a fantastic clarinet virtuoso and gave the fantasy his all.

The haunting “Night Music” variations are the equal of Bartok’s efforts at creating the same atmosphere.

I’m sure that tonight’s concert will be equally entertaining, moving, detestable and unfailingly interesting. Bring the kids.

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

PORTopera Offers Major New Production of “Carmen”

“Carmen”
Merrill Auditorium
July 27 and 29
by Christopher Hyde

PORTopera’s 2016 production of George Bizet’s “Carmen” promises to be a landmark in the company’s long history in Maine. It was first performed 22 years ago at the State Theater, 11 years ago at Merrill Auditorium, and this year in a fully staged version at Merrill, with lead singers from the Metropolitan Opera.

Dona D. Vaughn has directed all three productions, and, as usual, has a surprise in store for audiences. She won’t say what it is, but it occurs in the third act. “Carmen” is scheduled for two performances at Merrill Auditorium: Wednesday, July 27 and Friday, July 29, and there are still a few tickets left. Maestro Stephen Lord will conduct a full orchestra, an auditioned adult chorus is being rehearsed by Robert Russell, and a children’s chorus by Sarah Bailey.

Why “Carmen” (again)? “It’s the most popular opera in the repertoire, surpassing “La Boheme” and ”Madame Butterfly,” and every time you see it, you find something new,” said Vaughn.

The opera has appeared in many guises, including the movie “Carmen Jones” with Harry Belafonte. Vaughn’s version will be traditional, sung in French with English supertitles, but set in the 1930’s around the time of the Spanish Civil War.

“Google is wonderful for authenticity,” Vaughn remarked. “You want Spanish wine bottles or rifles from the Franco era, and there they are. There’s no guesswork.”

The period sets were designed by Judy Gailen. “Just the change in style makes a difference in stage direction,” Vaughn points out. “The actors move differently in different costumes.”

The cast of the new production is a blend of Met singers and audience favorites from previous PORTopera presentations.

Maya Lahyani, mezzo-soprano, will sing the role of “Carmen.” The Israeli opera singer is a 2010 grand finalist of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions and the recipient of an Adler Fellowship at San Francisco Opera. Highlights of Lahyani’s 2015-2016 season include performances at the Metropolitan Opera as Maddalena in “Rigoletto,” and Lola in “Cavalleria Rusticana.” “She not only has a wonderful voice, but is also a good actress and an artist passionately devoted to her role,” said Vaughn.

Adam Diegel, tenor, returns to PORTopera as Don Jose. This season, Diegel will also perform as Pinkerton in “Madama Butterfly” at Opera San Antonio, a role in which he was greatly admired a few seasons back by PORTopera fans.

Amanda Woodbury, soprano, will sing the role of Micaëla, in which she made her professional debut at LA Opera in 2013.

Ed Parks, baritone, will sing the role of Escamillo. Parks sang in Metropolitan Opera productions of “La Bohème,” “Die Zauberflöte,” and “Don Carlo” in the 2014-2015 season. This is his third time singing with PORTopera Previously he played Marcello in “La Bohème” and made his debut as Sharpless in “Madama Butterfly,”

Kenneth Kellogg, bass, will sing the role of Zuniga. .

Sahoko Sato, mezzo soprano, will sing the role of Mercédès. She is a native of Tokyo and grew up in Japan, Germany and the US.

Robert Mellon, baritone, returns to PORTopera to sing the role of Le Danca. He performed with PORTopera as Marullo (“Rigoletto”), in the title role in “Gianni Schicchi,” as Prince Yamadori (“Madama Butterfly”), as the Corporal (“La fille du régiment”) and as the Man (“Café Vienna”).

Lucas Levy, tenor, returns to PORTopera to sing Le Remendado while covering the leading role of Don José. In the summer of 2015, Levy joined PORTopera as a Young Artist, singing Spoletta in “Tosca” and the trio tenor in “Trouble in Tahiti.” Previously, Lucas appeared as Borsa in “Rigoletto” and Gherardo in “Gianni Schicchi.”

The role of Morales will be sung by Jorelle Williams and Maeve Höglund will sing Frasquita.

While we’re on the subject of PORTopera, the company’s Young Artists production of Gian Carlo Menotti’s “The Medium,” can be seen tonight (Friday) at the St. Lawrence Theater in Portland, and at Ocean Park in Old Orchard Beach on Sunday.

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

Something About Grieg

Something About Grieg
by Christopher Hyde

The Portland Symphony Orchestra will conclude its 2015-2016 season with an all- Norwegian concert on June 21, ending with Edward Grieg’s two “Peer Gynt” Suites—incidental music to Henrik Ibsen’s play of the same name.

Greig’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King” from “Peer Gynt” Suite No. 1, was the first piece of music I can recall hearing. I played the 78-RPM record until it wore out. The music was so exciting that I ran around the house screaming (in a good way). Then an older girl introduced me to a dual recording of Greig’s Piano Concerto in A Minor, coupled with Schumann’s concerto in the same key, (Dinu Lipatti?) and I never looked back. My own small-size 33-1/3 of the concerto, in a heavier plastic than vinyl, pictured Danish pianist Victor Schiøler on the red cover, smoking a cigarette. (This was shortly after World War II, when virtually everyone smoked.)

Grieg (1843-1907) was in the forefront of the nationalist movement in music, although he preferred to think of himself as a composer in the universal classical tradition. He referred to one of his folk-loreish works as “redolent of cow flops.” In fact, many of his best compositions, such as the Piano Sonata and the Ballade, are no more Norwegian than Schumann’s are Germanic. As well as I can remember, the concerto never conjured up any visions of fiords, either, nor did trolls appear during “The Hall of the Mountain King.”

A long time later, when acting in “Hedda Gabler,” I read the script of “Peer Gynt,” and was surprised by what Ibsen had done with the fairy tale. The title character is much like Thomas Mann’s confidence man, Felix Krull, always running away from any sort of commitment. The play is surrealistic, combining dreams and stark reality, and in the last scene Peer encounters the button molder, who proposes to melt him down and start over again. The anti-hero is saved by the intercession of his mother, Aase, whose death scene, as portrayed by Grieg, is one of the high points of the suite.

The concert will feature Norwegian violinist Henning Kraggerud in selections from his own composition “Equinox,” 24 Postludes in all keys for violin and orchestra. He will also appear in a violin suite by Christian Sinding, a Norwegian composer known to all budding pianists for his “Rustle of Spring.”

The program will open with “Meridian,” orchestrated by Delvyn Case specifically for this performance. It was composed originally for wind by contemporary Norwegian composer Ola Gjeilo. “‘Meridian’ comes very much out of my love for ostinato or groove-based music,” said Gjeilo. I haven’t heard the orchestration, but the original is a pleasant tonal melody over a striking piano ostinato, Keith Jarret, the king of improvisation, would love it. It might be even easier listening than the Greig.

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

Piano Series Ends on a High Note

Pianist Jean-François Latour
Gendron Franco Center, Lewiston
May 27, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

Serendipity. I was talking with Lewis Kaplan the other day about the new Bach festival he is organizing for Portland next month (June 19-24) and learned that he would be playing the famous Bach Chaconne from the Partita No 2 in D minor (BWV 1004) for solo violin. I mentioned that I loved the Bach-Busoni piano transcription. He thought it too florid and virtuosic and recommended the version by Brahms for the left hand alone,

I downloaded the music and was reading it when I learned that pianist Jean-François Latour would be playing the Brahms version on May 24 at the Gendron Franco Center (formerly the Franco-American Heritage Center) in Lewiston. Coincidence? I don’t think so; once one begins something, other events seem to fall in line.

Unfortunately, I thought the concert was at 7:30 rather than 7:00, so I missed some of the Chaconne. I did hear enough, from a very fine musician, to agree with Kaplan. Transcribing the piece for the left hand imitates the difficulties of the score for a violinist, without adding to or subtracting from anything of its character.

Bach, who liked to transcribe his own works for other instruments, would have approved.

Latour’s recital was the sixth and final one of this season’s piano series at the Franco Center. The recitals, which attract outstanding talents from all over the world, are too little noted outside Lewiston-Auburn, and well worth the drive from Portland. Besides, there’s cake and champagne with the artist after the performance.

Most of the program was devoted to Brahms, including, in addition to the Chaconne, three Intermezzi, Opus 117 and the 16 Waltzes of Opus 39. For a French-Canadian pianist (He was born in Trois-Rivières, Quebec, and studied at Peabody and the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto) Latour shows a remarkable affinity for Brahms, adding a brilliance to the works that is too often lost in four-square or overly Romantic interpretations. He called the waltzes a necklace of diamonds, and they were.

What is most remarkable about his readings is their emphasis on inner voices, sometimes two or three at once. In Brahms at his best there is sometimes a high-pitched secondary melody that hovers over the work like a bright cloud. The only thing close to it is the treble voice that seems to appear out of thin air in Tuvan throat singing, or the overtones of a didgeridoo. Latour evokes it better than most pianists I have heard.

The program concluded with three posthumous Schubert Impromptus (D.946), which demonstrated an affinity as deep as that for Brahms. Schubert’s mercurial mood (and key) changes came and went like fair-weather cumuli in a summer sky, and no one has decoded the complex rhythms of the final Allegro with more clarity.

My favorite has always been the second Impromptu. I remain convinced that it is the origin of the famous song “Lilly Marlene,” but better composed and less obvious. Latour received a well-deserved standing ovation for his performance of all three.

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

Portland Bach Festival Coming Soon

Portland Bach Festival
June 19-24, Portland, Maine
by Christopher Hyde

The new Portland Bach Festival, (June 19-24) featuring internationally known artists, the Oratorio Chorale, St. Mary Schola, period instruments, a Bach and beer party at Ocean Gateway, and the Maine premier of a Bach concerto for three violins, is coming up soon, and ticket sales are brisk, according to festival artistic director Lewis Kaplan. Since the venues are intimate—St. Mary’s Church in Falmouth, and St. Luke’s in Portland— it would be advisable to purchase them soon.

The festival is the brainchild of Kaplan and Emily Isaacson, director of the Oratorio Chorale. Kaplan, a prominent violinist and teacher (at Juilliard), recently resigned as artistic director of the acclaimed Bowdoin International Music Festival, which he co-founded over 40 years ago.

While there is always interest in Bach, regarded by many as the pre-eminent composer of all time, the festival also fills in a (relatively) empty time slot, between the regular concert season and the beginning of summer music festivals throughout the state.

Kaplan believes that it will be well attended by local audiences, and also serve as an incentive to music lovers to visit the state. “Concerts in the round, with period instruments, will give audiences an authentic experience of Bach. I’ve played in concerts around he world, and I want people attending these in Maine to feel that the musicians are playing just for them.”

As for the premiere of the Bach Concerto for Three Violins, here is what violinist Ariadne Daskalakis, who will be playing the work, wrote to me about it:

“It is surmised that Bach originally composed a Concerto for 3 Violins in D Major (sometime around 1716 – in which case we would have a 300th year anniversary!) which he then transcribed for 3 harpsichords. (It was a common practice to transcribe pieces for different instruments and to reuse material as necessary.) In the meantime only the autograph of the version for 3 harpsichords survived – known today as the Concerto for 3 Harpsichords in C Major BWV 1064. Various scholars have used that piece to reconstruct the version for 3 violins – now known as the Concerto for 3 Violins in D Major BWV 1064R. At the Portland Bach Festival in June we will perform a reconstruction of this piece by the German musician Sebastian Gottschick (who happens to be my husband). The music is all original Bach, and the score has been reconstructed with the intention of capturing all the voices in a manner suitable for the instrumentation.
It is a substantial 3 movement work. The 2 outer movements are quite festive and the slow middle movement is plaintive and lyrical. The 3 solo violins have significant individual roles throughout the piece, and sometimes they play together as a group within the ensemble.”

The concerto will be played at the final concert of the festival, at St. Mary’s Church, on June 24. The program also includes my favorite Brandenburg Concerto, Number 5, with its glorious harpsichord part, to be played by Arthur Haas on a harpsichord by R.G. Regier of Freeport.

Other highlights, in chronological order, include the Cello Suite No. 6, played by the award-winning cellist Beiliang Zhu, on a baroque five-string cello, the Trio Sonata for Flute, Violin, and Continuo in C Minor from “A Musical Offering” – BWV 1079 and the famous Chaconne from the Partita for Violin in D Minor – BWV 1004, played by Kaplan.

Chorale works will include the Cantata, “Wachet Auf” – BWV 140, and the Cantata, “Der Herr denket an uns” – BWV 196, sung by the Oratorio Chorale, and the Motet, “Singet Dem Herrn”­­ – BWV 225, by St. Mary Schola,

Each concert will be preceded by a half-hour exposition of the music, free and open to the public. Children’s events are also free and will include a special concert and an instrument-making workshop.

A complete schedule and information about the artists is at www.portlandbachfestival.org.

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

Celebration at Back Cove Honors Elliott Schwartz

Back Cove Contemporary Music Festival
Woodfords Congregational Church
April 8, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

There are several reasons to attend today’s concerts of the Back Cove Contemporary Music Festival, 3:00 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. at Woodfords Congregational Church.

One is to celebrate the 80th birthday of Maine’s pre-eminent composer, Elliott Schwartz.

Two is to hear a wide selection of the best contemporary music, which, no matter what you think of it, is unfailingly interesting, even to children.

Three is to obtain a copy of an Elliott Schwartz Festschrift (celebration writing), which contains 30 short musical scores by a Who’s Who of modern composers, many of them playable by any moderately accomplished pianist, and some by anyone with no musical skills whatsoever. At $10.00 it is an absolute steal.

All of the miniatures in the book, based on a tone row built from the letters of the composer’s name, are being premiered at the festival, now in its 8th annual session under the auspices of the Portland Conservatory of Music.

The opening night of the festival, on Friday, offered a highly varied selection of works, from improvisations on “Daphnis and Chloe,” through some characteristic Elliott Schwartz compositions, to the latest in audio-visual and electronic music.

It began with a pensive “Blue Prelude” on the organ by Harold lStover, evoking the Art Deco era of New York, and sometimes proving, like Fats Waller’s work, that the ponderous instrument can dance.

It was followed by an appropriately soothing (and sometimes growling) Lullaby for contrabass and piano, played by the composer, Joshua DeScherer, and pianist Jesse Feinberg, calling up images of waves and swaying grass.

Feinberg returned with pianist Gregory Hall for Improvisations on “Daphnis and Chloe,” which floated on a veritable cloud of notes, using “templates” published by Hall. The templates are like a jazz pianist’s cheat sheets written by Einstein. They contain information about melodies, keys, scales and chord progressions, among other indications, and enabled the two musicians to coordinate their playing perfectly. I am not a fan of electronic pianos, but in this case the contrasting sounds of a keyboard and a concert grand provided sonic variety in a virtuoso performance.

“Cycles” by Jonathan Hallstrom, combined projected images of emerging biomorphic forms with an electronic score that made one think of alligators in a swamp with peep frogs—delicious—as was Bill Matthews’ totally acoustical “Island” for stereo loudspeakers, a perfectly executed tribute to the soundscape of the Maine coast.

“small hands”(sic) by Frank Mauceri, digital video generation, and Macief Walczak, saxophone and digital signal processing, concluded the program on a somewhat disturbing note, whether or not the piece refers to a subject of the recent political debates. The composers describe it as a depiction of “the collective anxiety of living in a society organized in contradiction to our needs.”

Schwartz himself was represented by two characteristic works, his Prelude, Memorial and Aria, written for the memorial service of his friend, Ezra Lamdin, and “Dialog No. 1,” composed circa 1970 for bass player Bertram Turetsky.

Both are masterpieces, in different ways. The first, for cello and piano, begins as a cello solo interrupted by the piano, which eventually takes over, progresses through an interlude based on Lambdin’s age, (Nine by Nine), and ends with a waltz that although abbreviated, ranks with Ravel’s. The piece progresses from an unembellished “modern” style to end in a comforting tonality. It was lovingly played by Feinberg and Philip Carlsen, cello.

The composer’s noted sense of humor comes out in “Dialog No.1,” played by DeScherer. The dialog is between the musician and his instrument, and involves shouts, muttering, drumming, slaps and physical contortions, as well as some virtuoso playing, until the two resolve their differences.

What one will come away with from any of the concerts is an expanded awareness of what is happening in music today, and a better sense of Schwartz’ contribution to almost every aspect of the art.

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

Bach and Beer

Bach and Beer

The news that Lewis Kaplan, co-founder of the Bowdoin International Music Festival, is collaborating with Emily Isaacson, Bruce Fithian, and internationally known soloists to present a major new Bach Festival this June in Portland was welcome in itself (more on the festival and its musical content in a later column). That Isaacson is thinking of concluding the affair with a Bach and Beer party at a venue near the shore reminded me of H.L. Mencken’s story about how Bach’s Mass in B Minor saved him from death by thirst. (“Heathen Days” (1943))

Mencken and his publisher and friend, Alfred Knopf, were attending the famous Bach Festival in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, during Prohibition, (1920-1933) and discovered to their horror that every speakeasy in town was closed due to the sighting of “agents” some days previously.

He writes: “This seemed strange and unfriendly, for it is well known to every musicologist that the divine music of old Johann Sebastian cannot be digested without the aid of its natural solvent (malt liquor).”

They barely made it through the last concert and on their way to the train discussed how soon they could get a bootlegger to meet them at a station before New York.

Their taxi driver took pity on them and drove to a warehouse-like building with the telltale sign “Sea Food” above the door.

“We rapped on the door and presently it opened about half an inch, revealing an eye and part of a mouth. The ensuing dialog was sotto voce but staccato and appassionata. The eye saw that we were famished but the mouth hesitated.

‘How do I know,’ it asked, ‘that you ain’t two of them agents?’

‘Agents!’ hissed Knopf. ‘What an idea. Can’t you see us? Take a good look at us.’

The eye looked but the mouth made no reply.

‘Can’t you tell musicians when you see them?’ I broke in. ‘Where did you ever see a Prohibition agent who looked so innocent, so moony, so dumb? We are actually fanatics. We came here to hear Bach. Is this the way Bethlehem treats its guests? We came a thousand miles, and now—‘

‘Three thousand miles,’ corrected Knopf.

‘Five thousand,’ I added, making it round numbers.

Suddenly I bethought me that the piano score of the B minor mass had been under my arm all the while. What better introduction? What more persuasive proof of our bona fides? I held up the
score and pointed to the title on the cover. The eye read:

J.S. Bach
Mass in B Minor

The eye flicked for an instant or two and then the mouth spoke. ‘Come in, gents,’ it said. As the door opened our natural momentum carried us into the bar in one leap, and there we were presently immersed in two immense Humpen….

It was a narrow escape from death in the desert, and we do not forget all these years afterward that we owed it to Johann Sebastian Bach, that highly talented and entirely respectable man, and especially to his Mass in B minor.”

I don’t know if Emily Isaacson has heard that story, but I’m sure Mencken would have approved of her idea and the plethora of micro-breweries now gracing the City by the Sea.

More on the festival soon and the Maine premiere of a newly reconstructed Bach concerto.

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

First Day of Bowdoin Klavierfest Will Honor Elliott Schwartz

The first day of Bowdoin’s annual Klavierfest, Friday, Feb. 19, 7:30 p.m. at Studzinski Recital Hall, will be devoted to the piano music of Bowdoin composer emeritus Elliott Schwartz, in honor of his 80th birthday.

It will include works from several phases of his career, plus (it is hoped) a performance by the composer of his “Hearing David,” for piano and electronic sounds. Written in memory of David Gamper, it includes sounds that he originally taped on one of the early synthesizers, Schwartz said in a telephone interview.

The program was compiled in cooperation with pianist George Lopez, Bowdoin artist in residence, and includes Lopez, Kimberly Lehmann, viola, Chiharu Naruse, piano, John McDonald, piano,, and Maria Wagner, clarinet.

The first work of the evening is also the earliest, composed around 1963-64, when Schwartz was experimenting with 12-tone techniques. His idea for the Suite for Viola and Piano, to be played by Lehmann and Naruse, involved making serial music sound tonal. “It does sound rather traditional,” he said.

The suite will be followed by “Four Maine Haiku,” written for pianist Kazuko Tonosaki and played on Friday by George Lopez. The four short pieces, each completely different in mood, include 17 measures each, the number of syllables in a Japanese Haiku.

After an on-stage interview of the composer by Lopez, the pianist will serve as assistant to McDonald in a performance of “Memorabilia,” a work that Schwartz calls “very theatrical,” in which the assistant may drum on the wood of the piano, play the inside strings or perform other movements to accompany the pianist. Lopez may assist with a toy piano, Schwartz said.

“Hearing David” will be the final work before intermission.

“The Seven Seasons,” for solo piano, written in 2007-2009 for Katie Cushing, will start the second half of the program. Played by Naruse, it consists of short pieces designed to aid in teaching modern piano techniques, such as playing with the fingers on the inside strings.

The next work,”Blossoms and Cannons,” for piano and recorded sounds, was written in 2010 to celebrate the 200th anniversaries of Chopin and Schumann. The title is based on a Schumann quote about Chopin, “It’s a time warp,” Schwartz said. McDonald, at the piano, will play against recorded quotations from both composers’ music, plus verbal quotes from Clara Schumann and George Sand (Chopin’s lover).

“Blossoms…” will be followed by a second interview, and the program will conclude with “Souvenir,” for clarinet and piano, with Lopez and Wagner. The work, written in 1978, is improvisational, with each musician responding to the other. At one point, if I recall correctly, the clarinetist places the instrument on the sounding board of the piano to achieve an unusual timbre.

Schwartz is also at work on a string quartet, in memory of his late wife, Deedee, Because of health reasons, he has shortened the work to two movements, played without pause, and based on her favorite music, combined with themes developed from the letters of her name and significant dates in her life. The work will be premiered in London on April 21, he said.