Category Archives: Previews

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.

Eroticism in Music

Classical Beat Column
by Christopher Hyde

The Portland Symphony Orchestra’s “Beethoven and Strauss” program, Jan. 24 and 26 at Merrill Auditorium. in addition to Beethoven’s shortest and most unusual symphony, the Eighth, includes some of the most erotic works in the repertoire: Richard Strauss’ Prelude to Act I of “Guntram,” Love Scene from “Feursnot” and the famous “Dance of the Seven Veils” from “Salome,” with guest artist soprano Patricia Racette.

It was reported a few years ago that scientists at the Montreal Neurological Institute have discovered that music activates the same reward centers of the brain as food and sex.

Some pieces of music activate better than others, but the effect has nothing to do with content. Overt or hidden erotic messages, as in the pieces programmed by the PSO, may help, but Beethoven and Bach affect the same pleasure centers as “Der Rosenkavalier.” What other areas they stimulate–memory, discovery, aesthetic beauty or rational intellect–is an entirely different question. (See Oliver Sacks’ “Your Brain on Music.”)

There are a couple of Bach cantatas that have the same erotic effect—Christ as the immortal beloved— as the Bernini sculpture of the Ecstasy of St. Teresa. “Wann kommst du, mein Heil?” from the Cantata No. 140 is one.

Music director Robert Moody has selected two leading candidates for the most erotic piece of music, at least according to some informal surveys on the internet.

Richard Strauss has the largest number of mentions, including “Der Rosenkavalier,” which is full of hidden risque meanings, “Salome” and even the “Domestic Symphony” and the “Four Last Songs.” Strangely enough, no one mentioned “Die Frau Ohne Schatten,” which is about nothing but eroticism.

A Ravel work, the “Bolero,” also had several mentions. I find it quite similar to the “Liebestod” in its gradual build-up to an overwhelming climax, in the case of the Wagner a union of Eros and Thanatos, and in the Ravel, appropriately enough, a change of key.

Among the moderns are, of course, Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” and Schoenberg’s “Pierrot Lunaire,” plus John Adams’ “Harmonium.” Since Adams is one of Moody’s favorite composers it would be interesting to hear this some time near Valentine’s Day.

There was also considerable discussion of Luciano Berio’s tape “Visage” for voice and electronic sounds, although to my mind this one and Pierrot seem more weird than erotic.

One work that I was not familiar with was Karol Szymanovski’s Symphony No. 3. Szymanowski, a friend of pianist Artur Rubinstein, was openly homosexual when that was taboo, and the symphony is supposedly full of homoerotic messages.

I have always wondered exactly how erotic images could be conveyed in music, but an analysis of the images in the Third Symphony told me much more than I wanted to know. The treatise is one of the most abstruse pieces of musical analysis I have ever encountered, having to do (I think) with chordal analysis and progressions, as well as rhythm.

Many of the selections on the internet were equally puzzling, at least to this reader. Scriabin’s grandiose “Poem of Ecstasy” was right up there, but I find it more embarrassing than erotic. His early Chopin-like Preludes are more realistic and Romantic at the same time.

On the subject of eroticism in music one has to fall back on the old dictum about pornography: “I know it when I see it.”

In the meantime, “If music be the food of love, play on.”

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

A Good Year for “Magic of Christmas”

Portland Symphony Orchestra
“Magic of Christmas”
Dec. 11, 2015
by Christopher Hyde

This year’s “Magic of Christmas” concert at Merrill Auditorium. the Portland Symphony Orchestra’s contribution to the holiday season, promises to be a hit with kids—short, with familiar carols, a large Magic of Christmas Chorus, under the direction of assistant conductor Norman Huynh. and best of all, fantastic acrobats and dancers from the Cirque de la Symphonie.

Santa also made a couple of appearances, impersonated by tap dancer Liz Pettengill..

Children (and some adults) are fascinated by the instruments of the orchestra and the unusual sounds they make, and they were front and center from the first number, a medley of tunes from “Christmas Fantastique” by Todd Hayen.

The arrangements take more than customary liberties with the tunes, and also feature unusual orchestration,and instrumental solos. Another part of the set, played later in the program, included a version of “The Little Drummer Boy,” with strangely middle-eastern harmonies in the brass section.

The instrumental opening was followed immediately by a stunning gymnastic display by Marco Balestracci to the “Dance of the Tumblers” from “The Snow Maiden” by Rimsky-Korsakov. Balestracci manipulated a large cube of glowing pipes with graceful ease, ending with it spinning by one corner, high above his head. His feats elicited a gratifying number of gasps and spontaneous applause, which were well deserved.

A funny parody of “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” “The Twelve Days After Christmas,” detailing the disposal of the gifts, was given a lively and clearly enunciated performance by the Magic of Christmas Chorus.

What really brought down the house was the last act before intermission, the Pas de deux from “The Nutcracker,” danced by Sagiv Ben Binyamin and Gana Oyunchimeg. The two gymnasts performed a series of jaw-dropping lifts and contortions that seemed like the normal choreography squared. It wasn’t ballet, but nevertheless a form of art, with Oyunchimeg’s (she’s Mongolian) fun-loving personality shining through.

The duo joined Balestracci later for a delightfully unbelievable dance trio to the “Parade of the Wooden Soldiers.”

The traditional works on the program included the popular “Sleigh Ride” of Leroy Anderson, complete with costumes and horse laughs, a full orchestra and chorus reading of the “Hallelujah” Chorus from “Messiah,” and good audience participation in the holiday carol sing-along.

The final work on the program, “I Heard the Bells” was, as PSO music director Robert Moody pointed out, a hopeful end to a Christmas concert in bleak times. Longfellow wrote it during the height of the Civil War, in 1863. John Baptiste Calkin later set the poem to music, which is the version I grew up with. Johnny Marks, infamous for ”Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” set the poem to music in the 1950s and some choruses, notably Fred Waring’s, have used this version.

There is only one problem with the Marks version. It’s terrible, tuneless and virtually un-singable, unless you’re an 80-voice ensemble. In an attempt at a glorious conclusion, the composer resorts to burlesque show drumbeats-—va va va voom. I have no idea why a competent arranger, such as Christopher Rouse, would have used it, or why the Magic of Christmas chose it, when Calkin’s setting is better known and better music.

However that may be, if the choice of one piece of music is the only quarrel with Magic, it’s a very good year. The next performances are on Dec. 12, 18 and 19 at 2:00 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., and Dec. 13 and 20 at 2:00 p.m. and 5:00 p.m.

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

“Today’s Light” Is a St. Mary Schola Christmas

St. Mary Schola
First Parish Church, Brunswick
Dec. 8, 2015
by Christopher Hyde

Fine art is something no longer associated with Christmas. The exception is classical music, and the a cappella choir, St. Mary Schola, this year presents a veritable Uffizi Gallery of masterpieces from the early Renaissance to the Baroque. It is called “Today’s Light” (Lux Hodie).

Christmas doesn’t get any better than this, and music director Bruce Fithian has assembled a selection of choral works, accompanied by period instruments, that is ravishingly beautiful, entertaining, thought-provoking, and easily accessible to the modern ear.

The first of the three-concert series was performed Tuesday night at Brunswick’s First Parish Church. The second will be Friday, Dec. 11, at 7:30 p.m. in the Cathedral Church of Saint Luke in Portland, and the third at the Episcopal Church of St. Mary, Falmouth, on Sunday, Dec. 13, at 4:00 p.m.

If you want to be imbued with the true Christmas light in dark times, these, and the Renaissance Voices concerts at St. Luke’s, Dec. 19 and 20, are the ones to attend. St. Luke’s might be the best bet for the Schola; last year it was difficult to get a seat for the St. Mary’s performance.

I think that even children would be enthralled by this concert, especially if they are the slightest bit musical. The program begins with three selections from the 13th Century “Mass of Fools” in northern France, in which a donkey accompanied the officiant at the altar. After each stanza of “Orientis partibus” (in Eastern lands), the congregation chants “Hez, sir asne, hez!” (“Get up, sir ass, get up!”).

The first half of the program emphasized the joyous nature of the holiday. It is hard to single out individual selections from the wealth of musical offerings, but two pieces by William Byrd (c. 1539-1623) were especially notable. The first was an enchanting duet by Erin Chenard and Andrea Graichen: “An earthly tree, a heavenly fruit,” and the second “The day Christ was born,” a motet in which the voices reach heavenly heights.

The most modern composer on the program was J.S. Bach (1685-1750), represented by the duet “Ruft und fleht den Himmel an,” (“Call and pray to heaven”) sung by Abra Mueller and Martin Lescault, a delightful waltz that exemplifies the line “Come you Christians, come to dance!”

It was followed by “Stein, der über alle Schätze” (“Rock, superior to all gems”), sung by soprano Molly Harmon, accompanied on the recorder by Scott Budde.

Fithian saved the best for last—-two works by French composer Marc-Antoine Charpentier (1643-1704). The first, “In navitatem Domini continuum,” depicts the shepherds at the Nativity.

The second, “Magnificat à trois voix sur la même basse avec symphonie,” with Fihian at the Positif Organ, featured the entire choir, soloists Christopher Garrepy, countertenor, John Adams, bass, Martin Lescault, tenor and a “symphonie” composed of Mary Jo Carlsen, violin, Jon Poupore, viola, Katherine Sytsma, viol da gamba, Philip Carlsen, cello, Scott Budde, recorder, and Timothy Burris, theorbo.

It was astoundingly good, not only in harmony and counterpoint, but also in its dramatization of the various sections. On the strength of this work, I was about to commit heresy and declare Charpentier a better composer than Bach, a generation earlier, but I’ll have to wait for more evidence of the kind supplied by St. Mary Schola.

The evening’s music was interspersed with appropriate readings of poets from Milton to Richard Wilbur, by Andrea Myles-Hunkin, who even managed a middle English accent on the last of the Milton excerpts.

The program came full circle, from the topsy-turvey mass of fools to the similar world of the Magnificat, in which “He hath filled the hungry with good things. And the rich He hath sent empty away.”

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

Clarity at Christmas in the Cathedral

Christmas in the Cathedral
Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception
Dec. 5, 2015
by Christopher Hyde

“For now we see as through a glass darkly; for we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when that which is perfect is come, that which is in part shall be done away.”

I thought of these verses from the King James Bible at the beginning of the Choral Art Society’s’ Christmas in the Cathedral Saturday night, under the direction of Robert Russell.

The women’s voices in 13th and 14th Century Latin carols, “Angelus ad Virginem,” and “Verbum caro factum est,” had an angelic clarity, rather like that of a boy soprano, which is too rare in choral music. They retained it even in the latter work, which has more complex counterpoint.

They were joined by the tenors and bases in the processional, which has become a tradition at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception: “Personent hodie voices puerulae” of 1582. It gets better every year.

The Christmas concert rose to that level again after intermission, when soprano Sarah Bailey and mezzo-soprano Andrea Graichen sang an “Ave Verum” by Welsh composer Karl Jenkins (b. 1944), which was absolutely ravishing. It was accompanied by a piano obligato, played by Dan Moore, which was unable to reduce the perfect intervals of the voices to the “tempered” compromises of the keyboard.

The Portland Brass Quintet was in good form, with the trumpets ringing from the high vaulted ceiling, especially in the rapid ornamentation of “Rejoice and be Merry,” and the joyful pagan dance of the “Gloucestshire Wassail.”

Following their three solos, they took part in an experiment on Handel’s “Messiah,” a work that has become a little too much of a Christmas tradition, having been intended for Easter. The experiment was to replace the orchestral parts of four sections, including the “Hallelujah Chorus,” with a brass quintet.

To paraphrase Dr. Johnson’s comment: ”Sir, a woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.” The transcription was amazing, and generally well played, but it was an impossible task to begin with.

After intermission came two choir director specials, “Intrada” by Alfred Reed (1921-2005) and “Welcome all wonders,” by Richard Dirksen (1921-2003). The former was distinguished by an organ fanfare by Dan Moore, and the latter by a gradual segue into what sounded a little like a variation on “A Mighty Fortress…”

It was good to hear Gustav Holst’s “Christmas Day,” the ultimate holiday carol arrangement. It is actually composed, building upon familiar themes, instead of being thrown together in the usual pastiche.

Of course no Christmas concert would be complete without the thoroughly awful, a heavily amplified version of a gospel song, “He Never Failed Me Yet,” arranged by Robert Ray, in which the soloist drowned out the chorus. I ordinarily abide by my grandmother’s admonition–“If you can’t say anything nice, say nothing at all,” but the audience loved it, so it should be mentioned.

You can make up your own mind today (Sunday, Dec. 6). The matinee is sold out, but there are still tickets left for the evening performance at 7:30.