Category Archives: Previews

A Musical Enormity: PSO Tackles the Berlioz Te Deum

Portland Symphony Orchestra
Merrill Auditorium
Oct. 11, 2015

To paraphrase Lady Bracknell: “A work crowded with incident, I see, but somewhat too loud for Merrill Auditorium.” The Berlioz Te Deum, performed by the Portland Symphony Orchestra before a large audience on Sunday, Oct. 11, is the 19th Century equivalent of a boombox. A few minutes more and the result would have been mass hearing loss.

During the final Judex crederis (the last judgement), tenor René Barbera, who has a rich, powerful voice that could fill La Scala, was totally drowned out by the massed forces of a full orchestra (with plenty of harps), the Kotzschmar Organ, played by Ray Cornils, and three large choruses-—the Masterworks Chorus of the Choral Art Society, the Boston Children’s Chorus, and members of Shannon Chase’s Vox Nova Chamber Choir.

The Te Deum begins with orchestra and organ exchanging fortissimo chords like the blows of heavyweight boxers at the beginning of a bout, and continues that way until all parties, including the audience, are exhausted.

There are a few respites, most notably the great tenor solo in Te ergo quaesumus, but for the most part Berlioz simply tries unsuccessfully to outdo, in volume and cataclysmic dramatics, his opening passage.

The composer gives the organ every opportunity to demonstrate its magnificence—the first performance, in 1855, commemorated the installation of a new organ at the church of Saint-Eustache in Paris, during that year’s World’s Fair—but is much less successful in the few pensive moments of the score, when the chosen organ stops sound like background music at a funeral parlor. An organ always sounds like an organ, no matter what its maker is trying to imitate.

There is not much attempt to differentiate the choruses, although the children’s voices and Vox Nova stood out at times, and there were some characteristic Berlioz effects, such as an unusual interaction between the brass choir and the basses. There was also a fine, distinctive Latinate chant in the Christie, rex gloriae.

The entire Te Deum was beautifully performed, by all parties, but as Ravel said of his Bolero, ”unfortunately, it is not music.” Still, like a performance of the Bolero, the audience, this writer included, enjoyed it immensely, as evidenced by a prolonged standing ovation.

I urge anyone who can do so, to get a ticket for Tuesday night’s (Oct. 13) performance. This is music that can only be experienced live, and it will probably not be heard again in Maine for a very long time.

Music director Robert Moody paired the Te Deum with a charming performance of the Beethoven Symphony No. 1 in C Major, Op. 21, emphasizing its similarities with the work of his predecessors. The minuet movement, which is supposed to mark Beethoven’s break with tradition, sounded like something straight from the pages of Haydn.

I mention this about the symphony only because it was so odd: a pizzicato note from the violin section before Moody indicated the downbeat. The first time was merely a regrettable error, but it happened again before the minuet. Not enough to spoil anything, but a little intrusive nevertheless, and perhaps rattling to other musicians.

Cumming Honors Glazer at Bates College

Pianist Duncan Cumming
Olin Hall, Bates College
Oct. 9, 2015

Pianist Duncan Cumming’s tribute to his teacher, the late Frank Glazer, Friday night at Bates College, was a compelling musical evening. (You can judge for yourself tonight—Saturday— at USM’s Corthell Hall). It also raised some fundamental questions about concertizing in the electronic age: the role of memory and standard vs. innovative performance of the classics.

The program consisted of popular works in the repertoire that Cumming, now on the music faculty of the University of Albany, studied with Glazer, artist in residence at Bates College from 1980 until his death in January at age 99.

Cumming. like Maine-based pianist Martin Perry, is one of the pioneers at playing from the score, rather than relying on the memorization now expected of every concert pianist. I couldn’t notice any difference in tempo or technique, compared to Gilmore Award-winning pianist Rafel Blechacz, who was brought to Merrill Auditorium by Portland Ovations on Oct. 4.

Comparison was easy, since Blechacz and Cumming both played the Brahms Intermezzo, Opus 118, No. 2, and the Chopin Polonaise in A-flat Major, Op. 53.

I found Cumming’s Brahms a bit more “authentic” -—Glazer was a Brahms specialist who once played all of the master’s piano works at one concert– and Blechacz is an iconoclast who has his own thought-provoking take on everything he plays.

Cumming’s rendition of the lesser-known “Edward” Ballade in D minor, Op.10, No.1, emphasized the young Brahms’ dramatic tendencies.

In the famous Polonaise, which became a pop song with the title “‘Till the End of Time,” Cumming’s technique was actually superior, but Blechacz’s version more interesting, with a distinct Polish flavor.

The influence of Glazer was most notable in the Beethoven “Moonlight” Sonata, Op. 27 No. 2. The presto agitato was taken at breakneck speed, as advocated by Artur Schnabel, Glazer’s most notable teacher, but without Schnabel’s characteristic wrong notes.

The Beethoven was the greatest test of reading from the score. It would seem virtually impossible to play it at tempo without storing most passages in the memory bank. Perhaps having a reference handy reduces anxiety about becoming lost, which has happened to many world-renowned pianists at awkward moments (most of them know how to fake it.)

Cumming used an electronic tablet similar to a Kindle, on which pages can be turned by pushing a button. It was so unobtrusive that one could not tell it was there, lying flat on the folded-down music stand. I foresee a day when pianists wear glasses with the score right in from of their eyes, advancing at a predetermined tempo.

Schubert was represented by the great Impromptu in C minor, Op. 90, No. 1, which is always a delight to hear. I just wish all pianists, not just Cumming, would pay more attention to the delicious modulation to C Major near the end of the work, as Paul Badura-Skoda used to do.

The most moving performance of the evening was the encore, an arrangement of “Annie Laurie” played at the funeral of Ruth Glazer in 2006.

A Spectacular Opening for the Portland Symphony Season

The first concert of the Portland Symphony Orchestra, Oct.11 at Merrill Auditorium in Portland, promises to be a study in contrasts. The two major works on the program will be the Beethoven Symphony No. 1, another in the complete cycle of the Beethoven symphonies now being performed by the PSO, and the Berlioz Te Deum, a study in gigantism that makes Louis Moreau Gottshalk’s concert piece for 64 pianos seem like child’s play.

The Beethoven, while it appeared to contemporaries a wild departure from the norms of Haydn and Mozart, has more similarities with than differences from the classic style. Like the first Beethoven piano sonata, it is a delightful piece, clearly in the tradition of Haydn and Mozart, with just enough innovation to presage what would come later. Both works are characterized by delicacy and refinement, two adjectives not generally applied to Beethoven.

One wonders why Maestro Robert Moody decided on what seems to be an arbitrary sequence of the symphonies, instead of presenting them in chronological order to trace Beethoven’s evolution as a composer. He did not spring full-blown from the brow of Minerva.

The motivation behind the selection of the Berlioz Te Deum is clearer—the success of last year’s performance of his “Symphonie Fantastique.” There is also the completion of the multimillion-dollar restoration of the Kotzschmar organ.

Berlioz dreamed for two decades or more of a gigantic military symphony to celebrate a coronation, or a wedding, or a victory over the Prussians, but eventually had to settle for the opening of a Paris World’s Fair in 1855, complete with the christening of a new organ. (Hence the prominence of that instrument in the score, which might have influenced Saint-Saëns Symphony No. 3.)

The sequence of movements more or less follows the form of the Latin mass sung on special occasions, with the composer’s own alterations. The orchestra and chorus at the premiere numbered either 900 or 950 (accounts vary).

Berlioz had the odd notion that a melody which might be rendered ordinary by a single voice would become sublime when sung by 50. He had been intrigued, during a visit to London, by a work sung by 6,500 “children of the poor,” and the Te Deum includes three distinct choruses—one a large children’s chorus— plus a tenor soloist.

For the PSO performance, the orchestra will be joined by tenor René Barbera, the Boston Children’s Chorus, the Choral Art Society and members of the Vox Nova Chamber Choir.

It should be quite a spectacle, enough to hold one’s interest for 45 minutes (even without the two sections reserved for military performances).

Saving the Best for Last: DaPonte at Walpole

We have a lot of new concert venues in Maine, from the converted cathedral of the Franco-American Heritage Center in Lewiston through Hannaford Hall at USM’s Abromson Community Education Center to the amazing converted swimming pool of Bowdoin’s Studzinski Recital Hall, where one can still sense the ancient echoes off wet tile walls.

The older places are still the best, though: Deertrees in Harrison, which is like being inside a cello, the Theater at Monmouth, and the Yarmouth Meeting House, where I first noticed the vast difference in sound created by audience size.

The finest acoustics of all, however. are at the Old Walpole Meeting House, where the DaPonte String Quartet made its first recording
. The building was then, as it is now, without heat or electricity, with pews and boxes designed to mortify the flesh of church goers, but the sound was worth the inconveniences.

If only they could have prevailed upon the state police to stop traffic on the highway a quarter-mile distant… there still would have been airplane noise, I suppose.

On Sunday, September 13, at 7:00 p.m. the quartet will play its annual benefit concert to help defray the considerable costs of maintaining the structure, which was built in 1772 and retains nearly all of its original features, including hardware, 24-pane windows– each said to have cost the price of a cow– panelling and the original hand-hewn shingles.

It also has a huge high pulpit with a sounding board, built by local shipwrights and reminiscent of the one in the opening chapter of “Moby Dick.” The pulpit is too small to hold an entire quartet, but perhaps a violin soloist?

The building was not intended for concerts, and the DaPonte teeters on a raised plywood platform opposite the front door, barely large enough to hold four folding chairs, instruments and music stands. The scores are illuminated by battery-powered lights, which have improved over the years, but still cause problems occasionally. Candle-light, which graces the rest of the room, has never seemed strong enough to read music by.

The musical experience, however, is as close as one can come in this era to what listeners must have heard in the chambers for which intimate 18th-Century music was written. It doesn’t matter where one sits. Even in the servants’ gallery the sound is live and vibrant, while closer to the instruments there is still a fine balance.

The quartet generally chooses at least one work written around the time the meeting house was built, in the case of Sunday’s concert, the Mozart Quartet in A Major, K. 464. The program will also include the String Quartet No. 1 by Erwin Schulhoff (1894-1942), and the Mendelssohn Quartet in D Major, Op. 44, No. 1

The Walpole concert is always a fitting close to the Maine summer music season and is usually sold out. Tickets, at $25.00, are available by pre-purchase at Maine Coast Bookstore in Damariscotta, the Walpole Barn in Walpole (Rt. 129), or the Framer’s Gallery in Boothbay (Meadow Mall). To make other arrangements for tickets, please call 563-5471 or e-mail info@oldwalpolemeetinghouse.org. The concert is at 7:00 and the doors open at 6:30.

A Timely “Tosca”

A Timely “Tosca”

I’m looking forward to attending the dress rehearsal of PORTopera’s production of “Tosca,” on Tuesday, July 27. Knowing artistic director Dona Vaughn’s ability to breathe new life into old librettos, and to create more complex characters than usually strut the operatic stage, I’m wondering what she will do with an opera whose arch villain is a policeman, and whose plot echoes Shakespeare’s Mark Antony: “The evil that men do lives after them, the good is oft interred with their bones.” (Scarpia continues to do harm even after his death at the hands of Tosca.)

It is not often that an opera can be this relevant to today’s news. In addition to police misbehavior, we have torture for political ends based on faulty information, lechery in high places, propaganda and the banality of evil. My guess is that Scarpia will remain a stage villain, but more realistically vicious, while Tosca may be a little more complex and less Diva-like. Can’t wait to find out.