Category Archives: Reviews

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.

Rafal Blechacz at Merrill

Portland Ovations Concert
Pianist Rafał Blechacz
Merrill Auditorium
Oct. 4, 2015

The playing of Gilmore Award-winning pianist Rafał Blechacz, brought to Merrill Auditorium Sunday by Portland Ovations, was characterized by clarity, precision and elegance. His program was characterized by daring.

What other pianist in this day and age would program a recital to include works that everyone in the audience had heard hundreds of times and perhaps played themselves? It is to invite comparison with Rubinstein, Horowitz and Dinu Lipatti (for the Chopin waltzes). But Blechacz showed that he could hold his own in such company, while introducing some new ideas.

A critic once said that abstract expressionists should submit a test painting to show that they could execute works in traditional style, reassuring viewers that their more characteristic work was not mere scribbling. Blechacz opened with a first movement of the Bach ”Italian” Concerto in F Major (BWV 971) that was a model of decorum in its precise rhythm, sharp delineation of melodic lines and restrained dynamics (besides being breathtakingly beautiful.)

The slow movement departed from the usual Bach renditions in its coloration and dreamy style, while the third took off in a long accelerando that, although not in the score, added significantly to the excitement of the work. Bach, not having the piano’s dynamic range on the harpsichord or clavichord, might have done exactly the same thing, as if carried away on a torrent of notes.

Innovations were even more pronounced in the following Beethoven Sonata in C minor, Op. 13 (“Pathetique”). I have a score on which my teacher has written “Sforzando very important in Beethoven!” Blechacz has that explosion of sound down pat. He also lets the notes of the chord ring out, so that what comes after seems like the coalescence of the overtones; raindrops into a flowing stream. If that requires a fermata (pause) that seems to last forever, so be it.

The famous slow movement included the central theme over a heavily accented waltz that sounds like elephants dancing, if it’s played right, and a glorious finale that, as in the Bach, had more than a hint of accelerando.

Following intermission, the program, as befits a Polish pianist, was all Chopin, beginning with the Opus 64 Waltzes, the most famous of which is the “Minute Waltz.” I didn’t have my stopwatch out, but I’m sure that Blechacz met the requirement without losing any of his grace under pressure.

The coloration and shading of that miniature, as well as the two others in the set, were exquisite. Rubinstein used to say that some, at least, were not for dancing, but Blechacz conjured up a ballroom as active and varied as any for an evening of Strauss. The late Dinu Lipatti was the acknowledged master of these effusions, but in these three at least, Blechacz is his equal.

I very much regret that I am not able to appreciate the Chopin Mazurkas as I should. If anything could overcome that deficiency, it would have been Sunday’s performance of the three in Opus 56, with their fine coloring, subtle exchange of voices and authentic rhythmical structure.

The Polonaise is another matter, especially the A-flat Major, Opus 53 (’Til the end of time…”) which, after all these years, is still enough to wake the dead, and cause instant, foot stomping standing ovations. Blechacz has the power and precision of Horowitz, with a little more finesse.

As a final act of daring, Blechacz played the Brahms Intermezzo in A Major, Opus 118, No. 2, as an encore. There is nothing showy about it. It is simply one of the most inspired works for piano ever written, and one of the most difficult to interpret. I would trade all of Wagner for it. Last summer, at a Bates College memorial service, Duncan Cumming played it as an appropriate tribute to his teacher, Frank Glazer.

Darkness Visible. Olsen Trio’s “Sounds Unseen”

Olsen Trio
“Sounds Unseen”
Space Gallery, Portland
Sept. 29, 2015

Portland’s Space Gallery needs an airlock. Just when one is accustomed to listening to music in (almost) total darkness, somebody has to leave the theater, and the blast of light through the open door dashes a bucket of cold water on a mystical experience.

Otherwise, the Olsen Trio’s “Sounds Unseen” concert, performed Tuesday night under the auspices of the Portland Chamber Music Festival, was an unqualified success. A capacity audience was so enraptured by the experience that it remained silent for several minutes after the musicians stopped playing and somehow illuminated themselves in a ghastly green light.

The trio consists of Magnus Boye Hansen, violin, Steven Walter, cellist, and Mathias Susaas Halvorsen, piano, and yes, they also play in the dark. Most musicians can feel their way around a keyboard or frets without looking at their fingers, thus eliminating the bobblehead “marionette effect” when playing from a score. It’s when huge leaps are required at rapid tempo that things become tricky in the dark.

This was never a concern, in spite of some extremely demanding music by contemporary composers Peteris Vasks, Alfred Schnittke and Arvo Pärt. The only non-contemporary work on the program was a part of J.S. Bach’s Violin Sonata in G Major, played by Hansen after distancing himself from the other members of the trio.

The heightened ability to determine the location of a sound was just one of the uncanny effects of listening in darkness. Another was increased alertness. Normally, closing one’s eyes to eliminate distractions can lead to drowsiness. When you can see nothing with eyes wide open, the sense of hearing is highlighted without signaling to the body that it’s time to go to sleep.

The blackness, which one soon gets used to, becomes a canvas on which to project images—in the case of Baltic and Scandinavian composers, lots of moving water, masses of ice, shimmering shards of broken glass and sometimes birdsong, as in the final “episodi e canto perpetuo” of Vasks, which has echoes of Olivier Messiaen’s “Catalogue d’oiseaux.” (As pointed out by a member of the astute and enthusiastic audience).

The stars of the show, however, were the instruments themselves, every sound of which became clarified, singly or in combination. I could have listened to the bass string of a cello playing a single note for the rest of the evening.

The Portland Chamber Music Festival’s Space Gallery casual concerts are rapidly becoming a Portland institution. This one, presented in partnership with The Iris Network, was even more special than usual.

DaPonte Solves Mozart Mystery

DaPonte String Quartet
Walpole Meeting House
Sept. 13, 2015

In each of its 19-year series of benefit concerts for the Walpole Meeting House, the DaPonte String Quartet includes a work written around the time that the meeting house was built—1772. Sunday night’s concert was no exception, beginning with the Mozart String Quartet in A Major K. 464.

The quartet, one of those dedicated to Haydn, has other connections to the New World. It is the first to incorporate Masonic musical symbolism in solidarity with Mozart’s brethren, who included revolutionaries such as Benjamin Franklin—for whom he composed music for the glass harmonica.

The program notes by DaPonte cellist Myles Jordan make a good case that Mozart may indeed have been poisoned, if not by his musical rival Salieri, then by other agents of the Austrian emperor, terrified of the popular young radical’s influence. (The Emperor’s sister, Marie Antoinette, had just lost her head to similar revolutionaries.) Not coincidentally, the DaPonte’s first winter series of concerts will be entitled “Enemies of the State.”

The quartet itself is long and “durch componiert” (thoroughly composed, perhaps too carefully.) It shows a more self-conscious effort at academic perfection than Mozart usually demonstrates. That said, it was a delight to hear in the fine acoustics of the old meeting house, lit only by flickering candles. Jordan excelled in the cello part, whose pizzicati gave the quartet its nickname of “The Drum.”

The Mozart was followed by the String Quartet No. 1 of Czech composer Erwin Schulhoff (1894-1942) who died in a Nazi concentration camp. Written in 1924, the quartet nevertheless shows premonitions of the horror to come.

Its dance-like rhythms and folkish modes remind one of Smetana, but they are accompanied by strange wisps of sound, at the highest register, barely audible and often sul ponte (on the bridge) that make them seem like floating spirits, menacing or not. The final movement, with its ticking clock that eventually winds down, should be a cliche, but instead remains highly effective.

This is a wonderful work, that the DaPonte has made its own and recorded on a CD that captures the soundscape of the old meeting house.

The program concluded with a rousing performance of the Mendelssohn Quartet in D Major Opus 44, No. 1. Its mood swings are those of a young composer who has just married and also lost his beloved sister. It reminded me of the old quote: “I wanted to be a philosopher, but cheerfulness kept breaking out.”

The quartet eventually transforms itself into a violin concerto, which Ferdinand Liva, Jr. managed with aplomb.

Oliver Sacks’ “Musicophilia”

Upon learning of the death last week of neurologist and best-selling author, Oliver Sacks, I returned to his book “Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain.”

When it first came out, I found it slow going for a volume that had been on the New York Times best-seller list for many weeks.

As usual with Sacks, who is best known for “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat,” and “Awakenings,” the book is well written, full of fascinating anecdotes and understandable accounts of the latest research on how the brain processes and generates music. But it is not the kind of story you can’t put down. I tired after a chapter or so in spite of the subject, which is obviously one of my primary interests.

I was left wondering why? Part of it is superstition– the idea that if you talk about or analyze something too much, it will go away. His chapter on amusica –the inability to experience music emotionally– was distressing, in spite of the author’s obvious empathy with his patients. (Sacks was Professor of Clinical Neurology and Psychiatry at Columbia University.)

Another drawback, to me anyway, was the heavy use of footnotes. One feels obliged to read them, (in small print) and they contain some interesting material, but they also interrupt the flow of the narrative. They should be in the back of the book, with the bibliography, for those who want chapter and verse authentication. I’m willing to give Sacks the benefit of the doubt when it comes to veracity.

What really kept me at arm’s length from “Musicophilia,” however, was the specter of reductionism. Sacks takes great pains to eliminate the “nothing but” syndrome and never comes down on either side of the mind-brain question. Nevertheless, music somehow seems diminished when investigated clinically, even though it remains a mystery.

The chapter, “Keeping Time: Rhythm and Movement,” was especially interesting, soon after hearing Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time,” at Bates College. Without a time signature on the score (4/4, 2/4, 3/16 to a measure, and so on), the musicians were still able to play rapid, precise and sometimes ferocious rhythms together.

This ability seems to stem from the mind’s desire to impose order upon chaos, like finding a complex rhythm in refrigerator noise or the sound of iron wheels on a railroad rack. It also has to do with the ability of music to inspire collective action. Think rock concerts or marching troops.

Unlike Messiaen, Sacks believed that “keeping time physically and mentally, depends…on interactions between the auditory and the dorsal premotor cortex–and it is only in the human brain that a functional connection between these two cortical areas exists. Crucially, these sensory and motor activations are precisely integrated with each other.”

Messiaen would respond that time itself is an abyss, but I take issue with the phrase “only in the human brain.” Sacks must at least must have read about dancing whales, birds, mice, horses, bears and foxes, to name a few. Having done some riding to music, I can attest that a horse, at least, will respond physically to a musical beat, even without subliminal cues from its rider.

The stories of the healing power of music are the most inspiring in the book, sometimes approaching the miraculous. As a musician, however, I like best the passages about the deleterious effects of too much practice. Glen Gould used to proclaim that it was unnecessary, and Sacks’ book, to some extent, supports his theory. Listening, or merely a mental run-thorugh, can sometimes work as well as hours at the keyboard, without the danger of the physical and mental cramps called “musician’s dystonia,” which have ended many careers. “If at first you don’t succeed, give up,” is often good advice about some difficult note patterns.

Most intriguing of all is Sacks’ answer to Tolstoy’s question about music: “What good is it?” Well, it seems likely that civilization could not have occurred without it, since, like poetry, it facilitated the retention and transmission of huge bodies of knowledge, thousands of years before the advent of writing.

A Brave New Work at Portland Chamber Music Festival

Portland Chamber Music Festival
Hannaford Hall, Abromson Community Education Center
USM Portland
Aug. 20

Thursday night’s concert of the Portland Chamber Music Festival at Hannaford Hall was a journey from the drawing room to the music school to the wide world.

The drawing room was represented by a work that Mozart wrote for performance by his friends, the Quartet in A Major, for Flute and Strings, K. 298, a charming piece based on popular tunes of the day, easy enough to be played by gifted amateurs.

It is a thoroughly charming and graceful gift, with the first violin of the typical string quartet replaced by the flute, played by Laura Gilbert.

It raises the question of traditional string quartet make-up. The flute, in the hands of a musician like Gilbert, would seem to offer more versatility and opportunity for contrast and tonal color than another violin, but the combination never caught on. The example of Haydn? The ubiquity of the fiddle? Someone has probably written a doctoral thesis on the subject.

Which brings us to the schoolroom and Debussy, who wrote his Premiere Rhapsody as a test piece for students of the clarinet. Debussy could not approach a five-finger exercise without making it into a musical jewel, and the Rhapsody is no exception.

Clarinet virtuoso Todd Palmer, one of the resident artists at this year’s festival, has arranged the piece for chamber orchestra of flute, harp, violins, viola, cello and bass. It sets off the clarinet solo very well, even though it sometimes sounds more like “La Mer” than an exercise.

Palmer also played a key role in the piece de resistance of the evening, “Ayre,” by Osvaldo Golijov (b. 1960), with the composer in the audience. Palmer played a bass clarinet duet with the French horn, one of the high points of the song cycle.

“Ayre” takes the notion of fusion a step further than other composers, adding the element of historical time to the juxtaposition of musical cultures. The result of combining Renaissance voices with Piazzolla’s Argentinian tango and Sephardic or Arabic styles, is passing strange, but always musical, while conveying moods from tender love to rage. Some of the effective taped backgrounds evoke scenes from the Arab Spring.

The 11-piece band, or orchestra, sounds like a suk on steroids, if readers will pardon the cliche. Everything seems risen from the level of Arabic street musicians to the stage at the Intergalactic Cafe. There is even a “hyper-accordion,” played by Jose Lezcano, that has the power of a reed organ and something of the character of Piazzolla’s beloved bandoneon. (Golijov was brought up in Argentina.)

I’ve saved the best, soprano Ilana Davidson, for last. Her voice is both powerful and melodious, a more rare combination than one might think, and her portrayal of moods in the 11 songs that make up “Ayre” gives the juxtapositions extraordinary power. She also has the vocal elisions of Sephardic and Arabic music down pat, as difficult a feat as singing the ornamentations in Handel.

Golijov shared in the well-deserved standing ovation.

The festival finale, ending in the Brahms Quintet in F minor, Op 34, will be on Saturday (Aug. 22) at 7:30 PM.

Bartok at Salt Bay

Salt Bay Chamberfest
Darrows Barn, Round Top Farm, Damariscotta
Aug. 14
by Christopher Hyde

There is a reason that the Salt Bay Chamberfest, from its home at Damariscotta’s Round Top Farm, has acquired not merely a national but an international reputation, as one of the world’s pre-eminent chamber music festivals and a place where contemporary composers feel welcome and respected.

The acoustics in Darrows Barn are great, the musicians superb, and the programming imaginative and carefully thought out, but there has always been something more, ever since the festival was founded by cellist Wilhelmina Smith 21 years ago. These are world-renowned musicians, not on a vacation but a mission; as Smith puts it, sharing a passion.

Friday night’s program, featuring percussion and the piano as percussion instrument, was a prime example.

It opened with Steve Reich’s Quartet for two pianos, two percussion, written in 2014, played by Thomas Sauer and Amy Yang, piano, and Daniel Druckman and Markus Rhoten, percussion—primarily two vibraphones.

The work has the characteristic “chug,” a word coined by Reich to denote rhythmic drive, but is more complex harmonically and in its development than the composer’s earlier works. It even has traditional fast-slow-fast form, shimmering tonal color, and (gasp) ends on a tonic chord like a Bach fugue, even though no one could distinguish what its key might have been earlier. The gradual development of a simple theme, a la Phillip Glass, is fascinating, and the rhythmical repetition, like the clack of wheels on a train, hypnotic. It was performed with passion and exuberance.

Reich studied drumming in Ghana, so what better to follow his Quartet than two master drummers from Ghana, the father and son duo Sowah Mensah and Nii-Adjetey Mensah. Their humor, while exhibiting incredible skill on traditional drums and wooden xylophones, was infectious, and their sung duet, with a precise, well maintained interval throughout, was surprising.

The song was an example of the power of social regulation by means of music, according to the father, Sowah Mensah. After all, who wants his great-grandchildren to be ashamed of him? They also played the talking drum —“play what you say”— and a communal form of music on two xylophones, with improvisations over a recurring theme.(See column “Democracy in Music”) A drum duet, which concluded the set, glittered with shifting polyrhythms. Reich either didn’t achieve the level of his masters or figured that Western audiences wouldn’t get it.

What preceded it had been at the highest level, but was overshadowed by Bartok’s towering masterpiece, the Sonata (Sz. 110) for two pianos and percussion., played by the same team as the Reich.

I had heard this piece live once before, at Bates College, but Friday night’s performance established it, once and for all, as a landmark of 20th century music, not an experiment in using the piano as a percussion instrument but the result of decades of careful listening, formal genius and inimitable style. A work of the utmost seriousness, but full of charm and invention.

It had too many beauties to enumerate, but a few come to mind without notes, which I was too absorbed to take: cymbals echoing reverberations from the bass strings, xylophones that sounded like the upper treble keys on a grand should, but never do, snare drum whispers, interlocking filagree passages…

I wish I could recommend a recording of Sz. 110, but nothing electronic could even come close to the experience of a live performance. One can only plead with the directors of the festival to do it again…please?

Sebago-Long Lake Festival Ends with a Bang

Sebago-Long Lake Music Festival
Deertrees Theater, Harrison
Aug. 11
by Christopher Hyde

Laurie Kennedy is stepping down after 30 years as music director of the Sebago-Long Lake Music Festival at Deeertrees Theater in Harrison. The performers, the audience, and even the weather, gave her a rousing send-off on Tuesday with three crowd pleasers, each more exciting than the last.

Carl Reinecke’s long career (1824-1910) as performing artist, conductor, educator and composer, proves the adage that the way to success is to “outlive the bastards.” He continued to write and publish hundreds of pieces of good, traditional music while fads rose and fell all around him. Chances are that anyone who has learned to play the piano has encountered one or more of his pieces.

One of his more unusual works, the Trio in A Minor, Op. 188, for Oboe, Horn and Piano, was given a charming performance by Stephen Taylor, oboe, William Purvis, French horn, and Mihae Lee, piano. The trio’s primary interest is in the contrast and similarity in timbre of the two instruments, which Taylor and Purvis made the most of. The horn, however, had the last word, with a Romantic solo in the finale that was the best, long-limbed melody in the work.

Reinecke shows his musical imagination in phrases begun by the duo and finished by the piano. He even allows himself to get a bit jazzy, but not too much, near the end of the final movement.

The trio was followed by Dvorák’s String Sextet in A Major, Op. 48 (1878), full of memorable Czechoslovakian dances that sound just like folk music but aren’t. Dvorák even quotes himself with a theme from one of his earlier Slavonic Dances during the fast and furious Furiant, which serves as the third movement of the sextet.

The final theme and variations, which begins thoughtfully and ends with a bang, included a lovely cello solo by Bonnie Thron.

The festival musicians, including Kennedy on viola, saved the best for last: a captivating performance of Mendelssohn’s Sextet in D Major, Op. 110, one of the most exciting and accessible pieces ever published. Written when the composer was 16, It is not a sextet at all but a piano concerto with string accompaniment, played brilliantly by Mihae Lee.

The strings, however, are not merely an afterthought, but provide a perfect frame for display of the virtuoso piano part, The bass especially, played by Volkan Orhon, grounds everything perfectly. And during the final movement, the young composer suddenly realizes that he has been neglecting the rest of the sextet and gives them a space of their own for a few bars.

While the piano part is derivative, quoting Mozart and Beethoven, it is as thoroughly satisfying as if Mendelssohn had devised it entirely by himself, He also inserts his own ideas, especially in the crazy off-kilter Minuet, which seems to have been based on “Three Blind Mice.”

The sextet received a roaring, foot-stomping standing ovation, while Kennedy, having received a bouquet, offered it to each of the other musicians to sniff. Meanwhile, the rain on the roof of Deertrees Theater, an acoustical marvel, continued its own muted accompaniment.

Next up. Percussion at Salt Bay, Aug. 14, 2015

A Brilliant Send-Off for Bowdoin Festival

Bowdoin International Music Festival
Festival Friday
Crooker Auditorium of Brunswick High School
Aug. 7

In a review of the Portland String Quartet last month I mentioned liking their variations on the Shaker Hymn “Simple Gifts,” better than Aaron Copland’s in “Appalachian Spring.” I was wrong.

The original version of “Appalachian Spring,” for 13 instruments, as played Friday night at the final Festival Friday concert of the Bowdoin International Music Festival, was a revelation, clear as spring water, perfectly balanced and showing off Copland’s genius in a way that muddy orchestrations never could.

Robert Moody, music director of the Portland Symphony Orchestra, conducted selected virtuosi from the festival in a performance that was simply stunning, from beginning to end. “Appalachian Spring,” still sounds like “Oklahoma,” but there’s nothing wrong with that.

As for the variations on “Simple Gifts,” their inventiveness was remarkable, and the combinations of instrumental timbre far beyond what can be accomplished by a string quartet. Copland has a way of making the grand piano an orchestral instrument that is rare indeed.

As the final work of a successful festival, it was a brilliant send-off indeed.

The Tchaikovsky pieces that preceded it, with violin soloist Jennifer Koh, were also crowd pleasers, but more in the nature of salon music than national icons.

Too many generations of violinists have sawed their way through the “Souvenir d’un Lieu Cher,” Op. 42, and the often paired Serenade Melancolique (Op. 26) and Valse Scherzo (Op. 34) for anything new to be said, but it was good to hear the first three pieces as a set, Tchaikovsky’s original intention.

Jennifer Koh, who has been heard quite often in Maine, is a fine violinist, and made the most of both the romantic and the virtuoso passages, earning a standing ovation. Moody encouraged the Bowdoin Festival Orchestra, which sounds more professional each year.

I had expected more from Kevin Buts’ “Seascapes” (2013) which opened the program. Maybe it’s my literary background, but there are much better written words about the sea than the seven passages he chose to illustrate musically. Perhaps that accounts for the score’s lack of inspiration.

They were given a careful and tender reading by a chamber orchestra of Janet Sung, violin, Caroline Coade, viola, David Requiro, cello, Kurt Muroki, double bass, Tao Lin, piano, Beomjae Kim, flute, and Josh Thompson, horn.
The work came alive quite often, especially in the fourth movement: “Out of the darkness…jets of sparks in fountains of blue come leaping” by D.H. Lawrence, but the excitement couldn’t be sustained. I also liked the sustained chords and bass line of Virginia Woolfe’s “So fine was the morning except for a streak of wind here and there that the sea and sky looked all of one fabric.”

Still, I couldn’t help but think of Vincent Persichetti’s “Poems for Piano,” which attempts the same thing, with considerably more success.

A New Take on “Tosca”

“Tosca”
Merrill Auditorium
July 28
by Christopher Hyde

PORTopera artistic director Dona Vaughn has done it again, with a fresh look at one of the most popular operas in the repertoire: Puccini’s “Tosca.” I attended the dress rehearsal Tuesday night, which went off (almost) without a hitch, providing a good sense of what can be expected from the final version on Thursday.
“Tosca” is not one of my favorite operas. Puccini seems to have taken a leaf from Wagner, with heavy brass, leit-motifs, high drama and few arias that one can go home whistling. The entire plot is an exercise in futility. Once the news of Napoleon’s victory at Marengo (and his chef’s invention of a new chicken dish), reaches Rome, Scarpia and his minions should have burned their papers and taken ship for the colonies instead of pursuing their victims to the death and beyond. But self-preservation is never a strong suit of tragic opera.
Vaughn, while faithful to to the libretto, emphasizes Tosca’s evolution from self-absorbed diva to tragic heroine, with religious overtones that echo the Portland Symphony Orchestra’s recent production of “Dialogs of the Carmelites.” During the first act, one is almost sorry for her lover Cavaradosi, to be burdened with a jealous, demanding, insecure and apparently insatiable partner. He certainly doesn’t seem that enthusiastic about another tryst at the cottage.
When things begin to go downhill, and she must overcome her religious scruples to kill Scarpia and save Cavaradosi, Tosca begins to show true strength of character and love rather than infatuation. Finally, her suicide becomes an act of faith, confident that God will judge in her favor over Scarpia.
Vaughn also emphasizes the point made by A.E. Housman in “To an Athlete Dying Young,” that after the height of bliss experienced by the lovers, any kind of everyday existence would be an anticlimax.
The opera is not fully staged, but in costume, with a few simple props placed in front of a full orchestra. A platform at stage right serves both as an artist’s studio and the parapet from which Tosca flings herself in the final scene.
In spite of a lack of stage settings, Vaughn has a lot to work with. Alexandra LoBianco, as Tosca, and Adam Diegel, as Cavaradosi, have powerful, well controlled voices offering a wide range of dynamics and a certain cutting edge. They are well matched and their final duet, a cappella, is marvelous.
The orchestra, under Stephen Lord, leaves nothing to be desired. It could be transferred to the pit of the Met and no one would know the difference. Members of the Choral Art Society and a children’s chorus under Sarah Bailey, gave fine performances.
James Morris, as Scarpia, provides an astonishingly good impression of the Devil as gentleman, expecting every snap of his fingers to be instantly obeyed. His lust for Tosca emphasizes the once-and-done nature of passion, while his physical approach reminds one of Dr. Johnson’s observation about sex: “The position is ridiculous, the pleasure fleeting and the expense damnable.”
The scene in which Tosca stabs him, twice, with a table knife, is worth the price of admission. As Scarpia begins to disrobe for his intended conquest, he seems to inflate, like a balloon or a tumescent organ, and then to deflate just as rapidly when punctured, as he mutters “Killed by a woman,” in sheer amazement.
The supertitles were good, in spite of some anachronisms, but they did not seem quite bright enough to be easily legible, at least from the side of the auditorium.
The single glitch in the dress rehearsal provided some comic relief, when the timing was off for Tosca’s discovery that Cavadarosi is really dead and not play-acting. To repeat the scene, the corpse had to roll over.
As of this writing, there were a few seats left for Thursday’s performance. Now would be a good time to snap them up. And it would also be a good time for an angel to step up and finance a fully-staged version of say, “Porgy and Bess.” What couldn’t Vaughn do with her own set designer?