Category Archives: Reviews

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?

BIMF Monday Showcase Disappoints

Bowdoin International Music Festival
Monday Showcase
Studzinski Recital Hall
July 20
by Christopher Hyde
The combined concert of the Ying and Pacifica String Quartets, Monday night at Studzinski Recital Hall, one of the premiere events of the Bowdoin International Music Festival, was sold out weeks in advance.
As often happens, the outcome was something of an anti-climax, in spite of two standing ovations from an audience determined to be entertained.
I had hoped, because of two works for octet on the program, that it would be possible to hear a kind of dueling banjos between two prominent string quartets with very different styles. Instead, eight very good musicians played individual parts that had nothing to do with their ordinary relationships in a family of four.
It would be educational, in some future concert, to hear quartets alternate movements within a well-known example of the repertoire, say Haydn’s “Lark” Quartet.
The first work on the program was certainly well-known— Mozart’s String Quintet in C Major (K.515), for which the Ying Quartet borrowed violist Masumi Per Rostad from the Pacifica. It was beautifully played, with a combination of clarity and ensemble that is rare, but occasionally differences in style made themselves felt, even leading to some slight mistakes of intonation during the andante.
After the Mozart, things went downhill, beginning with the Two Pieces for String Octet, Opus 11, by Dmitri Shostakovich, which began with a wailing gypsy violin and ended with a chromatic glissando leading to a gallop that sounded more like a drum solo than an octet.
The two pieces are part of a suite that was never completed, begun when the composer was 17. His teacher didn’t care for them and expressed the hope that when the composer was 30 he would no longer write such wild music. I love Shostakovich, but his teacher was right. The writing verges on the maniacal.
Another youthful effusion, the Mendelssohn Octet for Strings in E-flat Major, Opus 20, written when the composer was 16, followed after intermission. The first two movements make one want to seize the young man by the scruff of the neck and tell him, in no uncertain terms, that it is okay to complete a phrase in a banal manner, as long as you complete it.
As for the scherzo and presto, St. Cecilia appeared to me in a dream and revealed that her protege had become infatuated with rapid triplets after playing the Haydn Sonata in C (Hob. XVI/32) too many times.
The combined string quartets performed the work as if they were the musicians assembled in the Mendelssohn-Bartholdy household for one of their musical afternoons, enjoying themselves while humoring their host. I was distracted from the excitement of the last two movements by the facial grimaces of the first violin, which exerted a morbid fascination.
Both the Shostakovich and the Mendelssohn received long standing ovations.

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