Category Archives: Reviews

Welcome Back, Maine Gay Men’s Chorus

The Maine Gay Men’s Chorus
First Parish Church, Portland
Dec. 6, 2015
by Christopher Hyde

It’s good to have the Maine Gay Men’s Chorus back for Christmas. The chorus, which disbanded in 2012, has regrouped under the direction of Larry Jackson, and gave its first Holiday concerts Friday, Saturday and Sunday at the First Parish Church in Portland.

As in the past, the program was a mixture of traditional Christmas carols, humor and classical music.

The high point of Sunday afternoon’s concert was a performance of arias from Handel’s “Messiah” by tenor Martin Lescault. I have never heard better readings of “Comfort Ye My People,” and “Every Valley Shall Be Exalted,” technically or dramatically. Lescault sang these extremely demanding works without strain and with deep feeling.

As if embarrassed to be seen on these classical heights, the chorus immediately launched into a parody of the “Hallelujah” by the Sisters of the Immaculate Deception. Having taken a vow of silence, the sisters nevertheless wanted to perform the great chorus, and lined up on stage with large cue cards containing all the syllables of the text, which they displayed at appropriate beats in the score. It was a difficult feat to get the timing right, but also hilarious, especially with deliberate confusion at the end. Some of the nuns attempted to achieve a fortissimo by holding the cards higher.

Lescault was heard again as soloist in “My Grown Up Christmas List” and the encore, “Night of Silence,” by Daniel Kantor. I normally regard “Silent Night” as hallowed ground, not to be disturbed in any way, but Kantor’s eloquent and subdued descants over the tune sung by the entire chorus, seem an exception to the rule.

A second guest soloist was Jennifer Miller, who was instrumental in getting the chorus back together. She sang a pop version of “O Holy Night,” with accompanist Sarah Phinney on piano.

The show also included some of the gay parodies for which it has become known: “Walking in Women ’s Underwear,” to the tune of “Walking in a Winter Wonderland,” “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” by two guys, one of them bald, leading to the punch line “Your hair looks swell,” and “Christmas Toys for Girls and Boys,” exploring stereotyped gender roles. “Dance of the Toy Flutes” included both innuendo and two bear-like dancers, one in a tutu.

The traditional pieces were well done, especially the opening “Canon of the Bells” and “O Tannenbaum,” which I haven’t heard sung in German since World War II.
Eric Smith was fine as soloist in a soulful version of “Who Is She That Travels.”

As is the case with (almost) every chorus, the Gay Men’s needs more basses. Who knows, they could eventually rival the Red Army Chorus.

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.

Oratorio Chorale’s “Prodigies” Does Not Disappoint

Oratorio Chorale
Woodfords Congregational Church
Nov. 21, 2015
by Christopher Hyde

The Oratorio Chorale’s “Prodigies” concert, Saturday night at Woodfords Congregational Church, examined many aspects of that vexed question, while presenting each in the best possible light. Director Emily Isaacson has mastered the art of combining chorus and orchestra, and the Maine Chamber Ensemble sounded the best it has in years.

The program opened with a work by a child prodigy, Henry Purcell, (1659-1695), written, however, when his genius had fully matured. His “Oh Sing Unto the Lord,” (1688) often sounded like Handel, but more complex (and a little better written). The vocal part is extremely difficult, with the chorus treated as an orchestra, offering varied instrumental combinations. It was written in a day when British households entertained themselves by singing seven-part madrigals.

The orchestral “symphony” itself is also brilliant, both at setting off the choral and recitative sections, and solo, with fugal writing that seems to come as easily to Purcell as to Bach.

It was followed by a premiere of “The Window,” a setting of a poem by Conrad Aiken, written by Christopher Stacknys (b. 1997) of Falmouth, now a sophomore at the Juilliard School. The composition was quite professional in its cycling from harmony to dissonance and back.

His musicality, however, was called into question by a performance of the first movement of the Chopin Concerto No. 1 in E minor. After a lovely opening by the string orchestra, the piano came in like a bull in a china shop, Stacknys apparently overcompensating for the acoustics of an unknown venue.

The performance was brilliant, too fast, and technically flawless. The music got lost in a cloud of notes. A concerto is always a contest between the soloist and the conductor; in this case, Isaacson lost the battle for control of tempo. The large audience loved it.

The two anthems by Mendelssohn (1809-1847), which followed intermission, “Jesu meine Freude” (1828) and “Christie, du Lamm Gottes” (1827) were delightful, lively and perfectly balanced. Any resemblance to the work of J.S. Bach, which the 18-year-old composer had been studying intensely, was purely intentional.

Isaacson saved he most astounding feat for last, a “Te Deum” (1769) written by Mozart when he was 13. He could orchestrate, write fugues, and invent choral harmonies which neither Bach nor Purcell would have disowned. He is one of the great composers whom we can honestly regret losing at an early age.

The concert will be repeated today (Sunday, Nov. 22) at the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Brunswick, at 3:00 and 6:00 p.m.

Won’t You Join the Dance? PSO Performs Del Tredici’s “Alice” Symphony

Portland Symphony Orchestra
Merrill Auditorium
Nov. 10, 2015

A story going around music schools a long time ago concerned the oriental potentate who was introduced to a symphony orchestra for the first time. When asked what he liked most on the program he said: “The first piece.” The orchestra repeated it, but the Sultan shook his head. “No, before that…”

He was referring to the tune-up , begun by the oboe on “A” 440, which composer David Del Tredici uses as a motif signifying the dull real world at the beginning and end of his “Alice” Symphony, played Tuesday night at Merrill Auditorium by the Portland Symphony Orchestra.

“Alice” is a quirky and marvelous work, but its musical intricacies, such as counterpoint among massed instruments and canons at the 16th, were obscured by a ballet based on the Lobster Quadrille.

I loved the ballet, brilliantly choreographed by Roberto Forleo and danced superbly by members of the Portland Ballet. It was even more erotically charged than the company’s “Carmina Burana,” with poses that seemed based on the paintings of Egon Schiele, Balthus and Dorothea Tanning.

The Queen of the Lobsters, danced by Erica Deisl, was a dominating presence, the lobsterman in yellow overalls, danced by Derek Clifford, subtly menacing, and Alice herself, played by Kaitlyn Hayes, the picture of gawky adolescence, torn between resistance and desire, as in “Will you, won’t you, will you, won’t you, won’t you join the dance?”

The problem with a ballet so well done is that it rivets the attention, making the subtle effects of the music sometimes go unnoticed. In that way, the symphony was the reverse of a ballet suite, such as the symphonic Prokofiev “Cinderella” Suite No. 1 (Op.107) that preceded it. Perhaps the answer would be to shorten the symphony into a ballet version.

That said, the orchestra, under music director Robert Moody, did an excellent job with a difficult score, aided by soprano Margaret Carpenter Haigh, who is able to sing sweetly, bark like a yapping dog through a megaphone or read nonsense verses with equal aplomb. Del Tredici’s folk band, including mandolin and accordion, also worked effectively, as did an appropriately spooky Theremin.

The performance received a reluctant standing ovation from an audience that didn’t quite know what to make of it, gaining in applause as Del Tredici himself mounted the stage.

The program before intermission was equally good, with a powerful and atmospheric “Cinderella” Suite and an intimate, well-nuanced Haydn Symphony No. 69 in C Major (“Laudon”).

(In the program, the “Cinderella Suite” Pas de Châle (shawl dance) was mis-translated as “Cat’s Dance” (Pas de Chat?) which I mention only because it did sound like a cat dancing. exemplifying the power of suggestion.)

VentiCordi Program Sparkles

VentiCordi Chamber Music
Woodford’s Congregational Church
Nov. 8, 2015
by Christopher Hyde

There are few chamber music concerts without dead spots, but VentiCordi managed that feat on Sunday at Woodfords Congregational Church, under the auspices of the Portland String Quartet. Every piece on the program sparkled, or, in the case of Schoenberg’s “Ein Stelldichein” ( A Rendezvous) glowed like a black opal.

The Schoenberg, unfinished at 77 measures, comprises an entire dark world of loss and sorrow, and transfigures it. A companion piece to the more famous “Verlklarte Nacht,” also based on a work by Richard Dehmel, it goes further in the direction of atonality.

The composition does not follow the poem directly but creates a similar atmosphere, in which “The foliage hangs silently on the wet shrubs as if the leaves had drunk poison…”
It was lovingly performed by Kathleen McNerney, oboe, Kristen Finkbeiner, clarinet, Dean Stein, violin, Andrew Mark, cello, and Bridget Convey, piano.

The score has too many beauties to enumerate in a review, but I was particularly impressed by the winds and strings (VentiCordi) feeding on the overtones of massive piano chords, reminiscent of Brahms. The piano also managed cascades of falling leaves.

The work preceding it, “Fragments for Oboe, Clarinet and Cello,” by Robert Muczynski (1929-2010), also had its moments of sadness, but cheerfulness kept breaking through. The second fragment, “Solitude,” allowed the oboe to describe ripples on a black lake, a la “The Swan of Tuonela,” while the “Reverie” sounded like Copland in an introspective mood. The final “Exit” ended on a surprising tonic chord, like a Bach prelude.

A Trio for Clarinet, Violin and Piano by “Saber Dance” composer Aram Khachaturian (1903-1978) came as a surprise for its professional finish. Written when the composer was still a student, it contains all of the elements of his later work, with ethnic melodies and driving rhythms plus steppes music straight out of Borodin. The interweaving of the three voices was masterful. Either Khachaturian’s talent sprang full-blown or he developed little after his student days.

Eight Duos for Violin and Cello, Op. 39, by Reinhold Glière, were charming, especially to those brought up on his tutorial piano pieces. They too were lessons in form, melodic but exact. The second one, a Gavotte, sounded entirely authentic, as if the composer were writing in the 18th Century. Where his contemporary, Prokofiev, would have parodied it somehow, Glière plays it straight, which is somehow refreshing.

From a compositional standpoint, the only work on the program comparable to the Schoenberg was a Quartet for Piano, Oboe, Violin and Cello, by Bohuslav Martinû.(1890-1959). Written when the composer was recovering from a serious accident, it is nevertheless entirely upbeat, except for a somewhat brooding adagio. The final Poco Allegro, which could have been written by Stravinsky, is a scherzo, with a joke phrase that sounds like “a tisket, a tasket.” If anyone needs an accessible entree to “modern” music, the quartet has it all.

VentiCordi, founded by Stein and McNerney in 2009, deserves our thanks for bringing these delightful works to life. The performance of neglected music is unusual; to have it done so well, without any flavor of academia, is rare indeed.

Early Music Festival Enchants

Portland Early Music Festival
Portland Conservatory of Music
Oct. 24, 2015
by Christopher Hyde

After you read this review, I would strongly recommend attending today’s (Sunday’s) concert of the Portland Early Music Festival, at 4:00 p.m. in the chapel of Woodford’s Congregational Church, home of the Portland Conservatory of Music.

Saturday night’s concert was both satisfying and surprising; this afternoon’s promises to be spectacular, with a performance of the Bach Chaconne for unaccompanied violin (from BWV 1004) by Heidi Powell on a baroque (c.1550) violin.

The chapel is the ideal space for an early music concert—the right size for an intimate chamber-music gathering, with good acoustics. One could hear every note of Timothy Burris’ lute in three introspective pieces from the Sonata No. 11 in D minor of Silvius Leopold Weiss (1687-1750,) while the warm voice of mezzo-soprano Joëlle Morris effortlessly filled the hall with sound.

Her performances, of recitativos and arias from Vivaldi’s cantata: “Perfidissimo cor!” and the cantata “La Bella Fiamma of Johann David Heinichen (1683-1729) were the surprise of the evening. Heinichen’s writing was superior to Vivaldi’s and his style that of an entirely different era, even though the two composers were contemporaries.

While Heinichen’s heightened drama, restrained ornamentation, and well-defined melodic line were new, the accompaniments, by Gavin Black, harpsichord, Charles Kaufmann, bassoon, and Burris, were familiar from many works of J.S. Bach. Who imitated whom?

It seems likely that Bach ran with Heinichen’s ideas, since an early Bach Praeludium/Fantasia (BWV 922) performed earlier by Black, showed none of them. The harpsichordist commented that friends had told him that the work sounded like Phillip Glass, and it did. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)

Charles “Chip” Kaufmann is best known in Maine for his association with the Longfellow Chorus, but he is also an artist on the baroque bassoon, an instrument that is both more agile and considerably less comic than its modern cousin. It can easily substitute for the cello, with a rich baritone voice that can be taken quite seriously.

Kaufmann’s rendition of the Bassoon Sonata in C Major, by Johann Friedrich Fasch (1688-1758), revealed all of these characteristics admirably.

Black played his own harpsichord in the Bach Preaeludium and “Uranie: Partita in 8 movements,” from the “Musikalischer Parnassus” of J.F.K Fischer (1656-1746). The instrument, by Keith Hill, is distinguished by its clarity, which sometimes made it sound almost like a piano, and its ability to change tone quality between two keyboards.

Black is also an advocate for the instrument itself, patiently explaining its workings to my eight-year-old grandson, Jordan Seavey, who, so far, only plays the piano and recorder.

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.

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.