Category Archives: Reviews

Franco Center Piano Series Opens with Innovations

David Fung, Pianist
Gendron Franco Center, Lewiston
Sept. 22, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

One of the most unusual concerts in many a season opened the 12th annual piano series of the Gendron Franco Center in Lewiston Friday night. Its innovations were matched by the quality of the performances by pianist David Fung and Daniel Moody, countertenor.

The first half of the program was devoted to piano works with unusual (or zero) rhythmic patterns, beginning with the Mozart Sonata No. 5 in G Major, one of the complete Mozart sonata cycle that Fung is compiling for the Steinway “Spiro” high-resolution player piano.

It was followed by “Impressões Seresteiras,” W.374, by Heitor Villa-Lobos, a compilation of “street songs” in 3/4 time, which manages to be avant-garde and nostalgic at the same time.

The “Île de feu, 1” from “Four Studies in Rhythm” by Olivier Messiaen, has no bar lines at all, its rhythm being dictated by the feel of note patterns. Under Fung’s hands,it was a tour de force of technique, complete with one of the composer’s beloved bird calls (I think it was a blackbird).

Fung, who holds a doctorate from the Yale School of Music, and has taught there, prefaced each work with revelatory remarks. In describing his arrangement of Ravel’s “La Valse,” he noted that the work has been compared to Poe’s tale, “The Masque of the Red Death,” and occasioned a challenge to Ravel by choreographer Serge Diaghilev, who had commissioned the work. The duel, apparently, was never fought.

Whatever the work’s history, Fung’s arrangement captures its brooding nature perfectly, in a manner even more virtuosic than the popular two-piano transcription.

After intermission, Fung accompanied countertenor David Moody in works by Dowling, Handel, and contemporary William Bolcom, all which were thoroughly delightful. Countertenors combine the power of the male voice with the vocal range of a mezzo-soprano. They were most popular in heroic roles at the time of Purcell, but they seem to be making a welcome comeback nowadays. Moody is one of the best. He also showed a sense of humor in the very short Bolcom pieces, one of which consists of two lines: “I’ll never forgive you. For my behavior.”

Fung concluded the program with a brilliant interpretation of Schubert’s great “Wanderer” Fantasy in C Major, D. 760. After this grueling effort —Schubert himself and a hard time with it—Fung managed a spritely encore of a Scarlatti Sonata in D Minor.

If I had any quarrel at all with the pianist’s approach, which was technically flawless, it would be with a young man’s typical predilection for speed, and abhorrence of seeming to “drag.” Some passages need a little more time to breathe, even at the expense of metronomic time.

I have written his before, but it bears repeating: the Franco Center’s piano series is the best kept secret, and the foremost value ($10.00 for seniors) of any concert series in Maine. The talent is always of the highest order, the venue is comfortable, with fine acoustics, the ladies serve crepes at intermission, and one can chat with the performers over champagne after the concert. The music starts at 7:00 to accommodate younger students.

The next artist to appear in the series will be French pianist Hélène Papadopoulos, on Friday, Nov. 3.

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

Ragtime at Studzinski Hall

Adam Swanson, Ragtime Piano
Studzinski Hall, Bowdoin College
Sept. 18, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

Adam Swanson’s piano recital, Monday night at Bowdoin’s Studzinski Hall, tracing the roots of American popular music from ragtime to Moss Hart, was like a seven-course dinner consisting of varied colors of cotton candy. Always entertaining but eventually monotonous and unsatisfying.

Swanson, an award-winning interpreter of early 20th century American music, is 25, but already has a wide following, and the audience for a Monday night concert was large and enthusiastic. The composers, especially ragtime giants such as Scott Joplin, could have been better served.

Swanson began the program with “The Entertainer,” made famous by “The Sting, and as expected, was more faithful to the movie than to the original.

It was followed by James Scotts “Frog Legs.” I play “Frog Legs,” just for fun, and Swanson’s arrangement was so gussied up as to be virtually unrecognizable, and way, way too fast.

If one examines a collection of Rags, the indications “slow,” “not fast,” “not too fast,” “tempo di rag,” and “don’t fake,” pop up regularly, barroom pianists having discovered that it is a lot easier, and more tip-producing, to play fast than slow.

A good rag, with its strong syncopated rhythm, characteristic modulations, and clever turns, is a delicate flower, and like the lilies of the field, needs no embellishment.

Joseph Lamb’s ”Bohemia Rag,” which followed, is specifically marked “Not Fast.” I didn’t bring my metronome, but it was well over quarter-note equals 100, as indicated.

The rags were followed by examples of their successors in stride piano, blues, boogie-woogie, 20’s movies and Broadway, concluding with a nice Moss Hart medley.

One of the surprising aspects of the concert was the number of obscure tunes stored in one’s memory bank, never to be recovered until hearing them again many years later. All of the melodies, however, were accompanied by a strong, rhythmical left hand, with melodies and ornaments in the right. While exciting at first, the combination eventually becomes predictable. It has the added disadvantage of blurring the effect of syncopation and leaving no room for error in the embellishments. In Chopin, a rubato style leaves plenty of room for flourishes. With a strict rhythmical style, the slightest change in tempo, to accommodate grace notes and appoggiaturas, becomes glaringly obvious.

Swanson is young and personable, and it is to be hoped that he wiill follow James Scott’s advice: “Don’t Jazz Me—I’m Music,” the title of one of his later Rags.

It will be interesting on Sept. 30 to compare what Richard Dowling does with Joplin in his “Great Scott” recital at Studzinski Hall.

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

Portland Chamber Music Festival Ends on a Happy Note

Portland Chamber Music Festival
Hannaford Hall, USM
Aug. 19, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

Alban Berg, serialist of “Wozzek” fame, is not a composer one normally associates with the theme of “happily ever after.” HIs “Seven Early Songs” (1905-1908), however, depict the progress of a successful love affair that is not only consummated but fades away into an everlasting summer sunset.

It was lovingly rendered by soprano Tony Arnold, with Diane Walsh, piano, in the final concert of the Portland Chamber Music Festival, Saturday night at Hannaford Hall.

Although the songs are more late Romantic than 12-tone in style, no one goes home whistling their melodies, as Berg’s teacher, Schoenberg, hoped would have happened by now. Perhaps the upbeat theme of the set is behind it, but they seem less dark in feeling than their models by Richard Strauss, some of which we heard last week at the Salt Bay Chamberfest.

Berg, however, is a master at creating an emotional universe to encase a poem, and Arnold, a noted interpretor of “modern” composers, recreated the atmosphere of each precisely. I would like to hear her interpretation of the later “Altenberg Leider.”

Ironically, a contemporary work by David Bruce (b. 1970), “Gumboots” for Clarinet and String Quartet, (2008), was more easily accessible. The unfortunate title (think of galoshes), refers to the boots that South African wage slaves had to wear in flooded mines, and which they employed to develop a sort of covert rhythmical language.

“Gumboots,” commissioned by clarinetist Todd Palmer, who played it at the concert, consists of five lively dances and an interlude, which the composer sees as the “abstract celebration of the rejuvenating power of dance, moving as it does from introspection through to celebration.”

Each dance is a polyrhythmic romp on the strings, supporting an incredibly virtuosic clarinet part, heavily influenced by traditional African musical forms. Although there is little “progress” through the movements, each was great fun, with the only atonality occurring in some of the clarinet’s grace notes.

The evening concluded with the closest approach to a string orchestra (12 players) that I have heard at a PCMF concert, in the Dvorák Serenade in E Major, Op. 22.

Unless one were familiar with this early work, it would be difficult to tell, except for the last movement, that it was by Dvorák at all. Some of it sounds weirdly like Borodin. The orchestra was sometimes in need of a conductor, but it was still a pleasant, if not memorable experience, and was received with a standing ovation by the large audience.

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

Salt Bay Chamberfest Shares the Madness

Salt Bay Chamberfest
Darrows Barn, Damariscotta
Aug. 8, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

The opening concert of the Salt Bay Chamberfest, before an over-flow crowd Tuesday night at Darrows Barn, continued its tradition of making unusual works not only accessible but enjoyable.

The evening started out with the most avant of the avant garde— two works for solo violin played by virtuoso Jennifer Koh. “Moto Perpetuo,” by David Ludwig, was commissioned by Koh as part of her “Shared Madness” series, now up to 34 pieces that explore the most far-out possibilities of the violin.

She began with a shorter work from the same “Madness” series, “Kinski Paganini,” by Missy Mazzoli, that references Paganini’s 24th Caprice and the film “Paganini” by Klaus KInsky, as inspired by the Devil as the violinist.

If that work was wild, the perpetual motion piece was even further out, with a series of variations interrupted by shrieks, sul ponte hollow sounds, and col legno (playing on the wood), that sounds like crumpling paper. I don’t think Paganini could have played it, Devil or not. The audience loved it.

The shift in mood to mezzo-soprano Kate Aldrich, with pianist Thomas Sauer, was not as radical as it might have been, since she began with “Riedi al soglio” from Rossini’s “Zelmira,” an aria that requires as much virtuosity to sing as a Paganini Caprice does to play.

Aldrich is a soprano on the verge of greatness, if not already there, and her aria was spectacular. For emotional intensity, however, I preferred the four Strauss songs that followed. I know enough German to appreciate the dark poetry of love and loss that the songs portray, but merely the variations in tone and phrasing were enough to bring tears to your eyes. I want to hear Aldrich in “Der Rosenkavalier.”

Sauer did not so much as accompany the singer as collaborate with her in creating dramatic scenes. HIs dynamic range and tempi were a perfect match for Aldrich’s sensitive portrayals.

Sauer demonstrated another sort of technical fireworks and endurance in the final work on the program, the Piano Quartet No. 2 in G minor, Op. 45, of Gabriel Fauré. The turbulent and virtually unceasing piano part often seems as if the composer feared being penalized for a rest.

The quartet is a strange work indeed, Fauré has been called the Brahms of France, but I think he is closer to Max Reger, flirting with atonality but never quite taking the leap. It also owes a great deal to the composer’s friend St.Saens, who showed how much life remained in “old fashioned” forms.

In spite of the continuous presence of the piano, it blended surprisingly well with the strings—Koh on violin, Cynthia Phelps, viola, and festival founder Wilhelmina Smith, cello— producing harmonies that could belong only to Fauré.

The quartet ends with a glorious waltz that doesn’t climax, but simply ends when the composer decides that it’s gone on long enough. It earned a long and boisterous standing ovation.

Future concerts of the Chamberfest will take place on Tuesdays and Fridays until August 18. For information see www.saltbaychamberfest.org.

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

The Best and the Brightest at Bowdoin

Bowdoin International Music Festival
Studzinski Recital Hall
July 31, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

The Ying Brothers’ strategy of presenting some of the world’s finest string quartets (including their own) at the Bowdoin International Music Festival, seems to be paying off. The Monday night concerts, at which most of the groups appear, have been sold out for weeks.

When I was a student, I was advised that string quartets were the highest form of music, enjoyed only by the cognoscenti. Maine seems to have a lot of cognoscenti, since I heard another quartet, at the Sebago-Long Lake Music Festival, play the Schumann Piano Quintet in E-flat Major, Op. 44, which concluded Monday’s program, just a week before.

Last night’s performance, by the Borromeo String Quartet, saw Studzinski Hall so full that ranks of students were seated on both sides of the stage, as at an old Vladimir Horowitz concert.

I did not care for the quartet’s use of glowing lap-top computer scores, but that is merely the personal prejudice of a confirmed Luddite.

The first notes of the Mendelssohn String Quartet No. 2 in A Minor, Op. 13, proclaimed that the audience was in the presence of something special. The harmony of four instruments, each with its own timbre, was so startlingly clear and precise that one could have listened to that chord for the entire evening.

Fortunately, that time warp did not happen, but the familiar score took on new meaning, with an emphasis on polyphony, and other characteristics of the late Beethoven, that influenced the young composer—right down to infuriating false cadences. The quiet ending held the audience spellbound for a moment before the first applause. (Or were they expecting another fake ending?)

My favorite of the evening was the String Quartet No. 1 (“Metamorphoses Nocturnes”) by Györgi Ligeti,  a highly imaginative and resourceful work that requires the utmost virtuosity. Unlike the motifs in much “contemporary music,” the germ that generates all of the metamorphoses is easy to follow. Violinist Nicholas Kitchen referred to it as “slime crawling upwards,” and pointed out that, unlike Waldo, it is everywhere. It is also capable of generating some beautiful patterns, including a Viennese waltz. The work owes a great deal to Bartok’s Nocturnes, and surpasses them in some ways. The tricky polyrhythms and prestissimo passages seem virtually impossible, but the quartet did not miss a beat.

I must confess that I liked the Sebago-Long Lake version of the Schumann Quintet better than the Borromeo’s, which seemed almost too perfect. There were also some balance problems with the Steinway concert grand, played by Pei-Shan Lee, which might have been solved by a lid partially closed.

The last two movements were more exciting. In the third,  Lee seems to have said the hell with it, it’s a piano concerto, and in the fourth the quartet let their hair down and made a real contest of it. The result was the loudest and most prolonged standing ovation I’ve seen at Studzinski Hall.

The final concerts of the Festival, excluding those of the Young Artists series, will be on Wednesday, Aug. 2, at Studzinski Hall, and Friday, Aug. 4, at Crooker Theater. The latter will feature the Beethoven “Emperor” Concerto, with Joseph Kalichstein as pianist and conductor.

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

A Captivating “La Traviata”

“La Traviata”
Merrill Auditorium
July 26, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

“Enchanting” is not a word one reads often in music reviews, but it applies to the Opera Maine production of Verdi’s “La Traviata,” which opened Wednesday night at Merrill Auditorium.

I was prepared to turn up my willing suspension of disbelief to high volume—the plot of “La Traviata” is as full of holes as a political platform—but I was hooked from the first note of the prelude, as played by Stephen Lord’s fine orchestra, and captivated upon the raising of the curtain on a Parisian drawing room of the 1930s.

The set, by Lloyd Evans, with scenery provided by Opera Carolina, is marvelous, with its massive curved stairway in red velvet, and the costumes, by Millie Hiibel, are equally gorgeous. The garden of the second act evokes bucolic sophistication with a gazebo that dominates the scene.

Director Dona D. Vaughn’s choice of the 1930’s era, with its connotations of ”The Great Gatsby,” was inspired. “La Traviata,” written in 1853, failed on its first appearance due to its subject matter and staging in modern dress.

The initial flop was also due to an inappropriate diva in the title role of Violetta. That was not a problem with soprano Maria Natale, who not only has a glorious voice and acting ability, but actually looks the part. I had not remembered how difficult her role is to sing at all. Verdi’s score is as full of flourishes, ornaments and gigantic leaps in pitch as anything by Handel. To sing it with appropriate expression is trebly difficult, but Natale accomplished it believably, even in the prolonged death scene.

Tenor Mackenzie Whitney, as Alfredo, was equally appropriate, wooing Violetta with good looks, devotion and astonishing naivety. What makes him appealing to her, in this version, seems to have been his vulnerability.

In the father-and-son scenes, however, baritone Joo Won Kang, as Alfredo’s father Giorgio Germont, steals the show, especially in the well-known aria “Di Provenza il mar” in which he recalls happy moments in their house by the sea.

An accomplished chorus, under the direction of Robert Russell, lightens up the stage in Violetta’s lively parties, providing welcome comic interludes in the tragedy, including a fantastic gypsy dance and a lively pas de deux by principals of the Portland Ballet, Kelsey Harrison and Russell Hewey.

The minor roles, for which Verdi severely limits the number of lines sung, were also perfectly portrayed. Bass Hidenori Inoue, as Alfredo’s rival, Baron Duphol, is his exact opposite, projecting power and menace like a Samurai.

The final death scene is sometimes parodied as too long and over-blown, but Verdi’s music carries the day, making it as believable as Raymond Carver’s depiction of the death of Chekhov, in which the presiding doctor orders up a bottle of champagne. Such telling details, in which Vaughn excels, make it work.

Looking for something to quibble with, I inquired if it was possible for Alfredo and Duphol to have a duel in 1930. The last recorded duel in France occurred in 1967. (Oh well, the practice would make us all more polite.)

The performance earned a long and well-deserved standing ovation, finally bringing on stage almost everyone concerned, with flowers for Natale and Vaughn.

There are sill a few tickets left for Friday’s performance. I would urge anyone who loves opera to snap them up.

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

Sebago-Long Lake Concerts Worth the Drive

Sebago-Long Lake Music Festival
Deertrees Theater, Harrison
July 18, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

From Pownal to Harrison is an hour’s drive over twisty roads and 17 (I counted) turns. The Sebago-Long Lake Music Festival at Deertrees Theater, every Tuesday evening from now until August 8, is always worth the trip.

The theater, with its resonating wooden shell, is like being inside a giant cello. The musicians are first-rate and the programming imaginative. One can always hear something new and unexpected, such as the Dvorák Terzetto in C Major for Two Violins and Viola, Opus 74 (1887), which the composer, then at the height of his powers, dashed off for a friend.

I wish I could be more enthusiastic about it, but the work is more fun to play than to listen to in a concert setting. It also suffers from lack of a bass line, although the viola struggles valiantly to make up the deficiency.

That said, Dvorák seldom wrote badly and the work is full of interesting touches, characteristic melodies and some successful experiments, such as the tremolo variation in the final movement.

The Brahms Trio in A Minor for Clarinet, Cello and Piano, Op. 114, was also written for a friend, the clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld, whose playing brought the aging composer out of retirement. It is more thoroughly composed than the Dvorák, but was obviously written to show off the beauties of a wind instrument assuming its modern form under the fingers of a virtuoso.

Brahms is even reticent with the piano part, which must have cost him a great deal of angst. It also contains one of Brahms’ most charming waltzes and harks back to the earlier Hungarian dances in the final movement. My favorite sections were the compare-and-contrast interludes with the cello, and wherever clarinetist Carmelo Galante produced that lovely burbling signature sound.

Does any one recall “Music Minus One?” I had the recording of Schumann’s great Piano Quintet in E-Flat Major, Op. 44, to attempt playing the piano part with a famous quartet. It didn’t work. Not only was the score difficult to play in strict tempo, but matching the pitch of the recording to the piano tuning was virtually impossible. Still, I got to know the quintet well enough to appreciate a really exciting performance by Mihae Lee, whose rapid chord scales in the Scherzo almost (but not quite) turned the piece into a piano concerto for Clara.

The entire work went by too fast, from the glorious opening theme to the final fugue, which evolves naturally from what has gone before instead of being an obligatory homage to Bach, as with other Romanic efforts.

It earned a typical Deertrees standing ovation from the large audience, with deafening foot-stamping to take advantage of the theater’s resonance.

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

DaPonte at Top Form in “More for Four”

DaPonte String Quartet
Unitarian Universalist Church, Brunswick
July 11, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

Most classical music programs take the form of a sandwich. One “difficult” or contemporary work, squeezed between two audience favorites. The DaPonte String Quartet’s concert Tuesday at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Brunswick, was more of the open-face variety, beginning with a devastating “Four for Tango,” by Argentine composer Astor Piazzolla—black as midnight in Buenos Aires and twice as dangerous.

It never ceases to amaze me how much dissonance can be carried on the broad shoulders of the tango, without missing a beat. Everything seems normal, including shrieks on the violins that sound like gauchos sharpening their knives. Every good performance of Piazzolla—and this was one of the best—contains a black hole of violence and despair. “Four for Tango” ends in a knife fight. Absolutely gorgeous.

If one needed further evidence that the DaPonte was in its best form, it was given by the next rendition, of Samuel Barber’s famous Adagio from the String Quartet No. 1. The long, drawn-out increase in intensity built to an almost unbearable level before an abrupt transition to the tranquility of the opening—all with the same richness of texture that one has come to expect in the better-known orchestral version.

It was followed by a delightful series of musical one-liners, “Microcosms,” by John Heiss, narrated by violinist Lydia Forbes. The short jokes range from major and minor seconds “rubbing together” in “Clustered,” to a crazy waltz in “Stuck” to aleatoric shenanigans in “Free.” How can one dislike a composer who writes a fantasy on Schoenberg’s “Pierrot Lunaire”? (In the concluding “Homeward Bound”).The audience thoroughly enjoyed it.

Speaking of crazy waltzes, the DaPonte presented another example in a magnificent performance of Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 7 in F Major, Op. 59 No. 1, as quirky in its own way as the Heiss piece.
It came in the second movement, Allegretto vivace e sempre scherzando in B-llat major, which really is a joke, unlike many scherzi, which take themselves seriously. In the midst of persistent and strangely rhythmical motif in repeated notes comes a strange little tune that is the height of vulgarity and very hard to get out of one’s head.

The scherzo is followed by a seriously melodic adagio, with some appealing cello and violin solos, leading suddenly to series of variations on a Russian theme (sounds like our MSM) insisted upon by the sponsor of Opus 59, the Russian ambassador Count Rasumowsky.

The Count certainly got his money’s worth. Every time one expects the ending chords there comes another take on the “Russian” theme, which I believe was actually invented by Beethoven. Just when the audience thinks it can’ t stand another false cadence, the work comes to an abrupt end—in this case leading to a standing ovation.

The program will be repeated on July 13 at 7:00 p.m. in the Burnt Cove Church community center in Stonington and on July 18, at 7:30 p.m. at the Maine Jewish Museum in Portland.

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

A Revelatory Brandenburg 3

Portland Bach Festival
Cathedral Church of St.. Luke
June 23, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

Now No. 3 has to be admitted to the pantheon. The performance of the third Brandenburg Concerto by the Bach Festival Orchestra Friday night at St. Luke’s Cathedral came like a revelation, or was it an epiphany?

Scholars have been debating for centuries about the absence of a slow movement in this work, but Arthur Haas at the harpsichord improvised a riff on Bach’s central cadence that showed what had been there all along, inspiring Beethoven to write equally short movements.

A form exists as a frame for the composer, not an edict from on high. A convenient convention.

A discussion over a late dinner at Bao Bao, around the corner from St. Luke’s, centered on what made the Portland Bach Festival, playing works that have been reiterated for 300 years, so fresh and, yes, joyful.

The consensus was that Lewis Kaplan and Emily Isaacson have assembled a critical mass of fine musicians, whose abilities play off one another to create a chain reaction of some kind. The Brandenburg No. 3 seemed almost like a jazz session (in heaven rather than Preservation Hall) with each string section responding and building upon the work of the preceding one.

That they had a work of supreme genius to recreate didn’t hurt either. What Bach does with strings and continuo alone is sui generis. The result had the capacity audience leaping to its feet.

He isn’t bad with solo instruments either, as shown by the opening Orchestral Suite No. 2 in B Minor, basically a flute concerto based on a succession of dances. I have only heard flautist Emi Ferguson in works by Bach, but if she is equally good in other classics and moderns, Rampal may have to move over. I want to hear her Debussy.

As she moved from one ballroom to the next, the only question was how she could possibly out-do what had gone before. The spectacular final Badinerie provided a definitive answer.

The Harpsichord Concerto in D Major, with Haas at the keyboard, was equally delightful but too intimate for a large hall, in spite of Rod Regier’s strong and handsome instrument. Except in the cadenzas, it was difficult to hear the delicate nuances of the keyboard part.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, the organ was a little too powerful in the Motet: “Jesu, Meine Freude.” But the Oratorio Chorale, under Emily Isaacson, gave an outstanding performance of one of Bach’s most inventive compositions for voice, blessedly without recitative. One could wish for more of the five soloists—Sherezade Panthaki, soprano, Jolle Greenleaf, soprano, Jay Carter, countertenor, Steven Caldicott Wilson, tenor,  and David McFerrin, baritone. Sherezade, in particular, has a phenomenal voice. But even at the PBF one can’t have everything.

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

An Outstanding Brandenburg 2

Portland Bach Festival
Episcopal Church of St. Mary
June 18, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

Like Oscar Wilde, I have very simple tastes: I am always satisfied with the best. Such as the Portland Bach Festival’s performance of the Bach Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 at St. Mary’s Church on Sunday.

I was brought up on that and the No. 5, on what I now realize was a bad recording (better than nothing), and have never missed an opportunity to hear it once again. Sunday’s rendition by the festival orchestra under Lewis Kaplan, with soloists John Theissen, piccolo trumpet, Emi Ferguson, flute, John Ferrillo, oboe and Renée Jolles, violin, was quite simply the best I have heard.

It also flirted with danger, setting a rapid tempo in the first movement that only the most experienced of soloists could maintain accurately. Thiessen was phenomenal in his melodic and unstrained negotiation of a score that gives most trumpet players nightmares.

A little clarino goes a long way, and Bach wisely omitted the part in the second movement, providing room for some limpid and graceful work by the remaining trio, led by Ferguson, whose attitude reminds me of the musicians on Greek vases. She can also hold her own with the piccolo trumpet; some passages in unison almost made the timbres of the two instruments sound the same.

The third movement echoed the virtuosity of the first, but more so, ending in a standing ovation by an overflow crowd. (Other music lovers could watch and hear the program gratis on a large TV screen outside.) Inside the church, the acoustics were remarkable, every instrument in the concerto clearly identifiable.

The evening began with the Bach Cello Suite in C Major, BWV 1009, in an outstanding performance by Paul Dwyer, making the most of the contrast between open and stopped strings, as Bach intended. The contrasts also emphasized the sonic distinction of the baroque cello on which he was playing.

The evening ended with a fine performance of the cantata “Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben,” BWV 147, with Festival Choir-in-Residence, the Oratorio Chorale, and soloists Jolle Greenleaf soprano, Jay Carter, countertenor, Steven Caldicott Wilson tenor, and David McFerrin, baritone.

This seems Maine’s year of the countertenor, with effective use of the high male voice in Negro spirituals, a Gluck opera and now a cantata. It is a welcome addition, but it was matched by the clarity and enchanting inflections of Greenleaf in the soprano aria “Bereite dir, Jesu…”

Of course, what most of he audience was waiting for was the chorus and orchestra in “Jesu , joy of man’s desiring.” They were not disappointed, and showed their appreciation with the longest standing ovation I have seen at St. Mary’s.

There’s more to come this week. See the schedule on www.portlandbachfestival.org. and hope that there are still a few seats available.

I was unable to hear Kaplan last week in the famous Bach Chaconne, so I played Brahms’ piano transcription for the left hand (which Kaplan recommended over the better-known Busoni). It was lovely, and pretty authentic, but my left hand almost fell off after the final bar.

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