Category Archives: Reviews

Pianist Excels in Final Concert of Franco Center Series

Jonathan Bass, Pianist
Franco Center, Lewiston
June 1, 2018
by Christopher Hyde

The final concert of the 2017-18 Piano Series, June 1 at Lewiston’s Franco Center, ended on a low note— “D” three octaves below Middle “C,” to be exact.

Sorry, I always wanted to write that, now that I don’t have to worry about an editor or headline composer.

The concert did end on the lowest note of Chopin’s Prelude 24, Opus 28, but Jonathan Bass, Professor of Piano at Boston Conservatory at Berklee, had just played a concert that exemplified everything that was best about the series—which deserves to be better known throughout Maine.

Bass is everything a pianist should be, encompassing technical brilliance without showiness, musical and emotional depth, careful thought and an architectural sense of structure. He has a huge dynamic range, and what impressed me most about his performance was his extremely delicate and controlled pianissimo, probably the hardest thing to do well on the piano. After his interpretation of Debussy’s “L’isle joyeuse,“ I would dearly love to hear his “Serenade for the Doll.”

The Debussy was preceded by a little known Nocturne No. 6 in D-flat Major, Op. 63, of Gabriel Fauré, a sonata-like work with abundant pianistic filagree,  that established an historical context for the more Impressionist piece. The coloring of both was superb.

Bass is no slouch in conveying drama, either, as evidenced by the Beethoven Sonata No. 26 in E-flat Major, Op. 81a, with its three movements entitled “Farewell,” “Absence” and “Return.” The final “very lively” section was Beethoven at his wildest, with crashing sforzandos, violent but joyous contrasts and virtuoso passagework. It also had more false cadences than the Gobi Desert has mirages. The small but enlightened audience didn’t bite on a single one.

After intermission, with its traditional wine, crepes and tortieres, everything came together with a rare performance of all  24 Chopin Preludes of Opus 28. in numerical order. Andre Gide called these Chopin’s “eagle feathers” and Bass pointed out that if the composer had written nothing else, the Preludes would have made him world-famous anyway.

The Preludes run the gamut of emotions from Beethoven-esque violence, through rain in Majorca, to a wistful and short waltz, and the world’s most somber funeral march. I had virtually no quarrel with any of Bass’ readings. In fact, a recording of the set could serve as a model for aspiring pianists.

I did think that the difficult No. 8 was a bit fast, but I’d like to be able to play it at that tempo, then slow down if necessary, instead of vice versa.

After that astonishing performance, there was no need for an encore.

A friend in the audience, who agrees with my prejudice against encores, especially after soul-wrenching concertos, had a brilliant suggestion. Why not play the encore first? A bit of technically demanding fluff would warm up the soloist and show his or her ability to play the most difficult cadenzas of the premiere work on the program. The audience would not have to worry about whether the soprano could hit high C and they could go home whistling themes from the concerto.  Just a suggestion…

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

Students Shine at Piano Recital

Ginger Hwalek Student Recital
Minsky Recital Hall, UMO
May 20, 2018
by Christopher Hyde

A well-tempered Steinway concert grand must be a powerful incentive to piano students. The recital Sunday afternoon at the University of Maine’s MInsky Recital Hall, by students of Ginger Yang Hwalek, was not only impressive in terms of technical achievement, but also enjoyable musically. The 20-some compositions ranged from Bach to Stravinsky, without a piano-method special in the bunch.

In fact, the technical expertise of the performers led a critic to evaluate them in terms of interpretation or realization of the composer’s intent rather than the ability to play the notes correctly. The first on stage, 10-year-old Jordan Seavey,* emphasized the easy flow of the Sonatina in A Minor by Anton Benda, and achieved a good Stravinsky coloration in that composer’s “Five Finger Toccata.”

Later on in the program, Julia Hammond’s “Golliwog’s Cakewalk “ painted a minstrel in brilliant colors. Her “Doctor Gradus ad Parnassus,” from the same “Children’s Corner “ suite, generated beautiful waves of sound, but I prefer the image of a student plodding through a five-finger exercise, slyly changing key or soaring off in flights of fantasy from the boredom before him. But that’s just an opinion. Debussy, unlike Stravinsky, is always open to alternative readings.

Speaking of waves of sound, some of the works were of a high degree of difficulty, navigated almost perfectly. The Schumann “Aufschwung,” by Ha Do, was one example. Others included Anh Tran’s Fantasie-Impromptu, Op. 66 (Chopin), the Beethoven “Moonlight” Sonata, by Helen Shearer, the Beethoven Sonata in F Minor, Op. 2, No. 1, by Lilja Hanson, and a rousing piano four-hands version of the Mozart Sonata in D Major (KV 381), by Cecilia Doering and her teacher.(The sonata selections were excerpts, which did not make them any the less entertaining.)

While most of the works were by prominent composers, some of the lesser-known were also interesting. Shearer played “The Story of Gaydar” by Russian composer Grigori Frid, a Brahms Ballade written by Grieg. Sofie Rueter sketched two animal portraits by Linda Namath, and Mei Tian played a brilliantly syncopated “Crimson,” from “Sketches in Color” by Robert Starer.

Fine intermediate composers had their place too: an Allegro by William Friedmann Bach and an Etude by Dimiry Kabaalevsky, played by William Xu, were followed by Vetri Vel’s interpretation of the Sonatina in C Major, Op. 55, No. 1 of Friedrich Kuhlau, plus the better-known “Siciliano” of Schumann.

The program ended with some fine pianistic coloration by Emma Shearer of “Two Arabesques” by Debussy. The works on display had one thing in common, as Hwalek pointed out: Each of the students had made them their own.

*Jordan Seavey is the grandson of Christopher Hyde, a writer and musician who lives in Pownal and can be reached at classbeat@netscape.net.

Portland Symphony’s Apotheosis of the Dance

Portland Symphony Orchestra
Merrill Auditorium
May 13, 2018
by Christopher Hyde

Once in a great while there comes a relatively unknown work that is truly worth reviving. The Concerto in A Minor for Violin and Orchestra, Opus 82, by Alexander Glazunov (1865-1936). is a prime example. As played by the Portland Symphony Orchestra under Daniel Meyer, with violinist Chee-Yun, Sunday afternoon at Merrill Auditorium, it brought something new to late Romanticism, with a voice all its own.

The first section of the concerto seemed a little hum-drum, with statements and development of not very memorable tunes. Then came a very long and technically ferocious cadenza, managed superbly by the soloist. It was followed by a peal of thunder and trumpet calls, and it was off to the races.

Glazunov explores just about every instrumental combination in the book at a high rate of speed, somewhere between a quick march and a jig. The violin quizzically answers massed trumpets, plays duets with various sections and imitates the oboe, all of it held together beautifully by the forgotten opening melodies, transformed by the faster tempo.

A tour de force, and something new under the sun to anyone who had not heard the work before. Then Chee-Yun spoiled it with an encore– a piece of prestidigitation (Recitative and Scherzo by Fritz Kreisler) without any redeeming musical value. Any lasting enjoyment of the concerto, replaying its beauties in the mind, was obliterated. Chee-Yun, who has a fine musical sense as well as technique to burn, should have known better, and Meyer, one of three finalists for the post of PSO music director, should have talked her out of it.

As a young romantic, I imagined impossibilities, such as taking the great hornist Dennis Brain on a fox hunt to perform the calls, or getting the Philadelphia Orchestra into the pit for a performance of “Swan Lake” by the Bolshoi Ballet (even though their own orchestra was pretty good). Meyer’s version of a suite from “Swan Lake” fulfilled more than half of the dream, conjuring up elegant images at every bar.

The music is divinely Romantic, without an ounce of the cuteness that sometimes mars “The Nutcracker.” The violin solo by concert master Charles Dimmick was worth the price of admission; when combined with a cello part, played by David Paschke, it was little short of spectacular. Every part of the suite was danceable, although the tempo in Czardas was a trifle fast.

I have always had a problem with Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances, Opus 45. HIs last works, they seem less inspired than autobiographical. It is fun trying to identify all the snippets of previous works, the orchestration is striking, and the emotion obvious, but they fail to move one like the concertos or the earlier instrumental pieces, such as “Isle of the Dead.”  Speaking of which, the dances comes alive in the finale with a ferocious treatment of the Dies Irae. It finishes with a prolonged cymbal clash which may, or may not, portray the soul leaving the body.

I won’t go so far as to say that Meyer made the music sound better than it is, but he and the orchestra gave it the best possible reading.

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

Midcoast Ends Season on a High Note

Midcoast Symphony Orchestra
Franco Center, Lewiston
May 12, 2018
by Christopher Hyde

The young French pianist, Lise de la Salle, impressed audiences of the Midcoast Symphony a while ago with an astonishing performance of the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 3.  Last night at Lewiston’s Franco Center, she showed that she could be equally impressive in a more intimate role, with the Schumann Piano Concerto in A Minor.

One of my first recordings was an LP with the Schumann concerto on one side and the Grieg Piano Concerto in A Minor on the other (could it have been Dinu LIpatti?). I have never lost my affection for either work, the Schumann in particular, which is a strange animal indeed. It makes a real attempt to avoid the heroism of the Romantic concerto, opting instead for its membership in a brotherhood of the culturally elite —the Davidsbundler, whose march is incorporated in the final movement.

There are sections in which the piano not only blends with the orchestra, but actually takes on an accessory role, like a motor that can be heard purring in the background.

The score nevertheless demands a high degree of virtuosity, especially in the exclamatory chords, and rapid passage work, which de la Salle has in abundance. Her playing is both precise—fitting a cascade of notes perfectly into a bar, but emotionally satisfying as well, something I had been concerned about after hearing the Rachmaninoff.

The Midcoast, under Rohan Smith, supported the piano ably, realizing Shumann’s concept of “first among equals.” There was a little tug of war in the beginning between the conductor’s favorite tempo and that of the pianist, but that was soon worked out.

The program began on a less successful note with three dance episodes from Leonard Bernstein’s “On the Town.”  Bernstein’s orchestral arrangements are are difficult in both scoring and rhythm, and one questions whether their performance by an amateur orchestra is worth the effort.

Many of this popular composer’s works have come to seem dated, and this tribute to a Broadway that never was is a case in point.

After the last dance, Smith admonished the large audience not to applaud between movements. In their defense, each of the dances stands on is own, without being part of an un-interruptible whole. And even highly-structured classical works were historically cheered (and sometimes repeated) after each movement.

Smith concluded the program with the best-known symphony that is never heard: Beethoven’s Fifth. It should be programmed more often, so that new generations can understand why it is so famous. It is simply a miracle. Just one of its triumphs is the orchestration, which allowed all sections of the Midcoast their moment in the sun– especially the woodwinds. It was a fitting way to close out the season.

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

Mahler No. 2 a Tribute to Robert Moody

Portland Symphony Orchestra
Merrill Auditorium
May 1, 2018
by Christopher Hyde

The Robert Moody era of the Portland Symphony Orchestra ended with a very loud bang Tuesday night at Merrill Auditorium, when the music director conducted the final work of his 10-year sojourn, a monumental performance of the Mahler Symphony No.. 2 (“Resurrection”).

A full orchestra, with major additions on and off stage, two operatic sopranos, and the ChoralArt Masterworks chorus, were at Moody’s disposal, and he made the most of them. The percussion section had a field day, producing a decibel level heard before only in the engine room of a diesel submarine. Three sets of timpani, one offstage? I was surprised that Moody didn’t throw in a few bass notes from the Kotzschmar organ.

The capacity audience loved it, erupting in a lively standing ovation, with cheers, after an emotionally grueling 90-minutes (with one short interruption). In the orchestra there were hugs all around and an unusual bouquet for the maestro.

In a survey of 150 conductors of major orchestras, the Mahler No. 2 was in the top three of favorites. It is easy to see why. The symphony has something for everyone, from massed brasses and trumpets to rival the angel Gabriel to nursery rhymes, from harps to hautboys, from clarinets to contrabassoons.

In addition to bad poetry after Klopstock, Mahler wrote his own program notes, useful in trying to know what is going on. Before Pulitzer-Winning hip-hop, how did a composer describe the meaninglessness of life?

“The first movement represents a funeral and asks questions such as “Is there life after death?”; the second movement is a remembrance of happy times in the life of the deceased; the third movement represents a view of life as meaningless activity; the fourth movement is a wish for release from life without meaning ; and the fifth movement – after a return of the doubts of the third movement and the questions of the first – ends with a fervent hope for everlasting, transcendent renewal.”

The orchestra was in top form and enthusiastic;  the Masterworks Chorus, under Robert Russell, gave one of its best performances, with plenty of bass, and the soloists, soprano Twyla Robinson and mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Bishop, were outstanding, both in their depiction of the emotions desired by the composer and in their ability to soar above a tremendous orchestra.

The contrast and variety Moody was able to coax from the vast ensemble were little short of miraculous. Finally, the choral sections, as the composer intended, were like cool water after a day in the desert. There were live effects could never be duplicated on a recording.

So why didn’t the symphony become a religious experience, as it is for many? Too much going on? Too long? The composer’s conceit about the value of his suffering? Supertitles in English? (Like the Catholic mass in Latin, the poetry works best in German.) Perhaps most off-putting was overdramatized emotion, tearing a passion to tatters. Mahler’s most effective expressions are ironic or gentle reminders of weltschmerz. Speak softly and you won’t have to carry a big stick.

All in all, however, the symphony was a marvelously performed tribute and a grand farewell to a friend.

“Girl in Six Beats” Appeals to Younger Audience

“Girl in Six Beats”
Portland High School Auditorium
April 30, 2018
by Christopher Hyde

The short opera, “Girl in Six Beats,” which was given a special performance for students at Portland High School on Monday, is a new take on an age-old story: the descent into Hades. Indeed, it goes even further back, with a shaman entering the spirit world to bring back advice to the tribe.

A project of OperaMaine, the libretto was written by high school students Emelia Bailey, Ella Briman, Makena Deveraux, Myah Garrison, Emily Greene, Zoe Sliwinski and Kaspar Wilder during a five-day workshop at “The Telling Room” in Portland.

The libretto was then turned over to Daniel Sonenberg, of “The Summer King” fame, to compose an operatic score. He used all of the students’ writing verbatim, except for some minor cuts.

The story begins with a monolog by the girl’s mother, sung by Christie Paul, in which she regrets not paying enough attention to her own daughter, while  working,ironically, with disturbed children.

The girl, sung by Rachel Shukan, finds herself, after a suicide attempt, in a limbo peopled by Oblivion, Nicole Ponti, Reincarnation, Miles Obrey, and Slushie Guy, David Myers.  Slushy is dressed in aging hippie style and caries a large blue cup with an oversize straw, with which he makes occasional nasty noises.

While Obie and Ray argue about the disposition of the girl’s soul, Slushie steals the show with a humorous depiction of his wasted life —“a million mistakes”— and how he came to be in limbo perpetuo by choosing not to choose. That implants in the girl the idea of of making up her own mind, and she decides to reconcile with her mother, awakening in a fine duet with the latter at a hospital bedside.

Sonenberg’s music fits the tale quite well, although much of it is necessarily recitative. He is best in duets between Obie and Ray, and mother and daughter, with carefully constructed sequences of intervals, some dissonant and some not, but all flowing forward.. He claims to have received his inspiration primarily from the teenaged authors, but also from “Twin Peaks.” The final aria sounds more like Orpheus charming the underworld.

The opera is scored for piano, played by music director Scott Wheatley, and a chorus of three men and three women, who also play small percussion instruments, effective in creating the appropriate atmosphere.

The production was directed by Ellen Chickering, with stage management by Keeghan Perry.

The high-school audience seemed to like the opera, which may become a hit because of is relevance to the problem of teen-age suicide. In a question and answer session after the performance, the authors seemed to disagree about whether the libretto was indeed about that subject or what is nowadays called lack of communication. The treasure the girl brings back from the underworld is her own voice, as an equal of her mothers’.

Some take-homes for the authors (which they probably know already): Characters take on a life of their own. The need for an “objective correlative,” such as Slushies’ king-size container and straw. Address large themes, such as death and transfiguration, through small details. (See “Waiting for Godot.”) Keep it simple; the audience has to understand sung words, a very difficult task without supertitles. A camel is a horse designed by a committee, but in this case a collaborative exercise paid off.

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

Broadway at its Best

Portland Symphony Orchestra
Merrill Auditorium
April 21, 2018
by Christopher Hyde

I had forgotten just how good the American musical theater once was. The opening bars of “Oklahoma,” played by the Portland Symphony Orchestra in a Pops concert Sunday afternoon at Merrill Auditorium, were a forcible reminder.

My father, who was a critic, took me to opening night. We sat in the front row of the balcony and I set the stage with a loud impromptu version of “The Star Spangled Banner,” in my best boy soprano. Later, my sister and I learned every single word of every single song —“Oklahoma” is a cornucopia—and sang them at an audition. The producers found them too “adult” for a children’s program in Philadelphia, but we refused to learn anything else. (We did Cab Calloway too.)

But I digress. The orchestra, under music director finalist Daniel Meyer, was on its best behavior, the arrangements were truly symphonic, and soprano Lisa Vroman was the very model of what a Broadway leading lady should be. She has a marvelous voice, a warm and friendly stage presence, dances gracefully and is also a pretty good stand-up comedienne. Her tales of mishaps on stage and her demure and lethal version of “To Keep My Love Alive” from Rogers’ “Connecticut Yankee” had even the orchestra members laughing into their cellos.

The selections favored Rogers and Hart and Rogers and Hammerstein, but Sondheim, Willson and Loewe were also well represented. The composer of the plaintive “Take of My Solitude,” Tom Megan, was in the audience and received a round of applause.

There was also a charming, humorous version of Irving Berlin’s “I love a Piano,” in which Vroman was perfectly accompanied by PSO keyboardist Janet Reeves.

Vroman spoke of her childhood desire to be Julie Andrews, but her opening “The Sound of Music,” and finale “My Favorite Things” (with an impromptu verse for Portland) placed her firmly in the same league. She even had the near-capacity audience singing “Edelweiss” at the end.

Meyer elicited fresh and enthusiastic performances of favorites so popular that orchestras sometimes merely go through the motions. Fine and cleverly orchestrated arrangements didn’t hurt the cause either. He also has a good singing voice, as evidenced by a duet from “Phantom of the Opera” illustrating one of Vroman’s stories.

It will be interesting to see how he conducts other classics, “Swan Lake” and a Glazunov Violin Concerto, on May 13.

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

The Ariel Quartet:Two Out of Three Isn’t Bad

The Ariel Quartet
Hannaford Hall, USM Portland
April 18, 2018
By Christopher Hyde

When I first started writing music reviews for the Portland Press Herald years ago, I felt like Diogenes and his lantern, looking for an honest man. My search was for the quintessential, live, Brahms performance. Like Diogenes, I never found what I was looking for, although several came close.

My hopes rose when I heard the Ariel Quartet, brought to Hannaford Hall on Wednesday night by Portland Ovations. The monumental Brahms Piano Quintet in F Minor, Opus 34, was the final work on a program that began with one of the most delightful readings of the Mozart Piano Quartet in E-flat Major (K.493) that I have heard anywhere.

The performance was as highly polished and full of intricate relief as a piece of Georgian silver. What can easily become a concerto was held in check by Navah Perlman, whose playing made the piano into one more voice in the quartet, although a lively one.

Sometimes one could not tell where the piano ended and the cello—or the viola, or the violin— began. A true conversation among equals, although inevitably, in the finale, the piano became more equal than others.

The reading was perfectly paced, from beginning to end, and somehow or other, the string players were able to achieve a degree of crisp articulation that matched that of the piano.

It seemed impossible to better that accomplishment, but the Ariel did just that in the Bartok Quartet No.1, as great a masterpiece in its own right as the Mozart. You could cut the concentration with a knife, and the dedication was of the kind that Bartok deserves but seldom gets in even the most prestigious recordings. (I bought the Ariel recording at intermission, something I very seldom do.)

From the opening exchange between the first and second violins, it was apparent that something special was happening, with the microtones producing a complex cloud of overtones. What followed was a taste of Bartok’s nocturnal world (frog fugue, mist over the lake, sighing reeds) and some of his best references to folk dances that never were. He brings forth from four instruments sonorities never heard before, without violating their musical nature.

This is the kind of music one can listen to a hundred times and always hear something new…and enchanting.

What about the Brahms? God knows, and she isn’t telling. Let’s just say that after what had gone before, it was a disappointment. Someone was ill, the quartet had used all its energy in the tirst two works, or maybe they just don’t like Brahms. (There are people like that, hard as it is to imagine.)

As a pianist, I have a theory. After intermission, Perlman played a very tentative Schumann Arabesque (Op. 18). Sometimes, when one piece goes wrong, so does everything else, and it’s advisable to go back to scales for the rest of the evening. It could happen to professionals too, I suppose, but they don’t have the luxury of quitting.

The other work on the Ariel Bartok recording is the Brahms String Quartet No. 2, so we’ll see.

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

A Welcome Addition to the Maine Music Scene

Amethyst Chamber Ensemble
Unitarian Universalist Church, Brunswick
Apr. 15, 2018
By Christopher Hyde

A new star has risen on the Maine (and Massachusetts) musical horizon. On Sunday, the Amethyst Chamber Ensemble, in its first Maine performance, at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Brunswick, transformed what could have been a lugubrious afternoon—sort of a “Songs and Dances of Death”—into a lively celebration of life.

The concert began with a set of three songs, “Let Evening Come,” by American composer William Bolcom (b. 1938) The songs are masterful settings of poems by Maya Angelou, Emily Dickinson and Jane Kenyon, dealing with human reactions to death.

Bolcom is a master at portraying psychological states through music, and the last song, to a poem by Kenyon, turns a funeral march into a triumphant procession. The set was effectively performed by Mary Sullivan, soprano, Scott Nicholas, piano, and Jon Poupore, viola. The latter instrument takes the place of a singer, who died before Bolcom could complete a commission written for two sopranos.

I loved Emily Dickinson’s image of birds in winter accepting the penance of the farmer.

The next selection on the program, the great Brahms Viola Sonata in F Minor, Op. 120, No. 1, was more cheerful, with echoes of his “Liebeslieder Waltzes” coming after more introspective sections, including some surprisingly songful double stops on the viola.

For something entirely different, the trio, with the addition of mezzo-soprano Joëlle Morris, performed 13 of “Fifteen Songs for Voice, Viola and Piano,” by Irving Schlein (1905-1986). Schlein, a familiar figure on Broadway, composed a large number of classical works, which have remained virtually undiscovered.

The songs are short, well-written, and often comical– musical one-liners, such as No. 5, which, while praising bird song, ends in a discordant minor second. The next, extoling harmony, takes the tonic to ridiculous extremes. No. 13, however, harks back to the theme of the concert, recalling the despair of unrequited love.

German weltschmerz was on full display in two wonderful, darkly Romantic songs for Voice and Viola (Op. 91) by Brahms: “Stilled Longing” and “You Who Hover “(“Gestillte Sehnsucht” and “Geistliches Wiegenlied”). They were movingly sung by Morris with just the right degree of restrained emotion, and tones complementing those of the viola.

Three tangos by Astor Piazzolla provided just the right combination of darkness and light, all of them, however a little more melodic than most of that composer’s concert tangos. The first, a Milonga, was sung by Morris, the second “El Titere,” about a Mack the Knife-like character, by Sullivan,and the third, “Song of the Zamba Girl,” by both, as alternating solos and a duet.

Sullivan and Morris form a near-perfect duet, as significant differences in pitch and timbre make the combination of voices most effective. Their coordination was most striking in a programmed encore, a vocalization of Brahms’ Hungarian Dance No. 5 by his friend Pauline Viardot (1821-1910) entitled “Les Bohemiennes.”

I usually cannot understand sung words in English, so Viardot’s French was beyond me. I’ll take it on faith that it was clever, funny and perhaps a bit risqué, judging by the fun that the singers, and the audience, had with it.

The next concert in Maine is scheduled for November. Too far off.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at classbeat@netscape.net.
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A Striking Program of American Organ Music

Harold Stover, Organist
The Cathedral Church of St. Luke, Portland
April 8, 2018
by Christopher Hyde

Merrill Auditorium’s Kotzschmar Organ gets all the press, but there are other wonders of the organ world scattered throughout Maine. One of these is the 1928 Skinner Organ at the Cathedral Church of St. Luke,  displayed in Sunday’s program of American music by composer and organist Harold Stover.

The Skinner, which Stover calls “the gold standard of organs,” was refurbished in 2000, and has some of the most brilliant voices I have heard anywhere. The trumpet or bugle calls in Virgil Thompson’s Variations on “There’s Not a Friend Like the Lowly Jesus,” (1926) were enough to knock your socks off.

Thompson is best known as a music critic, but this work, written in Paris, is a convincing reminder that more things were going on in music than atonalism during the early years of the 20th Century.

Two pieces by Boston composer Arthur Foote (1853-1937) : “Night, a Fantasy” (1919) and “Oriental Sketch,” (1923) showed off the organ’s more delicate aspects in two muted but highly atmospheric pieces, the second of which reminded one a bit of Ketelbey’s famous “In a Monastery Garden.”

I was most impressed by Stover’s early composition, “The Starry Night, after Vincent Van Gogh,” (1971), which is that rare animal, a musical composition inspired by an art work that actually conjures up the appropriate image, including instrumental colors. There are trilling swills around the brilliant yellow stars, cascades of chromatic scales for the dark cypress trees,and solid pedal point anchoring the sleeping village. Besides being a masterpiece in itself, the work, which began the program, showed off the organ’s rapid response admirably.

That response was called upon again in an authentic rendition of “Heliotrope Bouquet, a Slow Drag Two-Step” (1907), a sort of exquisite corpse co-written by Scott Joplin and Louis Chauvin. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a rag performed on an organ before.

Some of the other trumpet stops were exercised in “Trumpet Tunes” (1976), by Calvin Hampton, a composition written as an Easter processional that makes key-changes and dissonance into a pleasant and exciting experience. Stover recalled that Hampton’s recitals at Manhattan’s Calvary Episcopal Church were attended by overflow crowds—at midnight.

The program concluded with two more of Stover’s own compositions, “Blue Prelude,” (2015) an homage to the 30’s of Gershwin and Ellington, and “Feria” (2017), which conjures up images of a Spanish street fair.

Proceeds of the recital will go to support St. Luke’s  music program.

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