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.

A Spectacular Opening for the Portland Symphony Season

The first concert of the Portland Symphony Orchestra, Oct.11 at Merrill Auditorium in Portland, promises to be a study in contrasts. The two major works on the program will be the Beethoven Symphony No. 1, another in the complete cycle of the Beethoven symphonies now being performed by the PSO, and the Berlioz Te Deum, a study in gigantism that makes Louis Moreau Gottshalk’s concert piece for 64 pianos seem like child’s play.

The Beethoven, while it appeared to contemporaries a wild departure from the norms of Haydn and Mozart, has more similarities with than differences from the classic style. Like the first Beethoven piano sonata, it is a delightful piece, clearly in the tradition of Haydn and Mozart, with just enough innovation to presage what would come later. Both works are characterized by delicacy and refinement, two adjectives not generally applied to Beethoven.

One wonders why Maestro Robert Moody decided on what seems to be an arbitrary sequence of the symphonies, instead of presenting them in chronological order to trace Beethoven’s evolution as a composer. He did not spring full-blown from the brow of Minerva.

The motivation behind the selection of the Berlioz Te Deum is clearer—the success of last year’s performance of his “Symphonie Fantastique.” There is also the completion of the multimillion-dollar restoration of the Kotzschmar organ.

Berlioz dreamed for two decades or more of a gigantic military symphony to celebrate a coronation, or a wedding, or a victory over the Prussians, but eventually had to settle for the opening of a Paris World’s Fair in 1855, complete with the christening of a new organ. (Hence the prominence of that instrument in the score, which might have influenced Saint-Saëns Symphony No. 3.)

The sequence of movements more or less follows the form of the Latin mass sung on special occasions, with the composer’s own alterations. The orchestra and chorus at the premiere numbered either 900 or 950 (accounts vary).

Berlioz had the odd notion that a melody which might be rendered ordinary by a single voice would become sublime when sung by 50. He had been intrigued, during a visit to London, by a work sung by 6,500 “children of the poor,” and the Te Deum includes three distinct choruses—one a large children’s chorus— plus a tenor soloist.

For the PSO performance, the orchestra will be joined by tenor René Barbera, the Boston Children’s Chorus, the Choral Art Society and members of the Vox Nova Chamber Choir.

It should be quite a spectacle, enough to hold one’s interest for 45 minutes (even without the two sections reserved for military performances).

Was Mozart Executed?

With his permission, I am posting DaPonte String Quartet cellist Myles Jordan’s essay on the controversy surrounding Mozart’s death. Myles wants me to point out that this is a work in progress, that he is still doing research, and that the final version will include references. Even in this preliminary form, it makes sense to me.

Peter Gay writes in his popular Mozart biography that “There is no evidence Mozart was aware of the French revolution.” This statement reflects a historical record examined in detail many times. There is, of course, limited evidence belonging to sources independent of “the official historical record” that Leopold Ranke, inventor of modern historiography, designed to allow victors to write history. Records of Masonic activities placing Mozart to the left of Rousseau, musical topoi reflected in several works — Die Zauberflöte, the string quartets, especially KV 464, collaborations with Beaumarchais, three works written for Benjamin Franklin’s harmonium, a piano concerto beginning like La Marseillaise — even without the documented insubordinate behavior toward both ecclesiastical and State authorities the list is extensive. It is quite certain Mozart would today be called a radical of the left. He was a feminist — extremely rare for that time — a revolutionary sympathizer and, as an itinerant musician, permitted to travel much more freely in Europe than most people of his class. He was certainly a very politically aware and active man; why, then, should the historical record be completely silent about his attitude toward the events of 1789?

Mozart was likely of use to the Masonic movement as a courier. Legend places him more than once at the Café Procope in Paris (still standing), the informant-infested favorite watering-hole of Jefferson, Franklin, and Beaumarchais (whose own activities as a Crown secret agent operating on behalf of American revolutionary efforts were undertaken under the alias Roderique Hortalez). By 1790 Mozart may have become a dangerous courtier in the eyes of the Emperor, who was Marie Antoinette’s brother, and brought under scrutiny. The task of ascertaining if and how his politics, contacts, and activities posed any threat to the State would have been assigned to Mozart’s immediate superior at Court, the implicitly-trusted Antonio Salieri. There is evidence the courts of France and Austria occasionally shared intelligence.

How did Mozart die? Trichinosis, rheumatic fever and alcoholism are all suspected today; their symptoms match those described by eyewitnesses. The effects of arsenic trioxide poisoning that are also consistent with Mozart’s symptoms are rare; the old Salieri-poisoned-Mozart story is usually ruled out as a conspiracy theory because, as the senior, better-paid court composer, Salieri had no motive to kill him. (Nor was Salieri — teacher of Liszt, Beethoven, Czerny, Moscheles, and Schubert — anything like the mediocrity he is believed to be today.) Yet this story is worth another look, on other grounds.

On one hand, blame for Mozart’s murder would, bluntly, have been an endlessly-protracted public relations nightmare for the House of Habsburg. Immediately after Mozart’s death a celebration of his life and work for which “more than half the city of Prague turned out” gives some sense how beloved he had become. On the other hand, Mozart’s acceptance of salary from a royal employer whose downfall he plotted was equally unacceptable, and this was neither the age nor place a disloyal employee might be given a pink slip and three weeks’ notice. Were the Emperor to have approved his execution there was ample reason for Court to thoroughly purge the historical record and to disseminate a cover-story. The official story is at odds with several established facts, and its timing coincides with a major offensive taken by the Emperor against foreign and domestic revolutionary elements, chiefly Masonic.

Franz Niemetschek testified in 1798 that Constanze Mozart had related the couple were driving in the Prater in June, 1791 when a perfectly healthy Mozart began to talk of his death, half a year before its occurrence. “I cannot rid myself of the thought that someone has poisoned me with acqua toffana [an odorless, colorless arsenic compound]. It is for myself that I am writing the Requiem. Surely my end is not far off. I have the metallic taste in my mouth.” This conversation followed closely on the arrest of Marie Antoinette at Varennes, an event that understandably put the Emperor on high alert. After Mozart’s death, both the bloating and absence of rigor mortis, consistent with poisoning, fanned the widespread belief, reported in a Berlin musical journal, that he had been executed. The same observations, corroborated years later by son Carl Thomas Mozart, were vigorously refuted by his mother (this particular poison

was a means by which younger wives of older husbands sometimes brought on a welcome widowhood). However, both she and Carl are on record at other moments holding Salieri responsible for Mozart’s death; its timing was also very close to the Emperor’s Declaration of Pillnitz, which alludes in its text to serious warnings about the dangers of Freemasonry in a brief from his chief of secret police.

There was no autopsy, “owing to the body’s stench.” The attending doctor, one of the most respected in Vienna, gave him very poor care according to Constanza, and predicted almost to the hour the time of Mozart’s passing from a “miliary fever” that was certainly not contagious. Constanze, in one of those “alas, spectacular” operatic displays of grief similar to televised demonstrations of spousal mourning at Communist state funerals, threw herself on her husband’s body in order to follow him speedily to the grave. Although she was in no danger there was indeed an “epidemic” of deaths in Vienna from Mozart’s ailment, plausibly indicating a coordinated, wholesale purge of Vienna’s political undesirables.

She did not accompany his body to the graveyard where it was unceremoniously dumped because, it was said, of inclement weather. This does not comport with Vienna’s detailed official meteorological records for that day. She did collect his pension, provided by the Emperor. The official story, which holds that Mozart’s unmarked grave was nothing unusual for the time, begs the question what other artist of similar attainments ever received a similar funeral in Vienna. Haydn, Beethoven, even the impoverished, much less-established Schubert: all were given “honor graves.”

One of Beethoven’s 1823 conversation books shows an exchange where Beethoven is given the recent news that his former teacher, Salieri (d.1825, and by 1823 in early-stage dementia), has just attempted suicide by cutting his own throat and, further, that he has claimed responsibility for poisoning Mozart. This claim is immediately refuted by Salieri’s doctors, who go to extraordinary lengths — writing letters in Italian, etc. — to discredit the old man’s outburst. When Ignaz Moscheles visits him some time later in the asylum, Salieri himself tells Moscheles the rumor is ridiculous.

Salieri’s politics were apparently, like Mozart’s, very liberal at the time of the latter’s death. Late in life he revealed himself as a staunch conservative. His radical opera Le couronnement de Tarare, written in 1790 (the year before Mozart’s death), created the widespread impression that his politics lay much further to the left of their actual position. Considering for the moment the possibility Salieri wrote the work as a State mole in order to gain confidences, it would conceivably have given him access to a circle around the notoriously indiscreet Mozart sufficient to put several people on a purge list.

Salieri, a confidante of the Emperor’s (losing his position at Court immediately at the latter’s death), was not, however, the only Court composer at this time to write an opera at odds with his personal political convictions. Mozart’s last opera, La Clemenza di Tito, written in only eighteen days during the few months between the Prater conversation and his death, celebrates the Roman emperor Titus showing mercy toward subjects who had plotted against him (Tito was written for the coronation of his employer as Holy Roman Emperor). The message could hardly have been more explicit: this is Mozart’s eleventh-hour appeal for mercy.

It did not succeed. The Empress made a disparaging remark about Tito at its Prague premiere, calling it “Una porcheria tedescha” (German swinishness), a barb directed at Mozart — Caterino Mazzolá and Pietro Metastasio, the opera’s librettists, were both Italian — and at German reluctance to cooperate with the Emperor’s counterrevolutionary efforts. Five months after the Prater conversation Mozart’s health plummeted — from apparent full health to death — over fourteen days. Were he in fact poisoned, this sudden deterioration would indicate a second dose or series of doses, perhaps administered by his physician, his wife, or both.

DaPonte Solves Mozart Mystery

DaPonte String Quartet
Walpole Meeting House
Sept. 13, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Decline of Soundscapes

The recent NPR series on the world of sound, and natural soundscapes, prompted me to look up the subject in the Classical Beat archives., where I ran across this column from 2010, which seems even more relevant today:
Some friends of ours from Pennsylvania stopped by for a visit the other day. The husband is an electrical engineer, now retired, who devotes his time to helping municipalities alleviate light pollution, which prevents us from seeing the night skies as our ancestors did.
By coincidence, I had just finished reading “One Square Inch of Silence” by Gordon Hempton and John Grossman (Free Press, Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. 2009) about one man’s quest for the preservation of natural soundscapes (no man-made noise) in the national parks.
The author points out that light and noise pollution go hand in hand. If one is looking for a quiet spot, an almost impossible task, one place to start is a map of relatively dark areas of the continent.
Some of these “dark” areas coincide with small holes in the network of air traffic lanes. The operative word is “small,” since there is virtually nowhere free of the noise of high altitude flights every few minutes. The most one can hope for right now is a window of silence, when the natural voice of the world can be heard for a few moments.
In Maine, as elsewhere in the nation, the focus, if any, has been on loud, annoying, ear-damaging noise, such as that emitted by motorcycles with altered, or non-existant, mufflers. Other noise sources that can rapidly damage one’s hearing are gun shots (a single loud explosion can do the trick), rock concerts, leaf blowers, car boom boxes, jet take-offs and landings, and i-pods. A device that would track sound volume and warn the owner of possible hearing loss–there’s an app for that– has been developed, but the i-pod manufacturers don’t seem interested.
Hearing damage can lead to tinnitus,”ringing in the ears,” as the brain tries to compensate for the missing stimulus. Persistent tinnitus, which affected the composer Smetana, has been known to cause suicide.
Maine police chiefs take note: altering motorcycle mufflers is a federal crime, even though the law is never enforced. One problem may be that motorcycle cops often ride illegal machines themselves. As Schopenhauer pointed out, the ignorant equate noise with power.
For a while in the 1970s, before budgets were slashed under the Reagan administration, the EPA took noise abatement seriously. This mandate is now virtually non-funded. During this brief period, however, many in-depth studies were published and educational programs about the harmful effects of noise were begun across the country.
They make interesting reading, because hearing damage, although serious and widespread, is not the only deleterious effect of noise at any level above the volume of human speech. (I am not using decibel levels in this column deliberately because one of the problems with anti-noise campaigns is that the logarithmic decibel scale is widely misunderstood and often used to obscure obvious harm.)
Noise levels not high enough to cause hearing loss have been shown to substantially reduce worker productivity, set learning back a grade, and increase the frequency and severity of stress-related illnesses. They isolate us from the natural world… and they may be helping to destroy it.
I have often written about bird song and the “dawn chorus” in this column. The sharp decline in songbird populations in recent decades has begun to mute its effect.
There are many environmental reasons for the decline, but one of them may be noise. As ambient noise levels get louder, birds can no longer rely on their calls to guard a territory, attract a mate or warn of danger.
In human beings, noise creates a vicious cycle, in which the victim ramps up the sound level to compensate for hearing loss, which causes further hearing loss. How many of us have heard the sound of a butterfly’s wing, a brook several miles away, a pine needle falling to earth, or the different songs each tree sings in the wind?
It’s probably too late for most of the adults on this planet, but children could be re-educated to think of silence as sexy. I remember the old Rolls Royce ads where “the only sound you hear at 60 miles per hour is the ticking of the clock.” The violent, perfectly quiet acceleration of an electric Tesla, for example, could create a new paradigm. I hope so.
In the meantime, I wish Gordon Hempton the best of luck with the FAA in preventing fly-overs of national parks. He’ll need it.

Oliver Sacks’ “Musicophilia”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saving the Best for Last: DaPonte at Walpole

We have a lot of new concert venues in Maine, from the converted cathedral of the Franco-American Heritage Center in Lewiston through Hannaford Hall at USM’s Abromson Community Education Center to the amazing converted swimming pool of Bowdoin’s Studzinski Recital Hall, where one can still sense the ancient echoes off wet tile walls.

The older places are still the best, though: Deertrees in Harrison, which is like being inside a cello, the Theater at Monmouth, and the Yarmouth Meeting House, where I first noticed the vast difference in sound created by audience size.

The finest acoustics of all, however. are at the Old Walpole Meeting House, where the DaPonte String Quartet made its first recording
. The building was then, as it is now, without heat or electricity, with pews and boxes designed to mortify the flesh of church goers, but the sound was worth the inconveniences.

If only they could have prevailed upon the state police to stop traffic on the highway a quarter-mile distant… there still would have been airplane noise, I suppose.

On Sunday, September 13, at 7:00 p.m. the quartet will play its annual benefit concert to help defray the considerable costs of maintaining the structure, which was built in 1772 and retains nearly all of its original features, including hardware, 24-pane windows– each said to have cost the price of a cow– panelling and the original hand-hewn shingles.

It also has a huge high pulpit with a sounding board, built by local shipwrights and reminiscent of the one in the opening chapter of “Moby Dick.” The pulpit is too small to hold an entire quartet, but perhaps a violin soloist?

The building was not intended for concerts, and the DaPonte teeters on a raised plywood platform opposite the front door, barely large enough to hold four folding chairs, instruments and music stands. The scores are illuminated by battery-powered lights, which have improved over the years, but still cause problems occasionally. Candle-light, which graces the rest of the room, has never seemed strong enough to read music by.

The musical experience, however, is as close as one can come in this era to what listeners must have heard in the chambers for which intimate 18th-Century music was written. It doesn’t matter where one sits. Even in the servants’ gallery the sound is live and vibrant, while closer to the instruments there is still a fine balance.

The quartet generally chooses at least one work written around the time the meeting house was built, in the case of Sunday’s concert, the Mozart Quartet in A Major, K. 464. The program will also include the String Quartet No. 1 by Erwin Schulhoff (1894-1942), and the Mendelssohn Quartet in D Major, Op. 44, No. 1

The Walpole concert is always a fitting close to the Maine summer music season and is usually sold out. Tickets, at $25.00, are available by pre-purchase at Maine Coast Bookstore in Damariscotta, the Walpole Barn in Walpole (Rt. 129), or the Framer’s Gallery in Boothbay (Meadow Mall). To make other arrangements for tickets, please call 563-5471 or e-mail info@oldwalpolemeetinghouse.org. The concert is at 7:00 and the doors open at 6:30.

Staying in Tune

Memo to all those young people who can’t find a job: piano tuning. People who love to play will always find a way to pay for what Matt Guggenheim, who tunes the pianos for the Portland Symphony Orchestra, calls a “necessary luxury.” “They’re like Beethoven. The bombs can be dropping 40 miles away, but what they care about is their music.”

The aspiring piano tuner, however, has to have such a burning desire to pursue his art that he is willing to apprentice long hours for little pay. He must have an attitude, like the aspiring musicians I try to discourage from a professional career, that “nothing is going to stop me.”

“I’m astounded by the fact that I don’t have kids knocking at my door, especially in today’s economy,” said Guggenheim.

“You can learn how to tune a piano (without that drive) but you’ll never make a career out of it.” He himself would not stop doing it even if he became a millionaire overnight.

Guggenheim began his own career many years ago, when his father bought a Wurlitzer piano because it had a beautiful case. “The pin block was dead and it was impossible to tune it.” Young Matt, who was blessed, or cursed, with a good ear and a love of music, couldn’t stand it and went to the garage for a Craftsman socket wrench to try his hand at a well-tempered clavier.

Recognizing his son’s continued interest, the father bought him a tuning wrench, and the rest is history.

Guggenheim’s school of hard knocks involved formal courses in such piano specialties as regulation, plus extensive apprenticeships in New York and Boston. “I was fortunate enough to find professionals who pulled me through it.”

For the first 20 years, he relied entirely on his ear. Now he also uses a Cybertuner.

“You need both an ear and technology,” he said. “You can’t just rely on a meter. The octaves and the unisons need experience to tune. You have to really hear the overtones. Our hearts and our ears will say yes when the meter says no. The warmth of the sound is very rewarding.”

He tries to tune a piano to suit its owner’s, or player’s, personal style. Jazz musicians, for example, often like a “stretched” treble. “What I love is to read a piano, know what it can be, and try to achieve that at a reasonable price. It’s exciting to watch one come alive.”

From 1900 to the advent of TV, millions of pianos were built, to the point that an estimated one in three homes had one. Now there are well-made pianos virtually everywhere. Guggenheim is continually surprised at the instruments some extremely good musicians put up with when there are alternatives out there. When you find one you like –for tone, action, sound quality and so on– the most important technical question is its tuning stability, he said.

One of the most rewarding things about his work is “I get to see the families that care. There are a lot of people who still love to play, and want their kids to enjoy it too. People’s lives are too busy, and it’s easy to get lost in technology.”

In his shop, where he repairs and rebuilds pianos, Guggenheim has a sign that reads: “Pianos Are Complicated.” Whole books have been written on subjects such as equal temperament, and a piano action is a miracle of mechanical engineering. “It’s fascinating, you think you’ve got it and you don’t. Then you wake up at 2:00 in the morning thinking I have to try this and go out in the shop before the idea goes away.”

“I don’t think tuning will ever die, as long as there are pianos in the world. There’s always work in the toughest of times. I truly believe this.”

A Brave New Work at Portland Chamber Music Festival

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Golijov shared in the well-deserved standing ovation.

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

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