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.

Bartok at Salt Bay

Salt Bay Chamberfest
Darrows Barn, Round Top Farm, Damariscotta
Aug. 14
by Christopher Hyde

There is a reason that the Salt Bay Chamberfest, from its home at Damariscotta’s Round Top Farm, has acquired not merely a national but an international reputation, as one of the world’s pre-eminent chamber music festivals and a place where contemporary composers feel welcome and respected.

The acoustics in Darrows Barn are great, the musicians superb, and the programming imaginative and carefully thought out, but there has always been something more, ever since the festival was founded by cellist Wilhelmina Smith 21 years ago. These are world-renowned musicians, not on a vacation but a mission; as Smith puts it, sharing a passion.

Friday night’s program, featuring percussion and the piano as percussion instrument, was a prime example.

It opened with Steve Reich’s Quartet for two pianos, two percussion, written in 2014, played by Thomas Sauer and Amy Yang, piano, and Daniel Druckman and Markus Rhoten, percussion—primarily two vibraphones.

The work has the characteristic “chug,” a word coined by Reich to denote rhythmic drive, but is more complex harmonically and in its development than the composer’s earlier works. It even has traditional fast-slow-fast form, shimmering tonal color, and (gasp) ends on a tonic chord like a Bach fugue, even though no one could distinguish what its key might have been earlier. The gradual development of a simple theme, a la Phillip Glass, is fascinating, and the rhythmical repetition, like the clack of wheels on a train, hypnotic. It was performed with passion and exuberance.

Reich studied drumming in Ghana, so what better to follow his Quartet than two master drummers from Ghana, the father and son duo Sowah Mensah and Nii-Adjetey Mensah. Their humor, while exhibiting incredible skill on traditional drums and wooden xylophones, was infectious, and their sung duet, with a precise, well maintained interval throughout, was surprising.

The song was an example of the power of social regulation by means of music, according to the father, Sowah Mensah. After all, who wants his great-grandchildren to be ashamed of him? They also played the talking drum —“play what you say”— and a communal form of music on two xylophones, with improvisations over a recurring theme.(See column “Democracy in Music”) A drum duet, which concluded the set, glittered with shifting polyrhythms. Reich either didn’t achieve the level of his masters or figured that Western audiences wouldn’t get it.

What preceded it had been at the highest level, but was overshadowed by Bartok’s towering masterpiece, the Sonata (Sz. 110) for two pianos and percussion., played by the same team as the Reich.

I had heard this piece live once before, at Bates College, but Friday night’s performance established it, once and for all, as a landmark of 20th century music, not an experiment in using the piano as a percussion instrument but the result of decades of careful listening, formal genius and inimitable style. A work of the utmost seriousness, but full of charm and invention.

It had too many beauties to enumerate, but a few come to mind without notes, which I was too absorbed to take: cymbals echoing reverberations from the bass strings, xylophones that sounded like the upper treble keys on a grand should, but never do, snare drum whispers, interlocking filagree passages…

I wish I could recommend a recording of Sz. 110, but nothing electronic could even come close to the experience of a live performance. One can only plead with the directors of the festival to do it again…please?

Sebago-Long Lake Festival Ends with a Bang

Sebago-Long Lake Music Festival
Deertrees Theater, Harrison
Aug. 11
by Christopher Hyde

Laurie Kennedy is stepping down after 30 years as music director of the Sebago-Long Lake Music Festival at Deeertrees Theater in Harrison. The performers, the audience, and even the weather, gave her a rousing send-off on Tuesday with three crowd pleasers, each more exciting than the last.

Carl Reinecke’s long career (1824-1910) as performing artist, conductor, educator and composer, proves the adage that the way to success is to “outlive the bastards.” He continued to write and publish hundreds of pieces of good, traditional music while fads rose and fell all around him. Chances are that anyone who has learned to play the piano has encountered one or more of his pieces.

One of his more unusual works, the Trio in A Minor, Op. 188, for Oboe, Horn and Piano, was given a charming performance by Stephen Taylor, oboe, William Purvis, French horn, and Mihae Lee, piano. The trio’s primary interest is in the contrast and similarity in timbre of the two instruments, which Taylor and Purvis made the most of. The horn, however, had the last word, with a Romantic solo in the finale that was the best, long-limbed melody in the work.

Reinecke shows his musical imagination in phrases begun by the duo and finished by the piano. He even allows himself to get a bit jazzy, but not too much, near the end of the final movement.

The trio was followed by Dvorák’s String Sextet in A Major, Op. 48 (1878), full of memorable Czechoslovakian dances that sound just like folk music but aren’t. Dvorák even quotes himself with a theme from one of his earlier Slavonic Dances during the fast and furious Furiant, which serves as the third movement of the sextet.

The final theme and variations, which begins thoughtfully and ends with a bang, included a lovely cello solo by Bonnie Thron.

The festival musicians, including Kennedy on viola, saved the best for last: a captivating performance of Mendelssohn’s Sextet in D Major, Op. 110, one of the most exciting and accessible pieces ever published. Written when the composer was 16, It is not a sextet at all but a piano concerto with string accompaniment, played brilliantly by Mihae Lee.

The strings, however, are not merely an afterthought, but provide a perfect frame for display of the virtuoso piano part, The bass especially, played by Volkan Orhon, grounds everything perfectly. And during the final movement, the young composer suddenly realizes that he has been neglecting the rest of the sextet and gives them a space of their own for a few bars.

While the piano part is derivative, quoting Mozart and Beethoven, it is as thoroughly satisfying as if Mendelssohn had devised it entirely by himself, He also inserts his own ideas, especially in the crazy off-kilter Minuet, which seems to have been based on “Three Blind Mice.”

The sextet received a roaring, foot-stomping standing ovation, while Kennedy, having received a bouquet, offered it to each of the other musicians to sniff. Meanwhile, the rain on the roof of Deertrees Theater, an acoustical marvel, continued its own muted accompaniment.

Next up. Percussion at Salt Bay, Aug. 14, 2015

A Brilliant Send-Off for Bowdoin Festival

Bowdoin International Music Festival
Festival Friday
Crooker Auditorium of Brunswick High School
Aug. 7

In a review of the Portland String Quartet last month I mentioned liking their variations on the Shaker Hymn “Simple Gifts,” better than Aaron Copland’s in “Appalachian Spring.” I was wrong.

The original version of “Appalachian Spring,” for 13 instruments, as played Friday night at the final Festival Friday concert of the Bowdoin International Music Festival, was a revelation, clear as spring water, perfectly balanced and showing off Copland’s genius in a way that muddy orchestrations never could.

Robert Moody, music director of the Portland Symphony Orchestra, conducted selected virtuosi from the festival in a performance that was simply stunning, from beginning to end. “Appalachian Spring,” still sounds like “Oklahoma,” but there’s nothing wrong with that.

As for the variations on “Simple Gifts,” their inventiveness was remarkable, and the combinations of instrumental timbre far beyond what can be accomplished by a string quartet. Copland has a way of making the grand piano an orchestral instrument that is rare indeed.

As the final work of a successful festival, it was a brilliant send-off indeed.

The Tchaikovsky pieces that preceded it, with violin soloist Jennifer Koh, were also crowd pleasers, but more in the nature of salon music than national icons.

Too many generations of violinists have sawed their way through the “Souvenir d’un Lieu Cher,” Op. 42, and the often paired Serenade Melancolique (Op. 26) and Valse Scherzo (Op. 34) for anything new to be said, but it was good to hear the first three pieces as a set, Tchaikovsky’s original intention.

Jennifer Koh, who has been heard quite often in Maine, is a fine violinist, and made the most of both the romantic and the virtuoso passages, earning a standing ovation. Moody encouraged the Bowdoin Festival Orchestra, which sounds more professional each year.

I had expected more from Kevin Buts’ “Seascapes” (2013) which opened the program. Maybe it’s my literary background, but there are much better written words about the sea than the seven passages he chose to illustrate musically. Perhaps that accounts for the score’s lack of inspiration.

They were given a careful and tender reading by a chamber orchestra of Janet Sung, violin, Caroline Coade, viola, David Requiro, cello, Kurt Muroki, double bass, Tao Lin, piano, Beomjae Kim, flute, and Josh Thompson, horn.
The work came alive quite often, especially in the fourth movement: “Out of the darkness…jets of sparks in fountains of blue come leaping” by D.H. Lawrence, but the excitement couldn’t be sustained. I also liked the sustained chords and bass line of Virginia Woolfe’s “So fine was the morning except for a streak of wind here and there that the sea and sky looked all of one fabric.”

Still, I couldn’t help but think of Vincent Persichetti’s “Poems for Piano,” which attempts the same thing, with considerably more success.

A Little Water Music

Mason Bates’ “Liquid Interface,” was the featured work at the Portland Symphony Orchestra’s opening concert on Oct. 7, 2008, the first conducted by its then new music director, Robert Moody.
Bates’ work, basically a symphony in four movements, depicts increasingly warm states of water, from calving glaciers through hurricane surges to the warm lapping waves of Berlin’s Wannsee. It was commissioned by the National Symphony Orchestra, which premiered it on Feb. 7, 2008. It also references New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina, in Dixieland intimations from the movement “Crescent City.” This month marks the 10th anniversary of Katrina, one of the worst natural (and man-made) disasters in U.S. history.
In remarks about the new work, the composer mentions that “water has influenced countless musical endeavors. ‘La Mer’ and ‘Seigfried’s Rhine Journey’ come quickly to mind.”
That was a challenge. How many other well-known compositions have to do with water? I would never have thought of “Seigfried” immediately, but the Rhine Maidens did come to mind, and “Die Lorelei.” There’s Handel’s “Water Music,” Sibelius’ “Swan of Tuonela,” and Edward MacDowell’s “Ocean” Sonata, the storm at sea that ends Britten’s “Peter Grimes,” Chopin’s “Raindrop” Prelude and “Ocean Waves” Etude, a song from Berlioz’ “Nuites d’ete,” Satie’s musical description of sea-sickness, Noel Coward’s “Matalo,” and the list goes on. A new parlor game?
Someday, I hope a composer (if it hasn’t been done already) will devise a musical setting for Rimbaud’s lovely liquid, languorous line: l’Eternité, C’est la mer mêlée au Soleil.”
What is just as intriguing is how water itself can make music, like raindrops falling on a metal pipe. Bates’ huge orchestra for “Liquid Interface” includes a glass harmonica, an instrument invented by Benjamin Franklin that standardizes the tones made by rubbing the rims of crystal glasses containing various amounts of water.
One of the oldest musical instruments is the Hydraulus, a water-powered organ that was played by the Egyptians as early as 200 BC, if not before. The weight of water pressing on a bellows compressed the air that sounded the pipes. The sound was said to be so loud that musicians had to wear earplugs (sound familiar?) and it was later played at Roman gladiatorial contests and by the Emperor Nero. Some scholars believe that was one of the reasons for the prejudice of the early church against musical instruments of all kinds.
My favorite among water powered instruments is the sea organ on the shore of the Adriatic at Zadar, Croatia. We definitely need one in Maine. It consists of a series of wide and shallow stone steps leading down to the water. Organ pipes under the steps are sounded by air pressure that depends upon wave height. The tones would be random, except that the pipes are tuned to a diatonic scale consistent with Croatian ethnic music. The sound is always pleasing, like that of a xylophone tuned to a pentatonic scale.
“Liquid Interface” combines a modern landscape of taped sounds with relatively tonal orchestral writing.
An analogy is Rautovaara’s “Cantus Arcticus,” with its taped birdsongs. Rautovaara’s is the best music, and the most accessible, but both are worth hearing

Gamper Festival Delivers

Gamper Festival of Contemporary Music
Studzinski Recital Hall, Bowdoin College
Aug.2, 2015
by Christopher Hyde

The Gamper Festival of Contemporary Music, whose final concert I attended Sunday (Aug. 2) at Studzinski Recital Hall, may not be the most popular series of the Bowdoin International Music Festival, but it is certainly the most interesting. There is always something new, the composer is often in the audience to say a few words, and one has a better than average chance of hearing some real music.

For some reason or other, the high quality of the performances is a given. Perhaps the young musicians like to display each other’s work in the best light when there’s little in the way of fame or fortune to be had.

The first work on the program, “Klang” by Pierre Jalbert (b. 1967) was a fascinating exploration of resonance on the open strings of two topless grand pianos. One can get an idea of the effect by holding down a chord silently and then striking another very hard; the sympathetic vibrations are enchanting, while the instant contrast of loud and soft provides some highly musical effects, as Bartok well knew.

“Klang,” which refers to bell sounds, seemed to have three connected movements, loud and rhythmical, ethereal and rapidly rhythmical again. Percussionist Noah Rosen made the pianos sing all by themselves, aided and abetted by Ann Schaefer and Petya Stavfreva.

George Perle’s (1915-2009) “Bassoon Music,” played by Dillon Meacham, is a rarity—a piece that explores the tonal qualities of the instrument without ever descending into clownishness.

Derek Bermel (b. 1967) introduced his own “Twin Trio,” which treats flute and clarinet as musical twins, shepherded by their mother the piano, and then played the clarinet part. There are many unison (or almost) passages in the work where the only thing that distinguishes one instrument from the other is its timbre

Of the four movements, “Mirror,” “Converse,” “Share” and “Follow,” the final one was by far the best, and the most difficult, a canon at the 16th note. All were well played, with Bermel partnered by Beomjae Kim, flute, and Elinor Freer, piano. The unaccompanied duo, “Share,” sounded like the glissandos of competing sirens in New York City at night.

After intermission came “Shattered Glass,” by Margaret Brouwer (b. 1940) which was as jagged as its name implies but equally enticing, as played by Kim, flute, Minji Kim, cello, Fantee Jones, piano, and Grant Hoechst, percussion. The latter had his hands full. The object is to assemble the fragments into a kaleidoscopic image, at which Brouwer excels. The most effective movement was the most ethereal, imitating drops of water falling into a still pond, with the percussion limited to the click of two pebbles.

The final work on the program, a 1997 violin sonata by Fazil Say (b. 1970), played by Seo Hee Min, violin, and Tao Lin, piano, was also the least effective. It was written by a concert pianist, and the violin plays second fiddle.

The piano part itself is somewhat derivative, including a couple of passages for prepared piano, a la John Cage. The device of repeated notes on prepared strings, while the violin plays the same passage over and over, was quite effective, however. And I’m a sucker for a melody delivered as a series of trills on the piano, which ended the piece. As observed earlier, the sonata could not have received a better reading.

A New Take on “Tosca”

“Tosca”
Merrill Auditorium
July 28
by Christopher Hyde

PORTopera artistic director Dona Vaughn has done it again, with a fresh look at one of the most popular operas in the repertoire: Puccini’s “Tosca.” I attended the dress rehearsal Tuesday night, which went off (almost) without a hitch, providing a good sense of what can be expected from the final version on Thursday.
“Tosca” is not one of my favorite operas. Puccini seems to have taken a leaf from Wagner, with heavy brass, leit-motifs, high drama and few arias that one can go home whistling. The entire plot is an exercise in futility. Once the news of Napoleon’s victory at Marengo (and his chef’s invention of a new chicken dish), reaches Rome, Scarpia and his minions should have burned their papers and taken ship for the colonies instead of pursuing their victims to the death and beyond. But self-preservation is never a strong suit of tragic opera.
Vaughn, while faithful to to the libretto, emphasizes Tosca’s evolution from self-absorbed diva to tragic heroine, with religious overtones that echo the Portland Symphony Orchestra’s recent production of “Dialogs of the Carmelites.” During the first act, one is almost sorry for her lover Cavaradosi, to be burdened with a jealous, demanding, insecure and apparently insatiable partner. He certainly doesn’t seem that enthusiastic about another tryst at the cottage.
When things begin to go downhill, and she must overcome her religious scruples to kill Scarpia and save Cavaradosi, Tosca begins to show true strength of character and love rather than infatuation. Finally, her suicide becomes an act of faith, confident that God will judge in her favor over Scarpia.
Vaughn also emphasizes the point made by A.E. Housman in “To an Athlete Dying Young,” that after the height of bliss experienced by the lovers, any kind of everyday existence would be an anticlimax.
The opera is not fully staged, but in costume, with a few simple props placed in front of a full orchestra. A platform at stage right serves both as an artist’s studio and the parapet from which Tosca flings herself in the final scene.
In spite of a lack of stage settings, Vaughn has a lot to work with. Alexandra LoBianco, as Tosca, and Adam Diegel, as Cavaradosi, have powerful, well controlled voices offering a wide range of dynamics and a certain cutting edge. They are well matched and their final duet, a cappella, is marvelous.
The orchestra, under Stephen Lord, leaves nothing to be desired. It could be transferred to the pit of the Met and no one would know the difference. Members of the Choral Art Society and a children’s chorus under Sarah Bailey, gave fine performances.
James Morris, as Scarpia, provides an astonishingly good impression of the Devil as gentleman, expecting every snap of his fingers to be instantly obeyed. His lust for Tosca emphasizes the once-and-done nature of passion, while his physical approach reminds one of Dr. Johnson’s observation about sex: “The position is ridiculous, the pleasure fleeting and the expense damnable.”
The scene in which Tosca stabs him, twice, with a table knife, is worth the price of admission. As Scarpia begins to disrobe for his intended conquest, he seems to inflate, like a balloon or a tumescent organ, and then to deflate just as rapidly when punctured, as he mutters “Killed by a woman,” in sheer amazement.
The supertitles were good, in spite of some anachronisms, but they did not seem quite bright enough to be easily legible, at least from the side of the auditorium.
The single glitch in the dress rehearsal provided some comic relief, when the timing was off for Tosca’s discovery that Cavadarosi is really dead and not play-acting. To repeat the scene, the corpse had to roll over.
As of this writing, there were a few seats left for Thursday’s performance. Now would be a good time to snap them up. And it would also be a good time for an angel to step up and finance a fully-staged version of say, “Porgy and Bess.” What couldn’t Vaughn do with her own set designer?

The Role of the Critic

The Role of the Critic

“Still, I felt so deadly dull that I should hardly have survived to tell the tale had not a desperate expedient to wile away the time occurred to me. Why not telegraph to London, I thought, for some music to review? Reviewing has one advantage over suicide. In suicide you take it out of yourself; in reviewing you take it out of other people.”
That was George Bernard Shaw, the greatest music critic who ever lived, on one of the roles of the profession. H.L. Mencken is his American counterpart.
I have been thinking again about the duty of the music critic because of some unfavorable reviews I have written lately. Probably not enough, because unfavorable reviews have become rare indeed, in Maine and elsewhere.
I chose Shaw because the first duty of the critic is to entertain. (Dorothy Parker’s review of Christopher Isherwood’s play “I am a Camera” comes to mind: “No Leica.”) If he or she is not read with interest, nothing can be accomplished.
A long time ago, I went around like the Elephant’s Child asking impertinent questions about what a critic should do. The first to answer was my father, who was the book reviewer, among other things, for the Philadelphia Inquirer. His answer was “to set standards.” Old fashioned perhaps, but still relevant. Western classical music is the greatest achievment of the human race, and it’s important to decide where in the pantheon a new or old composition belongs.
Standards apply to performance even more. A score is a blueprint. Without a concrete performance it does not exist. Bad or mediocre performances can ruin a masterpiece, while exceptional ones, such as Sir Neville Marriner’s version of the Handel Fireworks Music, can make a believer out of the rankest philistine.
Noted American composer Ralph Shapey told me that a critic should be an advocate–to say to readers: “Hey, you’ve got to hear this!” In a world where there’s so much competition for time and attention, and in which contemporary music has received such a bad press, he has a point.
However, to advocate also means to protest degradation of the art. I cannot think of a more criminally ignorant act than playing classical music to keep children out of a park, something that was actually suggested in Portland a while back.
My wife thought that a critic should educate, which is true to an extent, but all the biographies and analyses of Beethoven cannot cannot take the place of the feeling created by the music itself, which must come before anything else.
All one can do here is what Edward Gibbon said of another critic: “He tells me his own feelings and tells them with so much energy that he communicates them.” People read reviews for the same reason that they read accounts of football games–to relive the experience.
It is also the duty of a critic to attack. “It is sometimes said that condemnatory criticism is illegitimate and if a composition or performer is bad the crfitic should ignore it, giving space only to what he can praise. This overlooks what may be called the double duty of the gardener, whose cultivation of the flowers will not be successsfull is he does not remove weeds. Schumann said: ‘The critic who dares not attack what is bad is but a half-hearted supporter of what is good.’ There is much composition and performance which every critic and every musician of experience knows to be vulgar and mere pretension and it is this which an idealist like Schumann would wish to see denounced for the public instruction.
“It is true that in the past a good deal of attack upon novel types of composition or idiom has been later proved mistaken, but it has at least promoted healthy discussion when critical silence would have failed to do so. At all events, a critic who is only expressing half his mind is only half a critic, and the constant repression of deeply felt opinion is bound in time to injure his critical facility.”(to say nothing of his credibility)– Sir Percy Scholes.
Mea culpa. Classical music in Maine is not so weak a plant that it cannot stand a little pruning now and then,

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