Dancers and Musicians Shine in “Play and Play”

Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company
“Play and Play”
Merrill Auditorium
Feb. 25, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

Finally, a collaboration that works flawlessly. I feel sorry for anyone who wasn’t at Merrill Auditorium Wednesday night for “Play and Play,” featuring the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company.

Under the auspices of Portland Ovations BTJ/AJC assembled local musicians and dancers for an absolutely riveting evening of contemporary ballet. As a friend remarked about “D-Man in the Waters,” the last of three ballets on the program, it was as if the dancers ”floated on a sea of music.”

The music in question was the Mendelssohn Octet for Strings in E-flat major, Op. 20, played by Robert Lehmann, Dino Liva, Dean Stein and Yasmin Vitalius, violin, Kimberly Lehmann and Kirsten Monke, viola, and Eliza Meyer and Benjamin Noyes, cello.

I have seldom heard this work performed as well in concert; as ballet music it verged on the miraculous. It certainly inspired the dancers who, in addition to those of the company, included 13 from Colby, Bates and Bowdoin colleges, PATH (Portland Arts and Technology High School) and the Portland Ballet.

They had rehearsed for only a week, according to the program, but they might have been dancing this program for years,

It made me wonder why other traveling companies do not also take advantage of the tremendous pool of talent available in Maine. Even the Andante of the Mozart String Quartet No. 23 in F Major (K. 590) for “Spent Days Out Yonder,” easily filled Merrill Auditorium. Live music for dance cannot even be compared to a recording, to which some shows resort.

Speaking of recordings, the second piece on the program, “Continuous Replay,” combined (a little) live music from early and late Beethoven Quartets, with a recorded sound rack that included such acoustic icons as count-downs and the description of the Honey Badger that went viral on the internet a few years ago.

Jenna Riegel was superb as “the clock,” which almost disintegrates during a speeded up version of a famous Beethoven quartet passage.

Each of the three ballets was marked by the indefinable atmosphere characteristic of this company. It includes an infinite umber of clever and dramatic poses, motions and lifts, all stemming from natural movement. Gender differences are dissolved into a human unity, and there is little display of athletic prowess—the remarkable is taken for granted.

What is most striking is the sense of community. In “D-Man in the Waters,” which is a sort of ”in Memoriam,” various types of intimate relationships come and go, but there is always human sympathy, even under the sea.

The program ended with cheers and a long standing ovation, which the musicians shared with the dancers on stage.

(The written program includes one of my favorite quotes, from Jasper Johns on the creation of art: “…take something and do something to it, and then do something else to it.” Rather like Bertrand Russell’s observation that all the world’s work consists of moving something from one place to another.)

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

First Day of Bowdoin Klavierfest Will Honor Elliott Schwartz

The first day of Bowdoin’s annual Klavierfest, Friday, Feb. 19, 7:30 p.m. at Studzinski Recital Hall, will be devoted to the piano music of Bowdoin composer emeritus Elliott Schwartz, in honor of his 80th birthday.

It will include works from several phases of his career, plus (it is hoped) a performance by the composer of his “Hearing David,” for piano and electronic sounds. Written in memory of David Gamper, it includes sounds that he originally taped on one of the early synthesizers, Schwartz said in a telephone interview.

The program was compiled in cooperation with pianist George Lopez, Bowdoin artist in residence, and includes Lopez, Kimberly Lehmann, viola, Chiharu Naruse, piano, John McDonald, piano,, and Maria Wagner, clarinet.

The first work of the evening is also the earliest, composed around 1963-64, when Schwartz was experimenting with 12-tone techniques. His idea for the Suite for Viola and Piano, to be played by Lehmann and Naruse, involved making serial music sound tonal. “It does sound rather traditional,” he said.

The suite will be followed by “Four Maine Haiku,” written for pianist Kazuko Tonosaki and played on Friday by George Lopez. The four short pieces, each completely different in mood, include 17 measures each, the number of syllables in a Japanese Haiku.

After an on-stage interview of the composer by Lopez, the pianist will serve as assistant to McDonald in a performance of “Memorabilia,” a work that Schwartz calls “very theatrical,” in which the assistant may drum on the wood of the piano, play the inside strings or perform other movements to accompany the pianist. Lopez may assist with a toy piano, Schwartz said.

“Hearing David” will be the final work before intermission.

“The Seven Seasons,” for solo piano, written in 2007-2009 for Katie Cushing, will start the second half of the program. Played by Naruse, it consists of short pieces designed to aid in teaching modern piano techniques, such as playing with the fingers on the inside strings.

The next work,”Blossoms and Cannons,” for piano and recorded sounds, was written in 2010 to celebrate the 200th anniversaries of Chopin and Schumann. The title is based on a Schumann quote about Chopin, “It’s a time warp,” Schwartz said. McDonald, at the piano, will play against recorded quotations from both composers’ music, plus verbal quotes from Clara Schumann and George Sand (Chopin’s lover).

“Blossoms…” will be followed by a second interview, and the program will conclude with “Souvenir,” for clarinet and piano, with Lopez and Wagner. The work, written in 1978, is improvisational, with each musician responding to the other. At one point, if I recall correctly, the clarinetist places the instrument on the sounding board of the piano to achieve an unusual timbre.

Schwartz is also at work on a string quartet, in memory of his late wife, Deedee, Because of health reasons, he has shortened the work to two movements, played without pause, and based on her favorite music, combined with themes developed from the letters of her name and significant dates in her life. The work will be premiered in London on April 21, he said.

Valentine’s Day with Lantz and Kargul Warms a Large Audience

Pianist Laura Kargul
Violinist Ronald Lantz
Woodfords Congregational Church
Feb.14, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

“if music be the food of love,” a larger than ordinary crowd at Woodfords Congregational Church on Sunday was treated to a feast. Violinist Ronald Lantz and pianist Laura Kargul collaborated on their popular Valentines Day concert, entitled “From North to South,” beginning with Sibelius and Greig and winding up in Argentina with Astor Piazzolla.

The event this year was presented by the Lark Society for Chamber Music and the University of Southern Maine School of Music.

The trip got off to a slow start with the Sibelius Nocturne Op. 51, No. 3. This composer, whom I admire greatly, is not at his best in smaller forms, and the Nocturne, while pleasant enough, also showed signs of short rehearsal time.

Norwegian composer Christian Sinding is best known for his piano piece “The Rustle of Spring.” His Adagio, from the Suite in A Minor, is equally melodic and Romantic in tone, but not tuneful enough to go home whistling.

Things warmed up considerably in the Sonata No. 3 in C Minor, Op. 45 by Sinding’s mentor, Edvard Grieg. Its three movements kept getting better and better as Greig threw off classical restraints and reverted to Norwegian themes. The finale is a tour de force of dance and folksong, and received a standing ovation before intermission.

Germany and France were represented by Christophe Willibald Gluck, with the popular Mélodie from “Orfeo ed Euridice” and “Joseph Canteloube, with “Le Soir.”. If you have not yet heard the latter’s “Songs of the Auvergne,” you are in for a treat. “Le Soir” is equally beautiful. It is full of longing and ends on a high note by the violin that seems to go on forever.

Then into the Caribbean, with two Jamaican folk songs, set and embellished by Peter Ashbourne (b. 1950).

The finale included two pieces by Astor Piazzolla (1921-1992), who single-handedly turned the Argentine tango into a classical art form. One of his secrets is in the black hole at the center of each work. One is enjoying a pleasant, highly rhythmical dance, albeit with some odd harmonies and key changes, when, all of a sudden, it becomes almost frighteningly dark and ferocious. Recovery is attempted, but the dance never seems the same. The first, “Milonga en re,” showed its teeth, the second, “Soledad,” arranged by Kargul and Lantz, not so much.

The entire program was a welcome respite from the February cold, especially considering the humorous descriptions of the pieces and their origins by the two musicians.

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

Haimovitz and VOICE: “If Music Be the Food of Love…”

Matt Haimovitz and “Voice”
Portland Ovations “If Music Be the Food of Love…”
Hannaford Hall, USM Portland
Feb. 5, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

Cellist Matt Haimovitz and the vocal trio, “Voice,” have a devoted following. There was a surprisingly large audience at Hannaford Hall on Friday night, in spite of 10 inches of snow and icy roads. Most people stayed after the concert to meet the artists.

Haimovitz, one of today’s grand masters of the cello, is also known for his eccentric choices of repertoire and for performing in unusual venues. I saw him at the Odd Fellows Hall in Buckfield and at Jonathan’s in Ogunquit, where he played his own amazing version of Jimi Hendrix’s “Star Spangled Banner.”

Now he is collaborating with “Voice,” founded in 2006 by Emily Burn, Victoria Couper and Clemmie Franks. The problem, as Hamovitz explained, was that there was no repertoire for cello and vocal trio.
That difficulty was solved by holding a contest for the best settings of a Shakespearean sonnet (numbers 8, 30, or 60), three of which were played on Friday: “Like as the Waves” by Filipe Sousa, “Sonnet 60” (setting the same text) by Božo Banović, and another “Like as the waves,” by Diana Rosenblum, all of which made good use of the similarities in timbre between voice and instrument. Sometimes one could barely tell which was which.

There is a problem with musical settings of poems (and vocal music in general) which has nothing to do with the ability of the singers. It is rare that the whole (of music and verse) is more than the sum of the parts.

The poem, like a Shakespearean sonnet, is magical on its own, and music, no matter how well composed, obscures the words. (I would rather hear an opera in the original, partly because I can’t understand the libretto in English either.)

“Voice” opened the concert with “Caritas habundat” (Love abounds), by Hildegard of Bingen (12th C), in a setting for cello and trio that was quite effective, with the cello being the basso continuo of a quartet. There were two other works by the famous abbess, but a little goes a long way, especially when we have no idea what her music sounded like.

My favorite among the collaborations was the fourth movement of the Philip Glass String Quartet No. 3, (“Mishima”). Haimovitz played the cello part, with “Voice” taking viola and first and second violins. While such a transcription would be too difficult for a Beethoven quartet (for example) the highly repetitive nature of Glass’ composition makes it ideal for singing.

Haimovitz solo was as remarkable as ever, as was his pairing of disparate composers. A Prelude by Philip Glass was followed by the Bach Prelude from the Cello Suite, No. 1 in G Major. After intermission a piece entitled “Es War” (2015), by David Sanford was followed by the Bach Prelude from the Cello Suite V in C minor. The first work, which begins with a long pizzicato section, is the epitome of violence, to which the Bach, as inventive as it is, was a welcome antidote.

“Voice” was at its best in old English ballads, such as Morley’s “It Was a Lover and his Lass,” in which the words and the music originated together. They were also fine in modern, humorous songs by Ayanna Witter-Johnson to texts by Jean “Binta” Breeze: “on cricket, sex and housework,” which begins “I have never loved ironing,” followed by a succession of double-entendres,” and the romantic “just in case.”

The concert concluded with a brilliant “Who by Fire,” a Leonard Cohen song arranged by Luna Pearl Woolf. Cohen is one of the few musician-poets as eclectic and inventive as Haimovitz.

Appropriate to Valentine’s Day (when Roman teenagers could legally play house for a day) was the encore, a traditional wedding processional from southern France. Then out into the ice and snow: “Ice and snow, take it slow.” Maybe someone should set that road sign to music. I can hear R. Murray Schafer’s swirling adagio now.

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

A Valentine from the Portland Symphony Orchestra

Portland Symphony Orchestra
Merrill Auditorium
Jan. 26, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

There’s always a spike in the birthrate nine months after the dead of winter, but October 2016 might show more fecundity than usual, due to the Portland Symphony Orchestra’s erotic tribute to Richard Strauss, Jan. 26 at Merrill Auditorium.

The program opened with the Beethoven Symphony No. 8 in F Major, Op. 93, part of the orchestra’s three-year Beethoven cycle. This was great music, well played, except for a bit of distraction at the opening of the Tempo di menuetto, but after intermission it was easy to see where the players’ hearts really lay.

Music director Robert Moody, after requesting no applause between selections, played four works by Strauss as if they were movements of a Romantic symphony, a conceit that worked quite well. The four, which portray various forms of eroticism, built up to a thunderous climax, with a brilliant performance of the final scene of “Salome,” sung passionately by soprano Patricia Racette.

The four were all closely related by Strauss’ unique sound–one of the marks of greatness–and by echoes of other works. The scoring of the final act of “Salome,” for example, recalls another image of despised love, in “Der Rosenkavalier,” but this time without the slightest hint of resignation. It is just Eros vs. Thanatos, and Thanatos wins, or does he? After Salome’s ferocious consummation, there’s nowhere else to go.

(Incidentally, I object to the slur on “Der Rosenkavalier” in the program notes. No, it isn’t Mozart, but something entirely different, and equally a work of genius.)

The first movement was the Prelude to Act. 1 of Strauss’ first opera, “Guntram,” (Op. 25). Influenced by Wagner and the ideal of the Teutonic knight, it has the sensual frisson of “Tristan und Isolde,” but better orchestrated and controlled.

The second, the love scene from “Feursnot,” is probably the world champion musical description of sex. H.L. Mencken would have proclaimed that it should not be played in polite company. It was perfectly (should I say lovingly?) rendered, down to the last high trumpet note.

Returning to the preliminaries was the “Dance of the Seven Veils” from “Salome,” (Op. 74), delightfully seductive, down to the falling whisper of the final garment. This is a work that used to be played more often. It runs counter to the modern predilection for instant gratification.

Racette was seductive, vicious, willful and wistful, clad in brown velvet, as Salome, triumphantly making love to the head of John the Baptist. Her voice, always clear and true, carried over the fortissimos of the orchestra effortlessly, and her portrayal of the various stages of emotion in the doomed heroine was mesmerizing. She and the orchestra received a well-deserved sanding ovation.

As Samuel Pepys used to say: “And now to bed.” Because “Music and woman I cannot but give way to, whatever my business is.”

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

Pianist Anastasia Antonacos Offers Varied Program at USM

Pianist Anastasia Antonacos
Corthell Hall, USM Gorham
Jan. 22, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

Pianist Anastasia Antonacos’ recital, Friday night at Corthell Hall, was doubly daring. She led off with two Preludes by contemporary composer Elena Ruehr (b. 1963) and continued with two of the most well-known works in the repertoire, inviting comparison with every great pianist of the 20th Century.

The Ruehr preludes—“…solitary figure at water’s edge…” and “…a storm approaches land…” (sic), were effective in an imagist way, the first characterized by dry treble sforzandos, like points of light, punctuating the overtones of lower chords, and the second by rapid rhythms and stormy passagework. Both reminded me of the “Poems for Piano” of Vincent Persichetti, with whom Ruehr studied.

In opening remarks, Antonacos suggested that the famous “Le Tombeau de Couperin” might have been influenced by Ravel’s fascination with “The Last Domain” by Alain Fournier, a chronicle of lost youth which may account for the deep underlying emotional content of what is supposed to be a compendium of early French music.

These emotions were explored in Antonacos’ technically flawless performance of what is one of the most difficult of piano scores, especially the unbelievable concluding Toccata. The fortissimo of the Menuet infuses that stately dance with all the tragedy of World War I.

If I had any quarrel at all with Friday night’s interpretation it would be with one of the pianist’s virtues, an almost metronomically precise rhythm.

This was a minor problem in the Ravel but took center stage in the performance of the Four Impromptus, D. 935 (better known as Opus 142) of Franz Schubert.

It was noticeable in No.1, in F Minor, not allowing the supremely lyrical theme of the work to breathe freely, but I was more interested in the unusually dark tone that Antonacos gave the piece, alluding to the tragedy of Schubert’s last years.

It was a disaster, however, in No. 2 in A-flat Major, a deceptively simple work that requires legato chords. To achieve this effect in perfect rhythm, it was necessary to slow down the tempo to a snail’s pace. That proved tedious, because of all of the repeats, and spoiled the melodic effect of the central passage.

The third Impromptu, variations on the “Rosamunde” theme, was more successful, due to the recognizable nature of the theme under all the rapid filagree, and turned out to be delightful in the uncharacteristic No. 4 in F Minor. This gypsy-like composition, with its dramatic effects, has virtually no melody at all. It seems to have come from another planet than the first three.

Friday’s recital was the first in the USM Faculty Concert series. On Feb. 26, John Boden, French horn, will be featured in “Horns Aplenty,” with pianist Martin Perry. and Maine horn players Scott Burdditt, Nina Miller and Sophie Flood.

Midcoast Symphony Changes the Climate

Midcoast Symphony Orchestra
Orion Center, Topsham
Jan. 16, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

It takes a Northerner to really appreciate Spanish music. The Maine residents who play in the Midcoast Symphony Orchestra must have a really passionate desire to experience warmer climes, or at least to re-create them among the snowdrifts. How else to explain the almost miraculous performances of de Falla, Ravel and Chabrier that conductor Rohan Smith elicited from the band on Sunday afternoon at Orion Center for the Performing Arts?

The final works on the program, two suites from Manuel de Falla’s ballet, “The Three Cornered Hat,” resulted in a rare standing ovation from a near capacity audience. It was well deserved. I have never heard the Midcoast perform as well in all its 15-year history. Everything–tempo, dynamics, orchestral color and elaborate rhythmical pulses–came together perfectly. The exciting orchestration sounded at times like that of Rimsky- Korsakov.

The woodwinds were particularly striking, sometimes rolling down the scale from flute to bassoon and back again. It was de Falla as he is never heard on a recording. It made me re-think my opinion of him as a minor national colorist.

All three of the Spanish-flavored pieces, two of them by Frenchmen, are often selected by top-notch orchestras to display their virtuosity. The Midcoast outdid them all, if not in technical perfection then in contagious enthusiasm.

Another superb advertisement for live music came in the form of Ravel’s “Alborada del Gracioso,” which began life as one of that composer’s fiendishly difficult piano pieces. One knows how complex the polyrhythms are when even a highly accomplished percussionist can be seen counting. Ravel never wrote anything trivial–and that includes the Bolero–but the Alborada is often performed like an insignificant piece of atmospheric writing.

Nay, not so, but far otherwise. It is musical to a fault, exploring the far reaches of contrasts, with brass sforzandos like lightning bolts through a cane jungle of pizzicato. Smith, in opening remarks, characterized it as both grotesque and mysterious. As played by the Midcoast it was both of these, and more.

The program opened with Emmanuel Chabrier’s well-known “España,” which concerned me a little. It was together, lively and up-tempo, but some of its striking brass accents were slightly off the mark. Maybe the players’ fingers and lips were cold, since the work improved vastly as it went along.

The orchestra really came into its own with the next offering, the Beethoven Symphony No. 1 in C Major, Op. 21. The Portland Symphony Orchestra recently performed this work as part of its three-year cycle of all Beethoven’s symphonies, and I must confess that I preferred the Midcoast’s version. The so-called minuet, which is actually a scherzo, was appropriately wild, and the beauty of the finale was enough to bring a tear to one’s eye.

Technically, the Beethoven, in its use of sforzando-like strong accents, resembled enough of the Spanish works to make it fit right in with the rest of the program.

Schopenhauer once questioned why we denigrate those who practice an art out of love —amateurs— while praising those who do it for money —professionals. Why indeed?

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

Eroticism in Music

Classical Beat Column
by Christopher Hyde

The Portland Symphony Orchestra’s “Beethoven and Strauss” program, Jan. 24 and 26 at Merrill Auditorium. in addition to Beethoven’s shortest and most unusual symphony, the Eighth, includes some of the most erotic works in the repertoire: Richard Strauss’ Prelude to Act I of “Guntram,” Love Scene from “Feursnot” and the famous “Dance of the Seven Veils” from “Salome,” with guest artist soprano Patricia Racette.

It was reported a few years ago that scientists at the Montreal Neurological Institute have discovered that music activates the same reward centers of the brain as food and sex.

Some pieces of music activate better than others, but the effect has nothing to do with content. Overt or hidden erotic messages, as in the pieces programmed by the PSO, may help, but Beethoven and Bach affect the same pleasure centers as “Der Rosenkavalier.” What other areas they stimulate–memory, discovery, aesthetic beauty or rational intellect–is an entirely different question. (See Oliver Sacks’ “Your Brain on Music.”)

There are a couple of Bach cantatas that have the same erotic effect—Christ as the immortal beloved— as the Bernini sculpture of the Ecstasy of St. Teresa. “Wann kommst du, mein Heil?” from the Cantata No. 140 is one.

Music director Robert Moody has selected two leading candidates for the most erotic piece of music, at least according to some informal surveys on the internet.

Richard Strauss has the largest number of mentions, including “Der Rosenkavalier,” which is full of hidden risque meanings, “Salome” and even the “Domestic Symphony” and the “Four Last Songs.” Strangely enough, no one mentioned “Die Frau Ohne Schatten,” which is about nothing but eroticism.

A Ravel work, the “Bolero,” also had several mentions. I find it quite similar to the “Liebestod” in its gradual build-up to an overwhelming climax, in the case of the Wagner a union of Eros and Thanatos, and in the Ravel, appropriately enough, a change of key.

Among the moderns are, of course, Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” and Schoenberg’s “Pierrot Lunaire,” plus John Adams’ “Harmonium.” Since Adams is one of Moody’s favorite composers it would be interesting to hear this some time near Valentine’s Day.

There was also considerable discussion of Luciano Berio’s tape “Visage” for voice and electronic sounds, although to my mind this one and Pierrot seem more weird than erotic.

One work that I was not familiar with was Karol Szymanovski’s Symphony No. 3. Szymanowski, a friend of pianist Artur Rubinstein, was openly homosexual when that was taboo, and the symphony is supposedly full of homoerotic messages.

I have always wondered exactly how erotic images could be conveyed in music, but an analysis of the images in the Third Symphony told me much more than I wanted to know. The treatise is one of the most abstruse pieces of musical analysis I have ever encountered, having to do (I think) with chordal analysis and progressions, as well as rhythm.

Many of the selections on the internet were equally puzzling, at least to this reader. Scriabin’s grandiose “Poem of Ecstasy” was right up there, but I find it more embarrassing than erotic. His early Chopin-like Preludes are more realistic and Romantic at the same time.

On the subject of eroticism in music one has to fall back on the old dictum about pornography: “I know it when I see it.”

In the meantime, “If music be the food of love, play on.”

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

Renaissance Voices Lift Christmas Spirits

Renaissance Voices
The Cathedral Church of St. Luke
Dec. 20, 2015
by Christopher Hyde

Renaissance Voices’ Christmas concert, conducted by Harold Stover since 2001, just continues to get better. It covers centuries, from the 12th to the 21st, but each selection fits exactly into the whole, like a facet of a highly polished jewel.

The a cappella choir has always been noted for its part singing, marked by precise intervals unobtainable with keyboard accompaniments. The bonus this year was its sheer power. After a plainsong-like “Tota pulchra es Maria,” by Angelina Figus (b. 1957) the fortissimo stanza of “Alma redemptoris mater,” by Felice Anerio (1560-1614) came as a complete (and delightful) surprise.

Most of the first half of the concert was devoted to works praising the Virgin Mary, including an earthy reading from Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) and a lively and melodious “Laetatus sum” by Alessandro Scarlatti (1660-1725).

The final set before intermission illustrated the musical development of a different theme– the opening of the heavens to allow God to descend to earth– also spanning centuries, from early plainsong, through a hymn of 1666, to the great “O Heiland, reiß die Himmel auf “(Op. 74, No. 2) of Brahms. Renaissance Voices is as much at home in the high classical as in vocal works on a smaller scale.

Following intermission, the choir opened with a lively, joyful rendition of “Jubilate deo” by Cipriano de Rore (c.1515-1565), followed by a mystical poem: “The Beginning of Speech,” by Syrian poet Adunis (b. 1930). The translation, well read by Kirk Read, depicts the confrontation of the poet with his boyhood self, and his wondering what they should talk about.

A set of carols by British composers, “Now may we singen” by Cecilia McDowall (b. 1951), “The birth of the Saviour” by Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) and “There is no rose of such virtue,” by John Joubert (b. 1929), introduced a more “Christmasy” element. I particularly liked McDowall’s deceptively simple setting of Middle-English verses, with its effective use of melodic voices over a drone in either the soprano or the bass section. The basses also stood out in “The birth of the Savior.

In conclusion, the power of the choir filled the cathedral in the “Hodie Christus natus est” of Silvio Marazzi (fl. 1570). The encore, following a standing ovation from the large audience, was Robert Shaw’s arrangement of the British carol “The Angel Gabriel.”

In this last review before Christmas, may I wish everyone Peace on Earth, Good Will to Men.

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

A Good Year for “Magic of Christmas”

Portland Symphony Orchestra
“Magic of Christmas”
Dec. 11, 2015
by Christopher Hyde

This year’s “Magic of Christmas” concert at Merrill Auditorium. the Portland Symphony Orchestra’s contribution to the holiday season, promises to be a hit with kids—short, with familiar carols, a large Magic of Christmas Chorus, under the direction of assistant conductor Norman Huynh. and best of all, fantastic acrobats and dancers from the Cirque de la Symphonie.

Santa also made a couple of appearances, impersonated by tap dancer Liz Pettengill..

Children (and some adults) are fascinated by the instruments of the orchestra and the unusual sounds they make, and they were front and center from the first number, a medley of tunes from “Christmas Fantastique” by Todd Hayen.

The arrangements take more than customary liberties with the tunes, and also feature unusual orchestration,and instrumental solos. Another part of the set, played later in the program, included a version of “The Little Drummer Boy,” with strangely middle-eastern harmonies in the brass section.

The instrumental opening was followed immediately by a stunning gymnastic display by Marco Balestracci to the “Dance of the Tumblers” from “The Snow Maiden” by Rimsky-Korsakov. Balestracci manipulated a large cube of glowing pipes with graceful ease, ending with it spinning by one corner, high above his head. His feats elicited a gratifying number of gasps and spontaneous applause, which were well deserved.

A funny parody of “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” “The Twelve Days After Christmas,” detailing the disposal of the gifts, was given a lively and clearly enunciated performance by the Magic of Christmas Chorus.

What really brought down the house was the last act before intermission, the Pas de deux from “The Nutcracker,” danced by Sagiv Ben Binyamin and Gana Oyunchimeg. The two gymnasts performed a series of jaw-dropping lifts and contortions that seemed like the normal choreography squared. It wasn’t ballet, but nevertheless a form of art, with Oyunchimeg’s (she’s Mongolian) fun-loving personality shining through.

The duo joined Balestracci later for a delightfully unbelievable dance trio to the “Parade of the Wooden Soldiers.”

The traditional works on the program included the popular “Sleigh Ride” of Leroy Anderson, complete with costumes and horse laughs, a full orchestra and chorus reading of the “Hallelujah” Chorus from “Messiah,” and good audience participation in the holiday carol sing-along.

The final work on the program, “I Heard the Bells” was, as PSO music director Robert Moody pointed out, a hopeful end to a Christmas concert in bleak times. Longfellow wrote it during the height of the Civil War, in 1863. John Baptiste Calkin later set the poem to music, which is the version I grew up with. Johnny Marks, infamous for ”Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” set the poem to music in the 1950s and some choruses, notably Fred Waring’s, have used this version.

There is only one problem with the Marks version. It’s terrible, tuneless and virtually un-singable, unless you’re an 80-voice ensemble. In an attempt at a glorious conclusion, the composer resorts to burlesque show drumbeats-—va va va voom. I have no idea why a competent arranger, such as Christopher Rouse, would have used it, or why the Magic of Christmas chose it, when Calkin’s setting is better known and better music.

However that may be, if the choice of one piece of music is the only quarrel with Magic, it’s a very good year. The next performances are on Dec. 12, 18 and 19 at 2:00 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., and Dec. 13 and 20 at 2:00 p.m. and 5:00 p.m.

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

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