Bach and Beer

Bach and Beer

The news that Lewis Kaplan, co-founder of the Bowdoin International Music Festival, is collaborating with Emily Isaacson, Bruce Fithian, and internationally known soloists to present a major new Bach Festival this June in Portland was welcome in itself (more on the festival and its musical content in a later column). That Isaacson is thinking of concluding the affair with a Bach and Beer party at a venue near the shore reminded me of H.L. Mencken’s story about how Bach’s Mass in B Minor saved him from death by thirst. (“Heathen Days” (1943))

Mencken and his publisher and friend, Alfred Knopf, were attending the famous Bach Festival in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, during Prohibition, (1920-1933) and discovered to their horror that every speakeasy in town was closed due to the sighting of “agents” some days previously.

He writes: “This seemed strange and unfriendly, for it is well known to every musicologist that the divine music of old Johann Sebastian cannot be digested without the aid of its natural solvent (malt liquor).”

They barely made it through the last concert and on their way to the train discussed how soon they could get a bootlegger to meet them at a station before New York.

Their taxi driver took pity on them and drove to a warehouse-like building with the telltale sign “Sea Food” above the door.

“We rapped on the door and presently it opened about half an inch, revealing an eye and part of a mouth. The ensuing dialog was sotto voce but staccato and appassionata. The eye saw that we were famished but the mouth hesitated.

‘How do I know,’ it asked, ‘that you ain’t two of them agents?’

‘Agents!’ hissed Knopf. ‘What an idea. Can’t you see us? Take a good look at us.’

The eye looked but the mouth made no reply.

‘Can’t you tell musicians when you see them?’ I broke in. ‘Where did you ever see a Prohibition agent who looked so innocent, so moony, so dumb? We are actually fanatics. We came here to hear Bach. Is this the way Bethlehem treats its guests? We came a thousand miles, and now—‘

‘Three thousand miles,’ corrected Knopf.

‘Five thousand,’ I added, making it round numbers.

Suddenly I bethought me that the piano score of the B minor mass had been under my arm all the while. What better introduction? What more persuasive proof of our bona fides? I held up the
score and pointed to the title on the cover. The eye read:

J.S. Bach
Mass in B Minor

The eye flicked for an instant or two and then the mouth spoke. ‘Come in, gents,’ it said. As the door opened our natural momentum carried us into the bar in one leap, and there we were presently immersed in two immense Humpen….

It was a narrow escape from death in the desert, and we do not forget all these years afterward that we owed it to Johann Sebastian Bach, that highly talented and entirely respectable man, and especially to his Mass in B minor.”

I don’t know if Emily Isaacson has heard that story, but I’m sure Mencken would have approved of her idea and the plethora of micro-breweries now gracing the City by the Sea.

More on the festival soon and the Maine premiere of a newly reconstructed Bach concerto.

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

Midcoast Symphony Excels at Pops

Midcoast Symphony Orchestra
Orion Performing Arts Center, Topsham
Mar. 20, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

Finally, a real pops concert; popular favorites from the classics, rather than the usual uncomfortable combination of rock band and symphony, in which both sides lose.

It took the Midcoast Symphony Orchestra, under guest conductor Eric Hewitt, to do it right, and judging by the capacity crowd Sunday at the Orion Performing Arts Center, the audience is there for it. There was not a parking place within a half mile of the hall.

The afternoon got off to a shaky start, with some sour notes in the andante opening of Rossini’s “William Tell” Overture, but by the time the Lone Ranger theme came along, the players had caught fire and never looked back. During the finale, Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture,” they sounded like the Vienna Philharmonic, but with more brio.

The theme of the march, deliberately or not, gave the program continuity. The Napoleonic quick march (I forget the name of it), appeared in the Berlioz “March to the Scaffold” from his Symphonie Fantastique, as well as the “1812 Overture,” while more standard military versions were heard in the Radetsky March of Johann Strauss the Elder, and in Gounod’s “Funeral March of a Marionette.” The latter included some fantastic work by the woodwinds.

The obligatory nod to movie music came in the form of Gershwin’s “An American in Paris,” and John Williams’ Overture to “The Cowboys.”

The more I hear the “1812,” (with or without cannons) the more I marvel at how good it is. It transcends the categories of occasional and commissioned work by light years, and is one of the most well composed of Tchaikovsy’s works as well as the most inspired.

Its use of anthems, hymns and folk music to characterize the French and Russian adversaries before Moscow is masterful and can be appreciated as well by a first-time listener as by the most experienced musical professional.

From the warm, intimate cello hymn at the beginning to the frantic pealing of the bells of Moscow in the wind-driven flames, the orchestra was superb. It well deserved a resounding ovation and conductor Hewitt his bouquet from two charming little flower girls.

Let’s do this again soon.

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

A Craggy Rachmaninoff Third

Portland Symphony Orchestra
Merrill Auditorium
March 13, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

Overheard as the capacity audience left Merrill Auditorium on Sunday afternoon: “That was the best concert I’ve ever heard here.”

Well, not quite, but close. Music lovers jammed the hall to hear pianist Andrew von Oeyen Play the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 3 with the Portland Symphony Orchestra.

They were not disappointed, but it was music director Robert Moody’s programming of two unusual works before the concerto that made for a near-perfect afternoon.

The first was a mysterious agglomeration of eight works made sometime after 1956 by Dmitri Shostakovich, entitled Suite for Variety Orchestra No. 1. Some are straightforward marches and dances, with typical Shostakovich surprises and strange instrumentation..

Others are parodies of conventional waltzes, German bands and circus music. All are thoroughly delightful, but the waltzes take the cake, piling musical cliche on cliche until one expects the entire edifice to collapse under the weight of schmaltz. It doesn’t, and Shostakovich writes it all with a straight face, as if he were honestly trying to outdo Emile Waldteufel. One of them reminded me of Tom Lehrer’s “Weinerschnitzel Waltz,” with unlimited orchestral resources.

The orchestra obviously enjoyed it as much as the audience and its virtuosity at rapid tempo was little short of amazing.

Kurt Weill’s use of hackneyed forms, in his Suite from “The Three-Penny Opera,” was equally imaginative, but in the service of a darker vision. It was equally well played, especially the false fugue of the Overture and the flute and violin solos in “Polly’s Lied.” I had just written about Nico Muhle’s “Bright Mass with Canons,” and Weill’s concluding piece, “Kanonen,” with the same double meaning, was pure synchronicity.

Andrew von Oeyen’s rendition of the Rachmaninoff Concerto No. 3 was exciting and extremely forceful. His power, however, has both advantages and drawbacks. In the first movement the piano was often in danger of drowning out the orchestra, and a dynamic range starting at mezzo forte doesn’t leave much room for a crescendo. Fortunately, the pianist’s fortissimo is so strong that the climaxes still work.

On the plus side, von Oeyen worked well in some of the more delicate dialogs with other instruments, while his volume —and some idiosyncratic emphases— brought out passages obscured in most readings of this work. He also has the quick wit to get out of trouble unnoticed. The passion in the closing bars was palpable and brought tears to the eye and the audience to its feet instantaneously.

Then he spoiled the whole thing with an encore. An encore to the Rachmaninoff Third is bad enough, like putting catsup on foie gras, but the piece he chose had enough schmaltz to make Shostakovich proud. I wish guest artists wouldn’t do that, ruining the after effects of a masterpiece, but the practice seems to be becoming more widespread.

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

Oratorio Chorale Misfires, Then Hits the Mark

Oratorio Chorale
Woodfords Congregational Church
Mar. 5, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

I like to listen to new music, but sometimes I have to remind myself that, like all music ever composed, 99.9 percent of it is ephemeral. Not merely fleeting in time, but rather easily forgettable.

I was looking forward to hearing the revitalized Oratorio Chorale, under Emily Isaacson, perform Nico Muhly’s “Bright Mass with Canons,” (2005), but alas it was no “1812 Overture.” That’s a joke, son. The canons refer to a simple sort of fugue, like “Row, Row, Row Your Boat,” that pervades the mass. Why it is called bright, I have no idea, except that it sounds good on paper.

The opening night was at Woodford’s Congregational Church, and there will be two performances today (Mar. 6) at the Seventh Day Adventist Church in Brunswick.

Muhly, born in 1981, is a sort of compositional wunderkind who, in addition to other feats, had an opera of his (“Two Boys”) performed at the Met, which then commissioned another one, to be staged in 2019-2020, based on the Hitchcock movie “Marnie.”

The mass has some nice atmospheric touches, like the imitation of flowing water in the Sanctus and Benedictus, but essentially, in the composer’s own words, it “(creates) a flurry of sound to fill the space in the sanctuary.” Some of it is actually irritating, like the low pedal points on the organ that made one wonder if something was wrong with the heating system.

The organ was Muhly’s primary mistake. If the object is to imitate early English polyphony, the mass has to be sung a cappella. Otherwise the precise intervals at the juxtaposition of melodic lines cannot be heard at all.

The chorus and soloists gave it their best shot, but the cannons misfired.

The lovely Dvorák Mass in D, Op. 86, was a different matter entirely. The organ works well in what is essentially a homophonic composition, although the composer breaks into a fugue every time the concatenation of voices suggests it.

Its beauties are too many to list, but the quartet at the end, with the individual voices entering one by one, was a high point, set off by the gentle conclusion of the “dona nobis pacem.” One could almost hear the voices of Dvorák’s friends and family in the country chapel for which it was written. The entire work is a hymn to Pan, the “Piper at the Gates of Dawn.”

The soloists, Deborah Selig, soprano, Margaret Lias, mezzo-soprano, Gregory Zavracky, tenor, and John David Adams, bass baritone, were uniformly excellent, with enough volume to fill the large expanse of Woodfords Church. They should sound even better in Sunday’s smaller venue.

The chorale was more enthusiastic in the second half of the program, with a full range of dynamics, but not quite enough power in the bass line. The latter is still hard to do in Maine, whose Russian community is too far from Portland.

The Dvorák made the evening more than worthwhile, and the program was short, about an hour in length, with 40 minutes of that time filled with melody, leaving time to caucus.

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

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.

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