Clarity at Christmas in the Cathedral

Christmas in the Cathedral
Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception
Dec. 5, 2015
by Christopher Hyde

“For now we see as through a glass darkly; for we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when that which is perfect is come, that which is in part shall be done away.”

I thought of these verses from the King James Bible at the beginning of the Choral Art Society’s’ Christmas in the Cathedral Saturday night, under the direction of Robert Russell.

The women’s voices in 13th and 14th Century Latin carols, “Angelus ad Virginem,” and “Verbum caro factum est,” had an angelic clarity, rather like that of a boy soprano, which is too rare in choral music. They retained it even in the latter work, which has more complex counterpoint.

They were joined by the tenors and bases in the processional, which has become a tradition at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception: “Personent hodie voices puerulae” of 1582. It gets better every year.

The Christmas concert rose to that level again after intermission, when soprano Sarah Bailey and mezzo-soprano Andrea Graichen sang an “Ave Verum” by Welsh composer Karl Jenkins (b. 1944), which was absolutely ravishing. It was accompanied by a piano obligato, played by Dan Moore, which was unable to reduce the perfect intervals of the voices to the “tempered” compromises of the keyboard.

The Portland Brass Quintet was in good form, with the trumpets ringing from the high vaulted ceiling, especially in the rapid ornamentation of “Rejoice and be Merry,” and the joyful pagan dance of the “Gloucestshire Wassail.”

Following their three solos, they took part in an experiment on Handel’s “Messiah,” a work that has become a little too much of a Christmas tradition, having been intended for Easter. The experiment was to replace the orchestral parts of four sections, including the “Hallelujah Chorus,” with a brass quintet.

To paraphrase Dr. Johnson’s comment: ”Sir, a woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.” The transcription was amazing, and generally well played, but it was an impossible task to begin with.

After intermission came two choir director specials, “Intrada” by Alfred Reed (1921-2005) and “Welcome all wonders,” by Richard Dirksen (1921-2003). The former was distinguished by an organ fanfare by Dan Moore, and the latter by a gradual segue into what sounded a little like a variation on “A Mighty Fortress…”

It was good to hear Gustav Holst’s “Christmas Day,” the ultimate holiday carol arrangement. It is actually composed, building upon familiar themes, instead of being thrown together in the usual pastiche.

Of course no Christmas concert would be complete without the thoroughly awful, a heavily amplified version of a gospel song, “He Never Failed Me Yet,” arranged by Robert Ray, in which the soloist drowned out the chorus. I ordinarily abide by my grandmother’s admonition–“If you can’t say anything nice, say nothing at all,” but the audience loved it, so it should be mentioned.

You can make up your own mind today (Sunday, Dec. 6). The matinee is sold out, but there are still tickets left for the evening performance at 7:30.

Oratorio Chorale’s “Prodigies” Does Not Disappoint

Oratorio Chorale
Woodfords Congregational Church
Nov. 21, 2015
by Christopher Hyde

The Oratorio Chorale’s “Prodigies” concert, Saturday night at Woodfords Congregational Church, examined many aspects of that vexed question, while presenting each in the best possible light. Director Emily Isaacson has mastered the art of combining chorus and orchestra, and the Maine Chamber Ensemble sounded the best it has in years.

The program opened with a work by a child prodigy, Henry Purcell, (1659-1695), written, however, when his genius had fully matured. His “Oh Sing Unto the Lord,” (1688) often sounded like Handel, but more complex (and a little better written). The vocal part is extremely difficult, with the chorus treated as an orchestra, offering varied instrumental combinations. It was written in a day when British households entertained themselves by singing seven-part madrigals.

The orchestral “symphony” itself is also brilliant, both at setting off the choral and recitative sections, and solo, with fugal writing that seems to come as easily to Purcell as to Bach.

It was followed by a premiere of “The Window,” a setting of a poem by Conrad Aiken, written by Christopher Stacknys (b. 1997) of Falmouth, now a sophomore at the Juilliard School. The composition was quite professional in its cycling from harmony to dissonance and back.

His musicality, however, was called into question by a performance of the first movement of the Chopin Concerto No. 1 in E minor. After a lovely opening by the string orchestra, the piano came in like a bull in a china shop, Stacknys apparently overcompensating for the acoustics of an unknown venue.

The performance was brilliant, too fast, and technically flawless. The music got lost in a cloud of notes. A concerto is always a contest between the soloist and the conductor; in this case, Isaacson lost the battle for control of tempo. The large audience loved it.

The two anthems by Mendelssohn (1809-1847), which followed intermission, “Jesu meine Freude” (1828) and “Christie, du Lamm Gottes” (1827) were delightful, lively and perfectly balanced. Any resemblance to the work of J.S. Bach, which the 18-year-old composer had been studying intensely, was purely intentional.

Isaacson saved he most astounding feat for last, a “Te Deum” (1769) written by Mozart when he was 13. He could orchestrate, write fugues, and invent choral harmonies which neither Bach nor Purcell would have disowned. He is one of the great composers whom we can honestly regret losing at an early age.

The concert will be repeated today (Sunday, Nov. 22) at the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Brunswick, at 3:00 and 6:00 p.m.

Prodigies at the Oratorio Chorale

The Oratorio Chorale’s concert, on Nov. 21 at Woodfords Congregational Church, will be devoted to youthful music by three child prodigies: Mozart, Mendelssohn and England’s greatest composer, Henry Purcell (1659-1695).

The Purcell anthem selected by music director Emily Isaacson, “O Sing Unto the Lord,” is thought to have been composed when he was 14, although it is difficult to date many of Purcell’s compositions. (Even the name of his father is in dispute.)

Purcell died at the age of 46, Mozart at 35 and Mendelssohn at 38. There is a Romantic tendency to associate early death with musical genius; think of Schubert, Schumann, Chopin, as well as the above, but I’m not sure the facts bear that out.

In Purcell’s time, when people married at 12 and became admirals in the British Navy at 14, (those of Family, with good connections at Court) 46 was a ripe old age. Life expectancy was about 35. Mozart may well have been poisoned, and Mendelssohn worked himself to death, perhaps overcompensating for the death of his beloved sister, Fanny.

Schubert, like Beethoven and Schumann, died of syphilis, and Chopin of tuberculosis. Perhaps, as some have suggested, we owe a large number of masterworks to disease.

Neither is early genius a predictor of early demise. St.Saêns, who could play all of the Beethoven sonatas from memory before he was a teenager, is one example. A Renaissance man, he started composing at age 6 and died at 86.

It is customary to lament what might have been, had composers not departed this earth so soon, but I’m not sure that we have lost that much. Perhaps they had already said whatever was on their minds. Music channeled from the beyond by various mediums generally leaves something to be desired.

On a more serious note, it is quite possible that the quality of their compositions might have declined with age. I’m thinking of the Romantic poet Wordsworth, who, unlike Keats and Shelley, lived to be 80, writing more and more pedestrian boilerplate after a brilliant youth.

The Oratorio Chorale concert will include Henry Purcell’s, “O Sing unto the Lord,” the Felix Mendelssohn Chorale: “Jesu meine Freude,” written when the composer was 16, a Mozart Te Deum, written when he was 13, and Christopher Staknys’ “The Window,” a premiere of his newly written choral work. Staknys, who recently entered Juilliard, is already known as a piano virtuoso. He will play Chopin’s Concerto No. 1 in E-minor with the Maine Chamber Ensemble.

The concert will be repeated on Sun., Nov. 22, at 3:00 p.m. and 6:00 p.m. in the Seventh-day Adventist Church, Brunswick.

Won’t You Join the Dance? PSO Performs Del Tredici’s “Alice” Symphony

Portland Symphony Orchestra
Merrill Auditorium
Nov. 10, 2015

A story going around music schools a long time ago concerned the oriental potentate who was introduced to a symphony orchestra for the first time. When asked what he liked most on the program he said: “The first piece.” The orchestra repeated it, but the Sultan shook his head. “No, before that…”

He was referring to the tune-up , begun by the oboe on “A” 440, which composer David Del Tredici uses as a motif signifying the dull real world at the beginning and end of his “Alice” Symphony, played Tuesday night at Merrill Auditorium by the Portland Symphony Orchestra.

“Alice” is a quirky and marvelous work, but its musical intricacies, such as counterpoint among massed instruments and canons at the 16th, were obscured by a ballet based on the Lobster Quadrille.

I loved the ballet, brilliantly choreographed by Roberto Forleo and danced superbly by members of the Portland Ballet. It was even more erotically charged than the company’s “Carmina Burana,” with poses that seemed based on the paintings of Egon Schiele, Balthus and Dorothea Tanning.

The Queen of the Lobsters, danced by Erica Deisl, was a dominating presence, the lobsterman in yellow overalls, danced by Derek Clifford, subtly menacing, and Alice herself, played by Kaitlyn Hayes, the picture of gawky adolescence, torn between resistance and desire, as in “Will you, won’t you, will you, won’t you, won’t you join the dance?”

The problem with a ballet so well done is that it rivets the attention, making the subtle effects of the music sometimes go unnoticed. In that way, the symphony was the reverse of a ballet suite, such as the symphonic Prokofiev “Cinderella” Suite No. 1 (Op.107) that preceded it. Perhaps the answer would be to shorten the symphony into a ballet version.

That said, the orchestra, under music director Robert Moody, did an excellent job with a difficult score, aided by soprano Margaret Carpenter Haigh, who is able to sing sweetly, bark like a yapping dog through a megaphone or read nonsense verses with equal aplomb. Del Tredici’s folk band, including mandolin and accordion, also worked effectively, as did an appropriately spooky Theremin.

The performance received a reluctant standing ovation from an audience that didn’t quite know what to make of it, gaining in applause as Del Tredici himself mounted the stage.

The program before intermission was equally good, with a powerful and atmospheric “Cinderella” Suite and an intimate, well-nuanced Haydn Symphony No. 69 in C Major (“Laudon”).

(In the program, the “Cinderella Suite” Pas de Châle (shawl dance) was mis-translated as “Cat’s Dance” (Pas de Chat?) which I mention only because it did sound like a cat dancing. exemplifying the power of suggestion.)

VentiCordi Program Sparkles

VentiCordi Chamber Music
Woodford’s Congregational Church
Nov. 8, 2015
by Christopher Hyde

There are few chamber music concerts without dead spots, but VentiCordi managed that feat on Sunday at Woodfords Congregational Church, under the auspices of the Portland String Quartet. Every piece on the program sparkled, or, in the case of Schoenberg’s “Ein Stelldichein” ( A Rendezvous) glowed like a black opal.

The Schoenberg, unfinished at 77 measures, comprises an entire dark world of loss and sorrow, and transfigures it. A companion piece to the more famous “Verlklarte Nacht,” also based on a work by Richard Dehmel, it goes further in the direction of atonality.

The composition does not follow the poem directly but creates a similar atmosphere, in which “The foliage hangs silently on the wet shrubs as if the leaves had drunk poison…”
It was lovingly performed by Kathleen McNerney, oboe, Kristen Finkbeiner, clarinet, Dean Stein, violin, Andrew Mark, cello, and Bridget Convey, piano.

The score has too many beauties to enumerate in a review, but I was particularly impressed by the winds and strings (VentiCordi) feeding on the overtones of massive piano chords, reminiscent of Brahms. The piano also managed cascades of falling leaves.

The work preceding it, “Fragments for Oboe, Clarinet and Cello,” by Robert Muczynski (1929-2010), also had its moments of sadness, but cheerfulness kept breaking through. The second fragment, “Solitude,” allowed the oboe to describe ripples on a black lake, a la “The Swan of Tuonela,” while the “Reverie” sounded like Copland in an introspective mood. The final “Exit” ended on a surprising tonic chord, like a Bach prelude.

A Trio for Clarinet, Violin and Piano by “Saber Dance” composer Aram Khachaturian (1903-1978) came as a surprise for its professional finish. Written when the composer was still a student, it contains all of the elements of his later work, with ethnic melodies and driving rhythms plus steppes music straight out of Borodin. The interweaving of the three voices was masterful. Either Khachaturian’s talent sprang full-blown or he developed little after his student days.

Eight Duos for Violin and Cello, Op. 39, by Reinhold Glière, were charming, especially to those brought up on his tutorial piano pieces. They too were lessons in form, melodic but exact. The second one, a Gavotte, sounded entirely authentic, as if the composer were writing in the 18th Century. Where his contemporary, Prokofiev, would have parodied it somehow, Glière plays it straight, which is somehow refreshing.

From a compositional standpoint, the only work on the program comparable to the Schoenberg was a Quartet for Piano, Oboe, Violin and Cello, by Bohuslav Martinû.(1890-1959). Written when the composer was recovering from a serious accident, it is nevertheless entirely upbeat, except for a somewhat brooding adagio. The final Poco Allegro, which could have been written by Stravinsky, is a scherzo, with a joke phrase that sounds like “a tisket, a tasket.” If anyone needs an accessible entree to “modern” music, the quartet has it all.

VentiCordi, founded by Stein and McNerney in 2009, deserves our thanks for bringing these delightful works to life. The performance of neglected music is unusual; to have it done so well, without any flavor of academia, is rare indeed.

Scary Music and Henry Cowell

Every year at this time I think about appropriate Halloween music. There are all the usual suspects–“Night on Bald Mountain,” “Symphony Fantastique”,” Verdi and Mozart for hellfire and damnation, Beethoven for the dark night of the soul, Grieg for trolls, Chopin for autumn leaves and funerals. Mahler for schadenfreude, all kinds of horror movie scores…

But the all-time winner for music that provides that special scary thrill is Henry Cowell’s “Banshee” for piano. It’s a short piece, for prepared piano –which John Cage learned from Cowell– but makes up for it in intensity and, well, realism. There really is a demon inside that piano.

I’ve been reading about and listening to Cowell (1897-1965) since hearing his Quartet No. 4 (“United”) played by the Portland String Quartet. I’ve even bought some of his piano music, featuring his invention of “tone clusters,” groups of minor second chords played with the fist or the forearm, thinking my grandson would like to play them. (Bartok, whom kids also love, requested Cowell’s permission to use the technique in his own works.)

Cowell, born in California of philosophical anarchist parents, is one of a long line of quirky American composers of genius, beginning with New England’s own writer of hymns and fugueing tunes, William Billings,(1746-1800) who thought that there should always be twice as many basses as any other voice in the choir. (He was dead on.)

Home-schooled until the age of 17, Cowell was largely self-taught in music until he began to study at the University of California, Berkeley, under Charles Seeger, father of Pete Seeger, who recognized and nurtured his genius.

The list of Cowell’s achievements goes on and on. He wrote over 1,000 compositions, including 180 songs. He was a writer, whose prose, as well as his music, strongly influenced generations of composers, including both John Cage and George Gershwin. He was an ethnomusicologist who learned many of the world’s musical traditions and incorporated them into his own work, not quoting, but grafting his ideas on to their roots.

Schoenberg asked him to play for his composition class in Vienna.

Cowell worked with Leôn Theremin on machines that would realize his ideas about the relationship of harmony and rhythm. He invented rhythms so complex that they could not be played by a human being, but only by a specially designed instrument called a Rhythmicon..

He championed Native American music, which is nothing like what Dvorak imagined, or what any of us can imagine, more strange and “foreign” than anything recorded in far-off lands.

He wrote some of his best work from a cell in San Quentin.

It is hard to believe in today’s society, but in 1936 Cowell was sentenced to 15 years in prison for having a homosexual relationship. Although he served “only” four years and eventually received a full pardon from the Governor of California, the experience profoundly affected him. Opinions differ about whether he was a broken man. He never spoke about radical politics again, and may have made his works more accessible to a wide audience, but that could also have been a natural development with age.

The imprisonment, however, because of lingering prejudice, prevented his works from receiving the recognition they deserved, and still deserve.

A good dose of Cowell is just what is needed to improve audience reaction to “modern” music. It is accessible, interesting, inventive, melodic, and non-academic. He wrote a lovely piano concerto and 15 symphonies, any one of which would grace a Portland Symphony Orchestra concert. The full cycle has never been recorded. There’s an opportunity for someone.

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

Early Music Festival Enchants

Portland Early Music Festival
Portland Conservatory of Music
Oct. 24, 2015
by Christopher Hyde

After you read this review, I would strongly recommend attending today’s (Sunday’s) concert of the Portland Early Music Festival, at 4:00 p.m. in the chapel of Woodford’s Congregational Church, home of the Portland Conservatory of Music.

Saturday night’s concert was both satisfying and surprising; this afternoon’s promises to be spectacular, with a performance of the Bach Chaconne for unaccompanied violin (from BWV 1004) by Heidi Powell on a baroque (c.1550) violin.

The chapel is the ideal space for an early music concert—the right size for an intimate chamber-music gathering, with good acoustics. One could hear every note of Timothy Burris’ lute in three introspective pieces from the Sonata No. 11 in D minor of Silvius Leopold Weiss (1687-1750,) while the warm voice of mezzo-soprano Joëlle Morris effortlessly filled the hall with sound.

Her performances, of recitativos and arias from Vivaldi’s cantata: “Perfidissimo cor!” and the cantata “La Bella Fiamma of Johann David Heinichen (1683-1729) were the surprise of the evening. Heinichen’s writing was superior to Vivaldi’s and his style that of an entirely different era, even though the two composers were contemporaries.

While Heinichen’s heightened drama, restrained ornamentation, and well-defined melodic line were new, the accompaniments, by Gavin Black, harpsichord, Charles Kaufmann, bassoon, and Burris, were familiar from many works of J.S. Bach. Who imitated whom?

It seems likely that Bach ran with Heinichen’s ideas, since an early Bach Praeludium/Fantasia (BWV 922) performed earlier by Black, showed none of them. The harpsichordist commented that friends had told him that the work sounded like Phillip Glass, and it did. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)

Charles “Chip” Kaufmann is best known in Maine for his association with the Longfellow Chorus, but he is also an artist on the baroque bassoon, an instrument that is both more agile and considerably less comic than its modern cousin. It can easily substitute for the cello, with a rich baritone voice that can be taken quite seriously.

Kaufmann’s rendition of the Bassoon Sonata in C Major, by Johann Friedrich Fasch (1688-1758), revealed all of these characteristics admirably.

Black played his own harpsichord in the Bach Preaeludium and “Uranie: Partita in 8 movements,” from the “Musikalischer Parnassus” of J.F.K Fischer (1656-1746). The instrument, by Keith Hill, is distinguished by its clarity, which sometimes made it sound almost like a piano, and its ability to change tone quality between two keyboards.

Black is also an advocate for the instrument itself, patiently explaining its workings to my eight-year-old grandson, Jordan Seavey, who, so far, only plays the piano and recorder.

Behind the “Alice” Symphony

When the Portland Symphony Orchestra released its plans for the 2015-2016 concert season, one item stood out: a symphony that commemorates one of the strangest love affairs in the history of music, between American composer David Del Tredici (b. 1937) and “Alice in Wonderland.”

Since 1968, a great deal of Del Tredici’s work has been devoted to the ‘Wonderland” books and their author, Lewis Carroll, beginning with settings of “Turtle Soup” and “Jabberwocky,” juxtaposed with a Litany and a Bach Chorale.

“Jabberwocky” might well appeal to a contemporary composer, with its musical use of nonsense and “portmanteau” words., but there seems to be a much deeper connection between Del Tredici and Carroll.

The key lies in Martin Gardner’s “The Annotated Alice.”

Gardner provides detailed historical background, sketches of the people involved and the originals of the Victorian poems that Carroll parodied. The combination of the original verses with their distorted reflections triggered something in the composer’s rebellious nature.

Del Tredici, born in 1937, has always been known as a maverick. In a musical world dominated by 12-tone serialism, especially at Princeton, where Del Tredici studied, he eventually returned to the music of Bach, Beethoven and the Beatles, prompting horrified reactions from the critics, followed by acceptance and eventually enthusiasm.

There was also a personal aspect to his fascination with the “Alice” books. When the composer was growing up, homosexuality could be punished by a prison term. The great American composer, Henry Cowell, was sentenced to 10 years for such an offense. Carroll’s affection for little girls, such as Alice Liddell, may have seemed equally transgressive.

The first large-scale work to emerge from this inspiration was “An Alice Symphony,” (1969) which the Portland Symphony Orchestra will play on November 10. One of its most famous sections is “The Lobster Quadrille.” The composer’s original program notes about its construction provide an idea of his methods of work on the “Alice” material:

“What particularly caught my fancy in this scene was the possibility of musically blending together both its humor and it grotesquerie.” For this effect he added a mandolin, a banjo, an accordion and two saxophones. “These are very common instruments indeed; however, in the more rarified symphonic realm their presence is somewhat bizarre, and creates a juxtaposition suggesting to me a kind of musical equivalent to the special atmosphere of the dramatic scene.”

Finding what the composer calls the “folk instrument group” of the quadrille may have the PSO scrambling, but they already have a good ukulele player in hornist Nina Allen Miller, who founded the ukulele group FLUKE.

The quadrille also employs the human voice, accelerando, to portray the lines: “‘Will you walk a little faster?’” said a whiting to a snail. “‘There’s a porpoise close behind us, and he’s treading on my tail.’”

Del Tredici set himself a contrapuntal problem in its composition: “that of writing two different sections (Dance I and Dance II) which would make musical sense not only separately but also when superimposed one upon the other.” In ordinary contrapuntal writing, two or more musical lines are superimposed harmoniously. To superimpose two separate compositions is orders of magnitude more difficult.

The result, according to Harry Neville of the Los Angeles Times, requires no knowledge of counterpoint to appreciate: ”The music is suffused with infectious good spirits — a rare quality these days — and altogether struck this listener as one of the most successful attempts yet to combine ‘serious’ and ‘popular’ musical elements.”

”An Alice Symphony,” written when Del Tredici was initially exploring the possibilities of combining tonality with dissonance, is the most modern sounding of the four symphonic works.

The “Acrostic Poem” for soprano in “The Final Alice” (the last of the four full-length “Alice” works), is written in triads (three-note chords), like a Beatles song. The aria does descend into chaos at the end, but is pulled back by the soprano counting slowly, in Spanish. “An Alice Symphony” is of particular importance since it marks Del Tredici’s initial break with academic tradition in music.

A special aspect of its performance in November will be a staged accompaniment by dancers from the Portland Ballet Company, with choreography by Roberto Forleo. Part of the Portland Symphony’s program of collaboration with local arts groups, it promises to be spectacular.

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

Quality in Music

Since I no longer subscribe to the Press Herald, I have taken to getting my morning news from National Public Radio. One of the more annoying features of NPR news is its regular interviews with pop singer-songwriters and “artists” of whom no one has ever heard. There was one the other day, with an aging female rock star whose rudeness was off the charts. The interviewer continued with his polite obsequiousness, when anyone with a brain in his head would have terminated the conversation immediately.

The other instant turn-off feature of NPR’s Morning Edition is the Writer’s Almanac, whose compiler once decided, on air, to make Kipling’s “If,” which I learned as a child of six, politically correct.

What has all this to do with classical music? I know only two popular songs that have withstood the test of centuries. One is ”Greensleeves.” and the other isn’t. The truth is that, like money, bad music drives out good, and the perceived decline in the audience for the latter has much to do with the “seriousness” accorded the former

I thought, many years ago, that musicology applied to bad pop music was a vampire that had been exposed to the light of day. In the days of 45’s, when I was in college, there were parodies of this kind of exercise all over campus. Alas, no one had driven a holly stake through its heart.

It is hard to believe, but not too long ago most people thought that music, because of its very nature, could not portray evil. Said the Greek philosopher: “Music is a moral law. It gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, a charm to sadness, gaiety and life to everything. It is the essence of order, and leads to all that is good, just and beautiful, of which it is the invisible, but nevertheless, dazzling, passionate, and eternal form.” Plato (c. 428—c. 347 B.C. )

We have learned, to our dismay, that not only can music portray evil; it can be evil. See certain forms of Rap, which some people believe is music, and automobile boom boxes, which can permanently damage the sense of hearing in half an hour.

I am not intending to dismiss music that appeals to a mass audience, merely to point out that the notion that “all musics are created equal,” which now seems a media truism. is fatuous nonsense, and does real harm. In another recent NPR interview, the music directors of two of Maine’s symphony orchestras also succumbed to the leveling virus, one going so far as to entertain the idea of programming concert versions of background music for video games.

Sir Percy Scholes, author and editor of the Oxford Companion to Music, an indispensable reference, lists the characteristics one should look for in evaluating a piece of music: vitality, originality, workmanship, proportion and fitness, feeling, personal taste, and the test of time. Except for the last item, music for mass audiences may show some or even all of these characteristics. But it is just this final one that makes the best of popular composers aspire to the classical.

Scholes tells of overhearing a conversation in Blackpool, in which one girl complained to another that music in a shop window was out-dated, being at least a year old. He pointed out that at that moment, Schubert had been dead for a century, but still endured.

“Probably bad popular music now lives a shorter time than ever before, since its incessant repetition by radio, television, juke-box, cinema and taped music tends to speed the judgement of Time” he writes. I-Tunes, Pandora, and the like have further speeded the process, while reducing the value of even good music, by making it a commodity available upon demand.

The opportunity to hear good music, played live, still exists in Maine. Some of the performances are free, and everyone, young or old, should take advantage of them while they last.

A Musical Enormity: PSO Tackles the Berlioz Te Deum

Portland Symphony Orchestra
Merrill Auditorium
Oct. 11, 2015

To paraphrase Lady Bracknell: “A work crowded with incident, I see, but somewhat too loud for Merrill Auditorium.” The Berlioz Te Deum, performed by the Portland Symphony Orchestra before a large audience on Sunday, Oct. 11, is the 19th Century equivalent of a boombox. A few minutes more and the result would have been mass hearing loss.

During the final Judex crederis (the last judgement), tenor René Barbera, who has a rich, powerful voice that could fill La Scala, was totally drowned out by the massed forces of a full orchestra (with plenty of harps), the Kotzschmar Organ, played by Ray Cornils, and three large choruses-—the Masterworks Chorus of the Choral Art Society, the Boston Children’s Chorus, and members of Shannon Chase’s Vox Nova Chamber Choir.

The Te Deum begins with orchestra and organ exchanging fortissimo chords like the blows of heavyweight boxers at the beginning of a bout, and continues that way until all parties, including the audience, are exhausted.

There are a few respites, most notably the great tenor solo in Te ergo quaesumus, but for the most part Berlioz simply tries unsuccessfully to outdo, in volume and cataclysmic dramatics, his opening passage.

The composer gives the organ every opportunity to demonstrate its magnificence—the first performance, in 1855, commemorated the installation of a new organ at the church of Saint-Eustache in Paris, during that year’s World’s Fair—but is much less successful in the few pensive moments of the score, when the chosen organ stops sound like background music at a funeral parlor. An organ always sounds like an organ, no matter what its maker is trying to imitate.

There is not much attempt to differentiate the choruses, although the children’s voices and Vox Nova stood out at times, and there were some characteristic Berlioz effects, such as an unusual interaction between the brass choir and the basses. There was also a fine, distinctive Latinate chant in the Christie, rex gloriae.

The entire Te Deum was beautifully performed, by all parties, but as Ravel said of his Bolero, ”unfortunately, it is not music.” Still, like a performance of the Bolero, the audience, this writer included, enjoyed it immensely, as evidenced by a prolonged standing ovation.

I urge anyone who can do so, to get a ticket for Tuesday night’s (Oct. 13) performance. This is music that can only be experienced live, and it will probably not be heard again in Maine for a very long time.

Music director Robert Moody paired the Te Deum with a charming performance of the Beethoven Symphony No. 1 in C Major, Op. 21, emphasizing its similarities with the work of his predecessors. The minuet movement, which is supposed to mark Beethoven’s break with tradition, sounded like something straight from the pages of Haydn.

I mention this about the symphony only because it was so odd: a pizzicato note from the violin section before Moody indicated the downbeat. The first time was merely a regrettable error, but it happened again before the minuet. Not enough to spoil anything, but a little intrusive nevertheless, and perhaps rattling to other musicians.

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