Tag Archives: Bach

DaPonte Does the Three “B”s in Brunswick

DaPonte String Quartet
Unitarian Universalist Church, Brunswick
March 25, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

The DaPonte String Quartet’s program on Sunday, at Brunswick’s Unitarian Universalist Church, began with two fugues from Bach’s “Art of the Fugue,” which has been called the greatest masterwork in music, although it was written to teach rather than perform.

Cellist Myles Jordan points out, in his always perceptive program notes, that there are a number of problems with this attribution. One is Joseph Conrad’s observation that “All praise is invidious,” because it assumes that the person offering the praise is qualified to to give it.

A second is the effect on performers, which is like that on a modern sculptor given a chisel and asked to improve upon MIchelangelo’s David. It can’t be done, and the effect is near paralysis.

Of course Bach has to be performed to live at all, but one tries to approach it like any other score, without fear and trembling. The DaPonte gave it a good try, but could not seem to let themselves go, as they did with a more popular work, the Beethoven String Quartet in C Major, Op. 29.

With the able assistance of violist Katherine Murdock, they brought this melodic and sometimes quirky creature to life. It is easily accessible on first hearing, but there is some novel invention in each of the movements, just enough to delight without confusing: odd triplets in the first, huge empty rests and no resolution to the tonic in the second, a lovely canter across country, reminding one of the “Light Cavalry Overture,” in the third, and a switch from a gallop to a slower call and response, and back again, in the fourth, which also presages Beethoven’s later obsession with false cadences.

About the last work on the program, the Brahms String Quintet No. 2 in G Major, Op. 111, Jordan pointed out the difficulties in balancing the cello part, which stems from a theme for the brass section of an orchestra, with the other voices in the quintet. The disparity was unnoticeable among the lush and familiar melodies the composer spreads lavishly throughout.

Brahms, perhaps believing that this was to be his last published work, seems to have let his hair down in the quintet, which is nowhere near as durch-componiert as most of his earlier works, beginning with an opening theme that sounds strangely Wagnerian. (Pardon the German, but there’s no other way to describe what composers do who work like a painter, seeing that a dab of color in the lower left-hand corner affects something else in the upper right.)

The first two movements are perfect examples of late Romanticism. The third seems an attempt to get back to more intellectual pursuits, with a strangely off-kilter treatment of triplets and a hearkening back to the principal theme of the first.

Finally, in the fourth, Brahms says “to Hell with it all,” and brings in a gypsy melody, ending with a totally unrelated Hungarian furiant that would have made Bartok proud. It received a well deserved sanding ovation.

The size of the overflow audience at the UUC attests to the success of the quartet’s policy of extending its outreach in Maine. I still think they may be spreading themselves too thin, but music lovers throughout the state have much to be grateful for.

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

An English Deutsches Requiem at the PSO

Portland Symphony Orchestra
Merrill Auditorium
March 13, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

The change of date, from March 14 to March 13 to beat an oncoming blizzard, didn’t seem to affect attendance at Merrill Auditorium for the Portland Symphony Orchestra’s Lenten program.

It wasn’t billed as Lenten, but that was the impression given by three Christian religious works, played without intermission, backed by the combined forces of the Choral Art Society and the Oratorio Chorale, plus two soloists: baritone Troy Cook and soprano Twyla Robinson.

Music director Robert Moody began the program with a Bach Chorale, “Kumm süsser Tod,” transcribed for full orchestra by Leopold Stokowski. (Disclaimer: I met Stokowski once many years ago when he came to Kodak looking for a grant to stage the Scriabin “Poem of Fire,” complete with light organ to be built by us. He was turned down.)

The chorale is one of Bach’s inspired shorter works, but everything transcribed by Stokowski sounds like, well… Stokowski. Given the state of world affairs, I’m not sure that the sentiment in the title is one that should be widely promulgated.

“Come sweet death” was followed immediately by “In Paradisum,” for orchestra and chorus, by Dan Forrest (b. 1978). It was pleasant enough, well played and sung in traditional harmony, but bears the same relation to religious music as Bob Jones University (which commissioned the work) does to Christianity. It descended into kitsch with a part for handbell ringers in the aisles.

Now we come to the meat of the evening, the great Brahms “Deutsches Requiem,” one of the most profound expressions of religious sentiment ever written, by a man who wasn’t very religious himself.

Only God knows why the work was sung in English. Brahms chose the passages from the Lutheran Bible himself, and the music was written to fit them—as beloved of the Germans as the King James Bible is of us— certainly not English.

With supertitles, one can follow the text perfectly well, no matter what language is being sung. So why the translation? Incidentally, the supertitles in both the Forrest and the Brahms, were their usual ham-fisted selves, complete with misspellings.

Moody put Robinson on the balcony for the movement that was written to commemorate the death of the composer’s mother,  in which she seems to communicate with him. It was a nice touch, but the spotlighted singer could not be seen from under the left balcony overhang, and her part seemed to emanate from somewhere in the chorus. Both she and Cook have clear, well-projected voices, which would have been a delight to hear in German.

The orchestra was on its best behavior, but needed to expand its dynamic range beyond mezzo-forte to piano.

The combed choruses, under the direction of Emily Isaacson and Robert Russell, were fine, but could have been a little smaller, for better focus, and shifted toward the bass end of the spectrum.
Still, I would walk miles in the cold to hear the Requiem sung by a high school choir, and the audience agreed, giving the performance a for-once-deserved standing ovation.

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

Oratorio Chorale: A Bach Festival Preview

Oratorio Chorale
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Brunswick
Feb. 26, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

It would be advisable to buy tickets immediately to the Portland Bach Festival ,June 19-24. The first one, in 2016, was an immediate success, and the Oratorio Chorale’s “Bach+” concert on Sunday, a sort-of preview of the summer programs, was sold out.

As usual, director Emily Isaacson coordinated the Chorale’s chamber singers, guest artists St. Mary Schola, and a baroque trio, into one virtually flawless program. It was short, a little over an hour in length, but fully revealed the grandeur of both J.S. Bach and his predecessor, Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672).

The integration of a baroque ensemble—Bruce Fithian, organ continuo, Timothy Burris, lute and Philip Carlsen, cello— with the chorus and soloists, was particularly well thought-out. For example, in the support given bass voices by the cello.

I hesitate to point this out, once again, but no chorus in Maine has yet developed a powerful enough bass section. Perhaps our current deepening relations with Russia will improve the situation. A Chaliapin pedal point would be paradise enough.

The otherwise astute program notes did not identify soloists in specific sections, but those with individual bass voices were well balanced. Of particular note was the Schola’s artist in residence, soprano Mary Sullivan.

I came to hear the Bach “Jesu meine Freude,” (BWV 227) one of my favorites, and to learn more about Schütz and his “Musikalische Exequien,” which is said to have influenced Brahms’ “German Requiem,” coming up soon at the Portland Symphony.

But I was amazed by the longer, more operatic Schütz work, which, like most of Bach, puts to rest any notion of “progress” in music. It is a dialog between Man and God, illustrating both poetry and Biblical verses, and is unfailingly interesting in its variety of vocal combinations, never the same twice. It also builds continually in intensity to a conclusion of chorus, Seraphim and the Holy Ghost, the latter three voices emanating from the organ loft at the back of the church.

Some of the musical effects are almost tactile, as in the begging repetition of “Lord, I will not let You go except You bless me.”

Both the Bach and the Schütz proceed rapidly through the German verses, without that bane of my youthful existence, the worrying of a phrase over and over, like a dog with a bone, prompting one to mutter “Can’t we just get on with it?”

What is there to say about Bach, who combines melody, inventiveness, technical perfection and architectural elegance in one diamond-like whole? (With a little numerology thrown in for good measure.) The fugue in the middle of the motet is one of his masterpieces, interweaving four voices so that polyphony generates celestial harmony.

Could the chorale, No. 9, have been studied by Mahler, who also employs the phrase “Gute Nacht” to good effect in “Des Knaben Wunderhorn?”

Both the baroque works, which welcome a Christian death, are considerably more cheerful than most of Mahler.  Strange, when one considers that they both originate in the Lutheran tradition, which is said to have generated the aphorism: “It’s always darkest before it gets darker still.”

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

The Sea and Chopin at Portland Symphony

Portland Symphony Orchestra
Merrill Auditorium
Jan. 15, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

If every member of the overflow audience at Sunday’s Portland Symphony Orchestra concert tells a friend about the experience, there should be no problem selling out classical music events in the future. The program had something for everyone, from arch-Romantics to Maine seafaring types.

The orchestra was in good form and enthusiastic, under the direction of guest conductor David Neely.

The first two works were Benjamin Britten’s Four Sea Interludes from “Peter Grimes,” (Op. 33a), and Debussy’s “La Mer,” two of the finest depictions of the sea in all her moods since Rimsky-Korsakov’s “The Sea and Sinbad.”

Both are spectacular in different ways. Debussy’s imagery is pantheistic. Man is merely a witness to the dialog of wind and wave. Britten, on the other hand, is supreme in his sketches of the ocean in relation to the shore and its inhabitants.

Even the reverberation of the Sunday bells, in the seaside village of his opera, has something moving and fluid about it. The irregular knocking of choppy seas on the hull can never be bettered, and the final descent of Grimes’ boat into the depths reminds one of Turner’s stormy seascapes.

Britten’s use of orchestra color is astounding, and always effective. Neely and the orchestra made the most of it. One minor shift in the pitch of the timpani spoke volumes, instantly altering the mood like a sudden fog bank.

While Britten’s Interludes are vignettes, Debussy takes a longer view, sometimes teasing,  in building up the sparkle of small wavelets and the “breeze that will be whispering at all hours” into a glorious crashing climax, which must have made every surfer long for Hawaii, or at least Costa Rica. Another argument, if one is needed, for the primacy of live music.

Pianist Diane Walsh’s sensitive performance of the Chopin Concerto No. 2 in F Minor (Op. 21) was a throwback to a salon concert of the 1800’s. Somehow tuner Matt Guggenheim made the Steinway sound like a Pleyel, or maybe it was just Walsh’s touch in the high treble. I could listen to her string-of-pearls portamento scales and passage-work forever.

The pianist’s independence reminded me of harpsichordist Wanda Landowska—‘You play Bach your way and I’ll play it his way.” She demanded space for her interpretation and got it. For the most part, the orchestra in a Chopin concerto is an accompaniment, but it sometimes asserts itself in surprising ways. A horn call in the third movement jolted people out of their seats, like a racehorse hearing the post, and the climax got a bit muddy, but who cares? It was a magical transportation back in time, complete with an encore of Liszt’s “La Campanella,” which I never thought to hear again in my lifetime.

Both concerto and encore got a well-deserved standing ovation.

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

The Thinking Man’s Christmas Concert

St. Mary Schola
Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception
Dec. 14, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

Since its founding in 2008, St. Mary Schola, under the direction of Bruce Fithian, has become so widely appreciated for its performance of music from the medieval, Renaissance and Baroque eras that it has outgrown its place of origin, the Church of St. Mary in Falmouth.

One of its three Christmas concerts this year, on Dec. 14, was held in the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, in the chapel, not the huge main building.  I had not been to a concert there before,  but the more intimate setting, and less echoing acoustics, were well suited to the Schola’s music, and to the volume of the antique instruments that accompanied it.

When period instruments were first introduced at the concerts, where much of the singing was a cappella, they seemed to be primarily for the purpose of authenticity. On Tuesday night, however, they made a significant musical contribution as well, blending in perfectly (without the problems of equal temperament tuning), providing appropriate interludes and reinforcing the polyphonic lines.

The recorders were particularly striking in the ritornellos of a Dutch 15th Century” In Dulci Jubillo.”

The Schola approached modernity with “Os Justi” by Anton Bruckner (1824-1896), but can be forgiven,,since the composer was trying, successfully, to write in the Lydian mode . The Romantics liked to imagine a simpler, less worldly time, but the music still gives away its 19th Century origin.

Concerts of ancient music might be well advised to stay away from Bach. One is going along pleasantly, enjoying the atmosphere of ancient days, and all of a sudden a lightning stroke of genius startles the ear. At least that was the case with “Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland” (BWV 36), from the Cantata No. 36, sung by Andrea Graichen and Molly Harmon, with cello accompaniment by Philip Carlsen.

A work that approached its level of polyphonic sophistication ended the fist half of the concert, a wondrous “Praise Our Lord, all Ye Gentiles,”  by William Byrd (1543-1623).

There was nothing to interrupt the joyous mood of the entire 17-part Christmas Cantata of Marc-Antoine Charpentier (1643-1704) that followed intermission. “In Nativitatem Domini canticum (H. 416) balances male soloists with the higher voices of the choir, plus instrumental preludes and impressionistic descriptive interludes such as “Night,” and “Awakening of the Shepherds. Tenor Martin Lescault sounded equally fine as an angel and a shepherd.

The cantata has a clever conceit near the end, when the extremes of the Child’s crying, need and cold are equated with the power of HIs love for mankind. Its final verse seemed particularly appropriate this Christmas: “Justitia regnant in terra rostra, et pacis non erat finis.”

The readings in Latin and Middle English, by Stephen White and Rachel Keller, were excellent, but Keller could have read Chaucer’s text a little more slowly, for those of us who are less fluent. As usual, the good program notes and complete texts obviated any problems with translation.

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

Bluebeard’s Triumph

Portland Symphony Orchestra
Merrill Auditorium
Nov. 1, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

Tuesday night’s concert of the Portland Symphony Orchestra, under Robert Moody, was a study in contrasts.—two works of supreme genius. one a breathtaking accomplishment in modern orchestration and the other an example of how much can be accomplished with minimal resources.

The Bach Concerto in D Minor for Two Violins and String Orchestra (BWV 1043), with soloists Amy Sims and Sasha Callahan, must have been one of his favorite works, since he transcribed it for two harpsichords as well. It could be described as a vehicle for showing off the virtuosity of the composer and his sons if the soloists did not have so much fun playing it.

Sims and Callahan exchanged lines, phrases and ideas, and then combined them with pure delight, accompanied by just the right amount of basso continuo and with enough difference in sound quality to maintain their individuality. The result was heaven on earth, and all too short.

Sims is assistant concertmaster of the PSO, and Callahan a member of the violin section. Both have extensive experience in solo and ensemble playing with major orchestras and chamber music groups throughout the U.S.

Bartok’s early opera, “Duke Bluebeard’s Castle,” (Opus 11), while it ends badly for the new wife, Judith, sung by soprano Michelle DeYoung, is not a tragedy. Bluebeard has not murdered his three former wives, as she suspects, but merely sequestered them in his mental library—the seventh door— from which, as a poet, he can recollect them in tranquility.

Bluebeard, sung by bass-baritone Alan Held, loses his hopes for a soul-mate, but seems quite aware of how the story would end. Judith is the gentle darkness, following wives representing morning, noon and twilight. Bluebeard praises all of them in his dramatic closing lines.

Both protagonists were perfect for their parts: Judith, at first demanding and finally resigned, and Bluebeard exuding power and hope without hope. The opera requires acting as well as voice to carry the action forward, and the duo had ample amounts of both, plus a feeling for the philosophical framework of the libretto.

Had the drama been even more desolate, the opera still could not be termed a tragedy, since the orchestra is triumphant throughout, with some of the most brilliant writing ever committed to a score, and that includes Rimsky-Korsakov and Stravinsky. The music that accompanies the triumphant opening of the door upon Bluebeard’s domains is sui generis, a paean to Bartok’s love of country even as its clouds rain blood.

The complex orchestration that produces the magnificent effects of the opera has best been described by composer Ned Rorem (on the music of the “Lake of Tears” door): “Yes, I see on the staves that one flute and one clarinet repeatedly rise and fall at great speed in close harmony backed by three other flutes flutter-tonguing, while one harp glissandos and another arpeggiates in close harmony with a celesta backed by muted strings divided into a thick A-minor triad—-all of this pianississimo. But could I have guessed that the simultaneous hollow soughing stems from the sustained intoning of two low horns a fifth apart, doubled by a kettledrum chord and a large gong? Fifty separate human players produce his pale whisper…”

Try to hear that on a recording.

All in all a tremendous performance and a daring one, totally effective, even without staging. Its 55 minutes, like those of the opening Bach concerto, passed by all too rapidly.

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

“Duke Bluebeard’s Castle”

“Duke Bluebeard’s Castle”
by Christopher Hyde
Oct. 25, 2016

“Behind every great fortune is a crime.” I used to repeat that quote from Balzac to get a rise out of my friends in New York, who were utterly convinced that great wealth was an outward sign of inner virtue. But that was long ago and in another country, and besides, the wench is dead. Today the quote is a truism, and I thought of it only in connection with the Portland Symphony Orchestra’s production of “Duke Bluebeard’s Castle” on Nov. 1, a daring must-see presentation if there ever was one.

Volumes have been written about the opera, Bartok’s earliest stage work. (The final version was written in 1921.). Like Brahms, he found it difficult to summon up the requisite stupidity. It is most probably an allegory of the artist’s relations with the world, the castle being his mind, and his final wife the public. Bartok was feeling very alone at the time, striking out in new directions that were not very well received, if at all. In a letter to his mother he stated his belief that he would be alone forever.

In the opera, every door that the new wife, Judith, opens, reveals something beautiful but awful—the jewels are stained with blood and the lake is composed of tears. The last chamber, which contains the wraiths of former wives, holds nothing but darkness. The dark secrets behind each door are portrayed by a minor second chord.

Intellectually, the blood represents the pain and struggle of the composer to realize his visions—something he wishes to conceal from his audience, as an artist destroys his preliminary sketches.

There is another reading, however, that also makes sense. Bartok was becoming increasingly alarmed by the rise of fascism in Hungary and wanted to show, on some level, that all of its promises, and the great fortunes of a few, were tainted by blood and tears, and eventually would come to nothing except destruction. As the man, Bluebeard, reveals more and more, the woman, Judith, becomes weaker and weaker, finally vanishing into the darkness, while her husband (in his vocal line) becomes ever stronger.

With its use of folk idiom to portray the tragedy, the opera can also be read as “curiosity killed the cat.” The story of Bluebeard, and woman’s frailty, is as old as the hills.

Bartok’s vision of the castle is dark indeed, but the music, which owes a great deal to Debussy, raises it to the level of Greek tragedy. In this silly season, we could all use a good catharsis.

And there is always the delightful Bach Concerto for Two Violins—also on the program— to remind us that there is still goodness on the earth.

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

A Preview and a Premiere by the DaPonte String Quartet

DaPonte String Quartet
Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens
Aug. 10, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

Is the DaPonte String Quartet spreading itself too thin? In the 25 years of its notable residence in Maine, its mission has been to bring great music, live, to underserved areas of the state. In recent years, however, it has vastly increased its range and the number of venues in which it plays, including those whose acoustics leave something to be desired.

The concert I attended last night, at Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens, was the sixth in a series of seven throughout the state. Add to that a heavy teaching schedule for the quartet’s members and work on a new CD, and it is no wonder that the players seemed a little tired at times.

They began with the holy grail of counterpoint, Bach’s “Art of the Fugue” (BWV 1081). The first Contrapunctus showed the quartet’s characteristic passion, but the second and third succumbed to the academic chill inspired by the presence of greatness. It was a nice historical touch to include the last of the series, left unfinished at Bach’s death, but from a musical standpoint, a climax would have been more satisfying.

I had gone to the concert to hear the premiere of Rocco Havelaar’s String Quartet No. 3, composed in 2015. (Disclaimer: Havelaar is the former husband of Lydia Forbes, who alternates with Ferdinand Liva as first violin of the DaPonte.)

Since I had never heard the work before, it is impossible to critique the performance, but the balance seemed a little off at times, and more could have been made of the composer’s use of motifs to tie the work together.

The quartet is very serious, its opening movement reminding one of Bartok’s visions of nature at night—susurrations and nightingale song punctuated by distant lightening. At the beginning of the Rondo:Scherzo second movement, a dog started to bark. (It was the ringtone on someone’s cell phone.) I thought at first that Havelaar had decided to liven things up, adding to his musical references Chopin’s remark to a badly playing pupil: “Did I just hear a dog barking?”

Alas, it was not to be, and the quartet took the second movement from the top. The entire quartet is too long, but it did catch fire at moments, especially when a theme was presented over a driving ostinato, a la Phillip Glass.

The final adagio is a funeral march without march rhythm, expect for a related pattern from one of Beethoven’s works in that genre. More could have been done with that little motif, but instead, the piece dies away sadly. This is the usual cop-out, but I really would like to hear the piece again, to be able to better follow its developments, whose precision, Havelaar hopes, imitates that of Brahms.

The DaPonte was back to its usual form in the concluding work of the evening, the Mendelssohn String Quartet No. 2 in A Minor, Opus 13, written when he was 19 and recovering from a depression brought on by the rejection of his first and only opera.

It is lovely music, melodic and Beethoven-esque (the DaPonte plays it on the new CD) with all the virtues and vices of youth. Its primary drawback, like the Havelaar quartet, is a dread of appearing obvious, to the extent that Mendelssohn could not think of a novel way to end it, and just quit, leaving the audience unsure whether or not to applaud, especially after all the false cadences the young composer had borrowed from the late Beethoven.

The fugues are miraculous for a 19-year-old, bringing the evening back to the first work on the program.

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

Bach Festival Sets New Standard

Portland Bach Festival
St. Luke’s Cathedral
June 20, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

In Phillip Glass’ new autobiography ”Words Without Music, “ he makes a good case for music as a trinity in equal collaboration—composer, performer, audience —(even if the audience is also the performer.)
The second concert of the new Portland Bach Festival, Monday night at St. Lukes’s Cathedral in Portland, had all three in abundance. It also had another sine qua non— fine instruments, including an Amati cello and one of Rob Regier’s magnificent harpsichords, made in Freeport, Maine.
The Bach Sonata for Violin and Basso Continuo in E Minor, BWV 1023, played by Ariadne Daskalakis, violin, Arthur Haas, harpsichord, and Beiliang Zhu, cello, was played at a pitch used by Bach (“A”-415), slightly lower than the modern “A”-440.
The next work, the Brandenburg Concerto No. 6, BWV 1051, was played at the modern pitch, and all Haas had to do was push a lever on the harpsichord to switch over. Before that I was wondering if Regier, who was in the audience, would have to retune the entire instrument between numbers, or wheel in a new one.
Technicalities aside, the concert made me think I had been away from New York for too long. Nothing is perfect, or the world would come to an end. Still, the Bach Festival, like its predecessor in Bethlehem, Pa, sets a new standard.
Having the concerts in the round, like last night’s in the small rotunda at the back of the cathedral, gives them an authentic intimacy, to say nothing of improved acoustics. The final Brandenburg No. 6, played by a concertino of two violas. Nicholas Corda and Danielle Farina, with a small chamber ensemble, had exactly the right volume and tempo.
Every detail was clear, and the rapport between the musicians, who were obviously enjoying themselves, was a delight to behold. This was virtuosity as play, in a genre that is often taken much too seriously. Bach can be a joy to hear without being any less profound.
Even the pauses between movements would have fascinated John Cage. No rustling, no coughing. You could have heard a pin drop. And there was that tiny fermata after the last note, and before the standing ovation, that signifies a truly musical experience.
The contrast between the concerto and the preceding sonata, played at a lower —and very satisfying— pitch, was a stroke of programming legerdemain. The interplay of violin and cello in the sonata gave a new meaning to the form of basso continuo.
The program began with the Cello Suite No. 1 in G Major, BWV 1007, played by Nicholas Canellakis, sounding like an entire orchestra. In spite of dramatic leaps and sudden changes in tonal color, his reading was both relaxed and melodic, setting the tone for what came after.
It was followed by the Trio Sonata from “The Musical Offering,” BWV 1079, by Renée Jolles.violin, Emi Ferguson, flute, Zhu, cello and Haas, harpsichord. I should have been listening for all the appearances and transformations of the tune Frederic the Great gave Bach to improvise upon. Instead, I was watching Emi Ferguson on the baroque flute, looking like a musician from a mosaic uncovered at Pompei.
(I’m sorry I won’t be able to attend the Bach and Beer Festival this afternoon. I hope someone has thought to brew some Bock.)

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

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.