Tag Archives: Bowdoin International Music Festival

Guilty Pleasures

Bowdoin International Music Festival
Studzinski Recital Hall
Aug. 1, 2018
by Christopher Hyde

Composer Paul Schoenfield (b. 1947) wonders if his “Café Music,” (1985) played Wednesday night at Bowdoin’s Studzinski Recital Hall, rises to the level of classical music that might be performed on its own, rather than as background in Murray’s Restaurant.

The answer, according to Janet Sung, violin, Ahrim Kim, cello and Tao Lin, piano, is a resounding yes. In fact, were it to be played at Murray’s, it would harsh everyone’s mellow. and render conversation impossible.

The three-movement work is a pastiche of cocktail lounge standards, pushed to their limits and well beyond. It is art, the way Roy Lichtenstein’s Ben Day paintings are art, deconstructing works everyone knows and re-assembling them with fresh meanings. The result, in Café Music, is pure excitement, and a sense of wonder that the transformations can be played at all. There is even sustained melody, as the strings imitate singers in the “andante.”

A vastly entertaining mix of guilty pleasures, but pleasures nevertheless.

“Café Music,” as is customary in concert programming, was sandwiched between two better-known classics—the opening Debussy Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp, and Richard Strauss’ late “Metamorphosen” as it was originally written for string septet.

The Debussy, played by Julie Nah Kyung Lee, flute, Kirsten Docter, viola, and June Han, harp, made one wish that he had been able to complete the proposed set of six, based on ancient French forms, with various, sometimes unusual, combinations of instruments.

The flute-harp-viola combination seems somehow feminine, harking back to “Sirenes” but with greater delicacy. The harp, under Han’s fingers, was the first among equals, often taking the lead.  She sometimes over-did the muting, when one hoped for a bit more resonance behind the strings.

The “Metamorphosen” works better as a septet (two cellos, violins and violas, one double bass) than the more familiar version for string orchestra. The texture of interwoven voices is so dense that it is hard to follow even with the smaller number of players.

When it is done right, as it was on Wednesday night, the result is a tightly woven tapestry of gold, silver and crimson threads stretching all the way back to some of the composer’s most notable works—and to Beethoven. As if the characteristic sound did not identify the composer beyond a doubt, the help-mate violin from “Ein Heldenleben” also makes a cameo appearance, complementing the deep bass of the introduction and finale.

The highly intense performance drew a prolonged standing ovation from Bowdoin Festival students, faculty and subscribers.

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

Serkin Dazzles and Disappoints

Bowdoin International Music Festival
Peter Serkin, PIanist
Studzinski Recttal Hall
July 29, 2018
by Christopher Hyde

Pianist Peter Serkin has it all, tight control over a wide range of dynamics, flawless passage work and ornamentation, an ear for inner voices, architectural phrasing, and an unrivaled musical sensitivity, capable of revealing fresh aspects of familiar works and launching new ones.

Why then, was his recital at Studzinski Hall,  part of the Bowdoin International Music Festival, strangely lacking in excitement?
Admittedly, it was a hot and somnolent Sunday afternoon, but this is one of the finest pianists of a generation, in a concert that had been sold out for months. Maybe it was Mozart who conjured up the spirit of Morpheus.

Amadeus was never at his best in a minor-key, tragic mode, and Serkin played two of his most lugubrious compositions—the Adagio in B Minor, K. 540 and the Piano Sonata No. 8 in A Minor, K 310. (Rachmaninoff used the indication “Lugubre” in his early Piano Trio, played a couple of weeks ago at the festival.)

The realizations of these two works, and the more cheerful Piano Sonata No. 17 in B-flat Major, K. 570, brought out voices never heard before, perhaps not even to the composer.

Most of Mozart’s published piano sonatas began life as keyboard improvisations. Unlike the Haydn sonatas, they can be sight-read by any moderately proficient pianist.

Could it be that their appeal lies largely on the surface, that simplicity in their rendering might be a virtue? And skip the repeats as soon as the audience begins to cough.

The most exciting part of the afternoon was its beginning, hearing the Variations, Op. 24, by Oliver Knussen, a British composer who was a close friend of the pianist and wrote the Variations for him. The tragic Mozart works may have been intended as a memorial to Knussen, who died this year.

The variations are indeed “concise,” to the point of making Anton Webern seem long-winded. Indeed, the theme of the variations sounds like half a tone row, and Serkin never loses sight of it through thick and thin, with some virtuoso etudes thrown in. Its six minutes, passed rapidly.

It was also a treat to hear Schumann’s “Waldszenen,” Op. 82, outside the confines of a student piano recital. Serkin made the ephemeral vignettes seem more profound than they are, in particular the “Vogel als Prophet,” in which the bird’s prophecy is a melodic peace and harmony that escaped the composer.

Serkin has an irritating habit of pausing for what seems an eternity with his hands on the keys, before he allows the awe-struck audience to applaud,. It goes with his huge fermatas, which have enough room to recapitulate an entire theme.

But who else would dare to perform one of Bach’s two-part inventions as an encore?

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

Festival Fireworks

Bowdoin International Music Festival
Studzinski Recital Hall
July 4, 2018
by Christopher Hyde

Due to the July 4 holiday, a smaller crowd than usual heard some fireworks of their own at Wednesday’s concert of the Bowdoin International Music Festival at Studzinski Hall. The display took the typical “sandwich” form, with a contemporary work, John Harbison’s (b. 1936) Sonata No. 1 for Violin and Piano, between two popular classics.

The program began with the Mozart Violin Sonata No. 32 in B-flat Major (K.454), with the viola, played by Masumi Per Rostad, substituting for the violin. The piano part, played by Chiao-Wen Chang, often dominated the performance. Whether this was due to Mozart’s wanting to show off his skills in front of a visiting virtuoso, or to differences in the sound and articulation of the stringed instruments, is unclear. One listener likened it to a waltz between a dolphin and a manatee.

The viola came off best in the song-like Andante, but there were a few fireworks in the final Allegretto, with some rapid-fire exchanges that would have been difficult enough on the violin.

The Harbison, played by Ayano Ninomiya, violin, and Tao Lin, piano, contained aerial bombs in the form of a brutalist (and virtuoso) ostinato of rapid-fire chords in the Rondo, the fourth and semi-concluding movement, since the sonata tapers off in a final “Mysterious Postscript.”

The  five-movement work begins with an intense and uncompromising Sinfonia, but loosens up substantially as it goes along. The second movement, Intermezzo: Grazioso, has a pleasant conversation in stacatto utterances between the violin and piano.

The piece de resistance, however, was the great Piano Trio in A Minor of Maurice Ravel, which contains everything but the kitchen sink, as if the composer suspected that he would die in the Great War, which he almost did. There are echoes of “La Valse,” ghosts from “Tombeau de Couperin,” Basque themes and Malaysian music,al forms, which influenced both Ravel and Debussy. Somehow, it all comes together gloriously

Like the Mozart sonata, the trio generally leans toward the piano part, but Alan Chow kept it under control, even in the virtuosic Pantoum; Assez Vif, (and in spite of a wolfish bass string in the Steinway. ) He was partnered brilliantly by David Bowlin, violin and Ahrim Kim, cello. A complete fireworks display from set pieces  through pinwheels to multiple rocket bursts. The students in the audience cheered and the rest gave it a rare standing ovation.

Coming up next Wednesday is the sui generis “Quartet for the End of Time” by Olivier Messiaen.

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

Bowdoin Festival Friday Concert Enthralls a Sold-Out Audience

Bowdoin International Music Festival
Crooker Theater
July 14, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

Every time a pundit bemoans the decline or death of classical music, all one need do is think of the Bowdoin International Music Festival, which is now attracting larger audiences than at any time in its history, including many sold out concerts. Maybe classical music is getting too popular. Florence at the height of the Renaissance had a population of about 35,000.

Friday night’s SRO concert at Crooker Theater is just one example. Admittedly, it offered rock-star level violinist Anne Akiko Meyers in the Mendelssohn violin concerto, but the enthusiasm for every work on the program was infectious. When was the last time a contemporary composer, (Jennifer Higdon), received a standing ovation?

The program began with an entertainment by Mozart, his Oboe Quartet in F Major, K. 370, brilliantly executed by James Austin Smith, oboe, Kurt Sassmanhaus, violin, SoHui Yun, viola,, and Ahrin Kim, cello. I use the word “entertainment” advisedly, because the quartet, written for an oboe virtuoso, is a display piece, without much depth. Mozart treats the oboe as a sort of super violin, neglecting the instrument’s primary attraction—its reedy tonal quality.

“Light Refracted,” by Jennifer Higdon (b. 1962), scored for clarinet, violin, viola, cello and piano, is a more introspective work in two movements, “Inward” and “Outward,” that could be a meditation on Shelly’s line:: “Life, like a dome of many-colored glass, stains the white radiance of eternity.”

It begins with a pianissimo clarinet solo, evocative of a light ray from a high window, illuminating dust motes in its path. It goes on, in a relatively passive vein, exploring the ways light affects emotion.
The second movement, ferocious and rhythmical, seems more like the sparkle of a diamond, or a dancehall mirror ball. The audience loved it, and gave the musicians and the composer several curtain calls.

The piece de resistance, of course, was the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in E Minor, Op. 64, with Meyers and the Festival Orchestra, conducted by Angel Gil-Ordóñez.

The Festival Orchestra, of students and faculty, just continues to get better. In this performance it was indistinguishable from a professional ensemble that has played together for years. There was a reversal of the usual balance problems, with the conductor having to turn down the volume to avoid drowning out the soloist.
Meyers was technically and emotionally superb, like a great actress who forces an audience to listen to every word by subtle modulations of a quiet voice. It enthralled the audience at Crooker, which leaped to its feet after the final note. I was brought up on a more heroic approach, but that is just a matter of personal taste.

There was no encore, in spite of repeated curtain calls. Hooray, hooray!

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

Bowdoin Festival’s Piazzolla Doesn’t Bite

Bowdoin International Music Festival
Wednesday Upbeat! concert
Studzinski Hall
July 20, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

Throughout my career as a critic, I have advanced the idea that performance is all when it comes to classical music. Perhaps I should also have pointed out that it is a necessary but not sufficient condition. Arturo Michelangeli can make the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 1 sound good, but even he might fail with a lesser work.

I attended the Wednesday Upbeat! concert at Studzinski Hall primarily to hear Astor Piazzolla’s “L’histoire du Tango,” written around 1980. It portrays the evolution of the tango from the bordellos of Buenos Aires through cafes and night clubs to the concert hall. It does exactly that but is more satisfying in an historical than a musical sense
.
The work was originally written for guitar and flute, but on Wednesday was transcribed for violin and marimba, played by Susie Park and Luke Rinderknecht respectively.

Maybe Piazzolla was getting old, or maybe he wanted his history sanitized for music students, but each tango in the set of four lacks the bite of his earlier work. A true Piazzolla tango is full of dark passion with a black hole of nihilism in its center, around which the dance revolves.

The history is, well, pretty, and never catches fire until it is almost over, with tributes to Bartok and Stravinsky.

Park and Rinderknecht played the transcription very well, but the violin cannot imitate the timbre of the flute, and a little bit of marimba goes a long way. The latter iinstrument is incapable of despair, in which the guitar is right at home.

The high point of the concert was its beginning– the Beethoven Sextet in E-flat Major, Opus 81b, which is not a sextet at all, but a concerto for two French horns, in the style of Mozart. It is indeed written for six instruments, but the strings, for the most part, accompany the horns, played with virtuosity by Stewart Rose and his student at the Festival, Jason Friedman. The two made an outstanding pair.

The final work on the program was the Schumann Piano Trio No. 3 in G Minor, Opus 110. also known as “no rests for the weary” or “the forsaken fermata.” The piece is so densely written, in a waterfall of notes, without a single empty space, that it soon became tiring, in spite of the best efforts of Nelson Lee, violin, Rosemary Elliott, cello and Elinor Freer, piano.

The piece is so driven in nature that it appears symptomatic of the mental illness that would soon claim its composer. It has redeeming features, however, such as echoes of the humorous but triumphant march of the Davidsbundler. It received a standing ovation from the near-capacity audience.

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