Tag Archives: Bowdoin

A Tribute to Youthful Enthusiasm at Bowdoin

Bowdoin International Music Festival
Studzinski Recital Hall
July 20, 2018
by Christopher Hyde

An evening of youthful effusions made for a bumpy ride Friday night at Studzinski Hall as the Bowdoin International Music Festival entered its final two weeks.

The early opus numbers by Rachmaninoff and Brahms had the virtues and defects of their kind, while “Space Jump” (2013), Opus 46 of Fazil Say, explored the brave new world of classical mixed media, with mixed results.

Say, a Turkish piano prodigy and well-known composer, wrote “Space Jump” to memorialize the descent of daredevil Felix Baumgartner from the stratosphere to earth, during which he seems to have exceeded the speed of sound (not that of light, as stated in the accompanying video clip, which really would have been spectacular). He landed alone in desert scrubland, which made me worry about rattlesnakes.

The musical depiction, for piano, violin and cello, would have been fine on its own, rather like a transcription of “Also Sprach Zarathustra” for music box, but was accompanied by a rather pedestrian video and even worse text. Years ago, I was one of those who thought a poet should be the first man in space, but alas, it was not to be.

What spoiled it completely, however, was the logo of an energy drink on the space suit and its name dominating the film credits.

The evening began with the Rachmaninoff Trio élégiaque No. 1 in G Minor, written when he was 19, but not as a memorial to Tchaikovsky, although one of its themes is an inversion of the first four notes of that composer’s Concerto No. 1.

It shows a lack of experience in writing for strings, but already has the characteristic Rachmaninoff sound in the dominating piano part. Its best section is the concluding funeral march, in which the muted bass of the piano perfectly supports a melodic duet of violin and cello.

The Brahms Piano Quartet No. 1 in G Minor, Op. 25, which concluded the program, was written as a display piece, with flashy show-off sections that must have made the composer blush in later years. It gave his friend Clara Schumann a fine vehicle for her virtuosity.

Whether because of the composer’s youthful exuberance (and plethora of themes), or lack of rehearsal time, the performance seemed lacking in continuity. The piano part, played with bravura by Yong Hi Moon, took center stage, with two movements ending in solo cadenzas. The final one, a fiendishly rapid czardas, brought the house down, as Brahms intended.

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

A Definitive “Quartet for the End of Time” at BIMF

Bowdoin International Music Festival
Studzinski Recital Hall
July 11, 2018
by Christopher Hyde

Olivier Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time” is not generally considered a vehicle for virtuoso display, but its sublime beauty can be revealed only by those with extraordinary musical ability.
Such was the case Wednesday night at Studzinski Recital Hall, when Amir Eldan, cello, Derek Bermel, clarinet, Pei-Shan Lee, piano, and Ayano Ninomiya, violin, gave a definitive reading of this seminal work.

The players are faculty members of the Bowdoin International Music Festival, taking place now through the beginning August, but they might have been playing the quartet together for years, judging by the ensemble supporting three outstanding solo performances.
Lee held it all together and assisted as ably as the composer directing from the piano.

I never tire of hearing this work, which is said to have had a lifelong effect on those who first heard it performed in a German prison camp. Too often, however, it is played as a curiosity, as a memorial to the victims of World War II, or even as evidence of Messiaen’s quaint beliefs. It stands alone, without historical trappings, as a musical masterpiece, and so it was treated on Wednesday night

It began characteristically with nightingale and blackbird opening the “Liturgie de crystal” for the full quartet, followed by a “Vocalize, pour l’Ange qui announce la fin due Temps.”

The first of the major solos is by the clarinet, played very slowly, with huge fermatas and sustained notes that test the lungs of any performer. It is called “Abîme des oiseaux.” The abyss is time, in all its sadness, according to the composer, while the birds, also imitated by the clarinet, represent freedom and joy. Bermel painted the picture perfectly, testing the limits of his instrument.

After a brief interlude without piano, it was the turn of the cello, also playing very slowly and “ecstatically,” in the “Louange (praise) à l’Éternité de Jésus.” The melody, often repeated, evokes Genesis: “In the beginning was the Word, and Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

The most rhythmic, verging on jazzy, movement is the “Danse de la fureur, pour les sept trumpets.” announcing the apocalypse. It is also more terrifying than any other composer’s Dies Irae, and includes some impossibly loud tutti, which must have reached the far rows of its original 5000-man audience.

The “rainbow tangles” of the seventh movement give the composer a chance to play with his favorite blue-orange chords, during which Lee brought out some striking inner voices

In the final movement, “Louange à L’Immortalité de Jésus,” the violin speaks, like the cello before it, but this time of Christ’s life on earth—a long limbed melody that dies away into the almost imperceptible reaches of the upper register. The large audience, which included many festival students, stayed entranced for several moments before giving it a loud standing ovation.

The gods, which do not permit human perfection, smuggled in cellphones, not once but twice during this solo, the first a piano ringtone and the second a beep. Please people, I beg of you, leave that electronic junk at home. You can never be sure that it is silenced.

The Quartet obscured a lively and brilliant rendition of a work never intended to be profound, the Hayden Piano Trio in C Major (Hob. XV:27), played by Julian Martin, piano, Robin Scott, violin, and Julia Lichten, cello. Thanks to Martin for pointing out the Janissary Band references, which predate Mozart’s famous Turkish March.

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

Noise Into Music, from Sō Percussion

Bowdoin International Music Festival
Sō Percussion
Studzinski Recital Hall
July 8, 2018
by Christopher Hyde

The name Sō comes from a Japanese character meaning, (among other definitions) “to play music.” Within it is another character, the exact image of a person offering a gift, meaning “to present with both hands.”

Both are suitable for the eminent four-man percussion group Sō (pronounced “so”), which combines musical performance with education and philanthropy. The performance aspect can be both intimate and spectacular, as evidenced by Sō’s appearance at Studzinski Recital Hall for one of the new Sunday matinees presented by the Bowdoin International Music Festival.

The first work on the program, “Torque” (2018), is described by composer Vijay Iyer, as follows: “Torque, a twisting force on a body, seems to appear for the listener at music’s formal boundaries, when one movement  gives way to another. This piece for Sō Percussion invites them to perform transformations that twist the music’s temporal flow, bringing the micro-relational art of the rhythm section to this virtuosic quartet.”

I call it “too many marimbas.”

The marimba, Vibraphone and its xylophone-like cousins attempt to combine percussion and melody, something the piano does already, and much better. Because it lacks clang, a little soothing marimba music, no matter how well played —and these are masters of the first order— goes a long way.

The next piece, “Taxidermy” (2012), by Caroline Shaw, returned Sō to one of its original specialties, drumming on found objects, in this case tuned flowerpots. The result is grand, awkward, epic, silent, funny and just a bit creepy, (like its title), according to Shaw. It exemplifies a line from T.S. Eliot, repeated rhythmically during the performance: “the detail of the pattern is movement.”

I found it more interesting and imaginative than the opener, with an eerie bell-like effect generated by combining the pot notes with deep bass voices. Fermatas, long periods of silence, became an integral part of the music

“Broken Unison” (2017) by Donnacha Dennehy, was another marimba piece defined by pedantic and incomprehensible program notes, but with more interesting percussion effects, such as the use of a muted bass drum. It “disrupts unisons,” by various means, including the use of canons (think “row, row, row your boat”) created on four xylophones ad infinitum. Its chromaticism is said to have been influenced by that of Gesualdo (1566-1613) a composer best known for killing his wife and her lover.

It was after intermission that Sō was revealed in all its glory, with “Amid the Noise” (2006) by Jason Treuting, a member of the ensemble.

Seven vignettes of street sounds somehow transformed themselves into music, with the help of festival students on piano, violin, saxophone, cello and percussion. The transformations were so profound and inevitable that they became emotionally moving.

There were too many wonderful scenes to recount here. Four on a drum, like Native Americans, revealed Sō’s virtuosity with polyrhythms. I think they could play 13 against 17 beats without breaking a sweat. A session at the piano, keyboard, sounding board and strings, punctuated by real clanging tonic chords, revealed it to be the ultimate percussion instrument that Bartok thought it was. A noise-making machine that looked like a briefcase created a thunderstorm, punctuated by one of those little bells one uses to call a salesperson.

“You had to have been there.” Sō has a website, and the BIMF concert was live-streamed, but there is no substitute for the real thing. The Sunday-afternoon audience, which had itself participated in the show, gave it a prolonged standing ovation.

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

First Festival Friday at Bowdoin

Bowdoin International Music Festival
Studzinski Hall
June 29, 2018
by Christopher Hyde

The first of what used to be called “Festival Fridays” at the Bowdoin International Music Festival, took place June 29 in Studzinski Hall rather than the larger Crooker Theater, where they had been performed for many years. The change of venue, and the addition of reserved seats, seems a step forward, in terms of both acoustics and ambience. The stage is not large enough for the festival orchestra, whose programs will continue to be held at Crooker.

The evening began with a work by Ravi Shankar, which inspired a devout wish that he had written more for flute and harp, such as “L’Aube Enchantée sur le Raga ‘Todi,’” than for the Sitar. One can only imagine the difficulties of producing raga-like pitch relations on a pedal harp, let alone the intricate meters of the music, but harpist June Han managed it with surpassing ease. (Her gilded harp was a work of art in itself.)

The “melody” of the work, written for flutist Jean-Pierre Rampal, was carried with bravura by Laura del Sol Jiménez, whom we heard most recently in the outstanding Bach Virtuosi Festival performance of the Brandenburg Concerto No. 4.

Almost as unusual in its own way was the Violin Sonata in B Minor of Ottorino Respighi (1879-1936), played by sisters Almita Vamos, violin and Eugenia Monacelli, piano. While looking back to the late Romantic era, the sonata also combines Respighi’s fascination with the Baroque and his skill at painting tone poems, such as “The Pines of Rome.”

What made this reading special—causing cheers from a large audience of students—was the singular rapport of the musicians, who seemed able to respond to each other’s most intimate thoughts. H.L. Mencken used to proclaim that the most important characteristic of a great musician, such as Brahms, was brains. Intellectual ability, as well as musicality, marked both the work and its performance.

The evening ended with a magical performance of the Brahms Piano Trio No. 3 in C Minor, Op. 101, by David Bowlin, violin, Amir Eldan, cello and Pei-Shan Lee, piano. The work has everything that makes Brahms special, plus brevity. After hearing the ensemble in the low to mid registers, I would not have cared if Brahms never penned another treble note.

Next Friday’s concert will take place at Crooker, Theater, where the Festival Orchestra, under Angel Gil-Ordóñez, will play Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme, Op. 33,  with Narek Hakhnazaryan, cello.

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

A New Star in the Bowdoin Festival Heavens

Bowdoin International Music Festival
Festival Friday
Crooker Theater, Brunswick High School
July 15, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

Gabriela Lena Frank, whose “Tres Homenajes, Compadrazgo,” was performed Friday night at the Festival Friday concert of the Bowdoin International Music Festival, may be our new Bartok.

The work in question, three tributes to the Latin American spirit of brotherly love, inspired by ethnic Peruvian music, is a masterpiece. While it stems from the ethnomusicology of the composer, the folk motifs and rhythms are the starting point for inspired music in a distinctive and universal classical style. It is what Astor Piazzolla did for the Argentine tango, but carried to an even higher level and capable of being appreciated across cultural divides.

Its rapid, driving rhythms and abrupt changes of pitch and volume are a challenge for any group, but the Ying Quartet, and pianist Tao Lin, conquered its awesome chasms like mountain goats (if you’ll pardon the analogy.).

The three movements depict the windswept northern plains of Peru, a desolate island in Lake Titicaca and T’inku, a ritual combat between village heroes, now symbolic but previously a matter of life and death. (Both victor and vanquished share in the good harvest resulting from the conflict.)

While the composer’s images may have been her inspiration, listeners are free to imagine what they will. There are no overt references or musical imagery. The slow second movement, to me, would make a fantastic score for Pablo Neruda’s great poem about Machu Picchu.

Frank is a composer in residence at this year’s festival. They are fortunate indeed to have her.

If I were not exclaiming over Frank’s work, I would have begun with Robin Scott, first violinist of the Ying Quartet, who deserves some kind of Iron Man award. He appeared first in a charming rendition of Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante in E-flat Major (K. 364/320d), with a virtuoso cadenza, then in the extremely difficult Frank work, and finally in Gabriel Faure’s Piano Quartet No. 1 in C minor (Op. 15).

The Fauré, while not exactly a lollipop, is a rich late-Romantic piece with delicious twilight harmonies and soothing melodies. The slow movement is said to depict an unhappy broken engagement to the daughter of famous singer-composer Pauline Viardot.

The official biography says no to the story, but the evidence is there for anyone with an ear to hear. (Some musicologist must have checked references to Viardot’s scores in the quartet.) In fact, the sweet cheat appears as a spirit in the Allegro Molto, like a fountain of light. Unfortunately Fauré doesn’t know what to do with her and cobbles together an ending with the piano, superbly played by Elinor Freer, as the lone hero.

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.

Gamper Festival Delivers

Gamper Festival of Contemporary Music
Studzinski Recital Hall, Bowdoin College
Aug.2, 2015
by Christopher Hyde

The Gamper Festival of Contemporary Music, whose final concert I attended Sunday (Aug. 2) at Studzinski Recital Hall, may not be the most popular series of the Bowdoin International Music Festival, but it is certainly the most interesting. There is always something new, the composer is often in the audience to say a few words, and one has a better than average chance of hearing some real music.

For some reason or other, the high quality of the performances is a given. Perhaps the young musicians like to display each other’s work in the best light when there’s little in the way of fame or fortune to be had.

The first work on the program, “Klang” by Pierre Jalbert (b. 1967) was a fascinating exploration of resonance on the open strings of two topless grand pianos. One can get an idea of the effect by holding down a chord silently and then striking another very hard; the sympathetic vibrations are enchanting, while the instant contrast of loud and soft provides some highly musical effects, as Bartok well knew.

“Klang,” which refers to bell sounds, seemed to have three connected movements, loud and rhythmical, ethereal and rapidly rhythmical again. Percussionist Noah Rosen made the pianos sing all by themselves, aided and abetted by Ann Schaefer and Petya Stavfreva.

George Perle’s (1915-2009) “Bassoon Music,” played by Dillon Meacham, is a rarity—a piece that explores the tonal qualities of the instrument without ever descending into clownishness.

Derek Bermel (b. 1967) introduced his own “Twin Trio,” which treats flute and clarinet as musical twins, shepherded by their mother the piano, and then played the clarinet part. There are many unison (or almost) passages in the work where the only thing that distinguishes one instrument from the other is its timbre

Of the four movements, “Mirror,” “Converse,” “Share” and “Follow,” the final one was by far the best, and the most difficult, a canon at the 16th note. All were well played, with Bermel partnered by Beomjae Kim, flute, and Elinor Freer, piano. The unaccompanied duo, “Share,” sounded like the glissandos of competing sirens in New York City at night.

After intermission came “Shattered Glass,” by Margaret Brouwer (b. 1940) which was as jagged as its name implies but equally enticing, as played by Kim, flute, Minji Kim, cello, Fantee Jones, piano, and Grant Hoechst, percussion. The latter had his hands full. The object is to assemble the fragments into a kaleidoscopic image, at which Brouwer excels. The most effective movement was the most ethereal, imitating drops of water falling into a still pond, with the percussion limited to the click of two pebbles.

The final work on the program, a 1997 violin sonata by Fazil Say (b. 1970), played by Seo Hee Min, violin, and Tao Lin, piano, was also the least effective. It was written by a concert pianist, and the violin plays second fiddle.

The piano part itself is somewhat derivative, including a couple of passages for prepared piano, a la John Cage. The device of repeated notes on prepared strings, while the violin plays the same passage over and over, was quite effective, however. And I’m a sucker for a melody delivered as a series of trills on the piano, which ended the piece. As observed earlier, the sonata could not have received a better reading.

BIMF Monday Showcase Disappoints

Bowdoin International Music Festival
Monday Showcase
Studzinski Recital Hall
July 20
by Christopher Hyde
The combined concert of the Ying and Pacifica String Quartets, Monday night at Studzinski Recital Hall, one of the premiere events of the Bowdoin International Music Festival, was sold out weeks in advance.
As often happens, the outcome was something of an anti-climax, in spite of two standing ovations from an audience determined to be entertained.
I had hoped, because of two works for octet on the program, that it would be possible to hear a kind of dueling banjos between two prominent string quartets with very different styles. Instead, eight very good musicians played individual parts that had nothing to do with their ordinary relationships in a family of four.
It would be educational, in some future concert, to hear quartets alternate movements within a well-known example of the repertoire, say Haydn’s “Lark” Quartet.
The first work on the program was certainly well-known— Mozart’s String Quintet in C Major (K.515), for which the Ying Quartet borrowed violist Masumi Per Rostad from the Pacifica. It was beautifully played, with a combination of clarity and ensemble that is rare, but occasionally differences in style made themselves felt, even leading to some slight mistakes of intonation during the andante.
After the Mozart, things went downhill, beginning with the Two Pieces for String Octet, Opus 11, by Dmitri Shostakovich, which began with a wailing gypsy violin and ended with a chromatic glissando leading to a gallop that sounded more like a drum solo than an octet.
The two pieces are part of a suite that was never completed, begun when the composer was 17. His teacher didn’t care for them and expressed the hope that when the composer was 30 he would no longer write such wild music. I love Shostakovich, but his teacher was right. The writing verges on the maniacal.
Another youthful effusion, the Mendelssohn Octet for Strings in E-flat Major, Opus 20, written when the composer was 16, followed after intermission. The first two movements make one want to seize the young man by the scruff of the neck and tell him, in no uncertain terms, that it is okay to complete a phrase in a banal manner, as long as you complete it.
As for the scherzo and presto, St. Cecilia appeared to me in a dream and revealed that her protege had become infatuated with rapid triplets after playing the Haydn Sonata in C (Hob. XVI/32) too many times.
The combined string quartets performed the work as if they were the musicians assembled in the Mendelssohn-Bartholdy household for one of their musical afternoons, enjoying themselves while humoring their host. I was distracted from the excitement of the last two movements by the facial grimaces of the first violin, which exerted a morbid fascination.
Both the Shostakovich and the Mendelssohn received long standing ovations.

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