Tag Archives: Brahms

Brahms vs Wagner at the Portland Symphony

Portland Symphony Orchestra
Merrill Auditorium
Nov. 15, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

I was looking forward to the battle of the 19th century—Liszt and Wagner (“modern” music), versus Brahms (tradition). From the Portland Symphony Orchestra under Ken-David Masur, candidate for music director, I got the kind of game that makes one want to turn off the TV and go to bed.

It had a few exciting moments but most of it was, shall we say, uninspired. It should be mentioned that the fans loved it, giving standing ovations to the Liszt Concerto No.1 in E-flat Major, brilliantly rendered by pianist Ran Dank, and the glorious final movement of the Brahms Symphony No. 1 in C Minor, Op. 68.

The program began with the overture to “Tannhäuser,” in the slowest version I have ever heard this side of a slipping turntable. The interpretation provided some moments of knightly nobility in the brass, but mostly revealed Wagner’s string-section fillers. .

It was followed by the Liszt concerto, one of my least favorite compositions. Its opening motif, which crops up all over, is said to have proclaimed: “This, you do not understand,” and is as irritating musically as it is philosophically.

The concerto is basically a show-off piece, and Rank managed its extreme difficulties with ease. One place that Liszt shows some imagination is in his brilliant treble passage work (there is surprisingly little bass) and in this Dank excelled. The pianist demanded a slightly brisker tempo than displayed in the Wagner piece, but there is little for the orchestra to do anyway. The famous triangle was there, and some nice duets with the woodwinds, but that was about it, except for blaring the”understand” passage once in a while.

As readers may have noticed, I am a a confirmed Brahmsian, and it was with horror that during the first moment of the First Symphony I began to wonder when it would end. The tempo was so slow that the opening melody was lost in chaos for a few bars. Ditto the summer serenade of the second movement.

Things began to pick up in the allegretto grazioso, which is lighter than air, and finally accelerated to a reasonable tempo in the final movement, one of the great treasures of the world. It worked in spite of a completely inaudible passage that I noted as “invisible pizzicati.”

At the las moment, flocks of angels came to Masur’s rescue, bearing the music up with heavenly horn calls, some of the best I have heard, and leading into the fabulous final melody. Now I began to wish that it wouldn’t stop.

Throughout the concert the musicians gave their all, but they must have been dumbfounded by what the conductor was asking most of the time. Young people like to reinterpret the classics every generation, but there are limits.

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

 

Midcoast Symphony Rises to Three Challenges

Midcoast Symphony Orchestra
Franco Center, Lewiston
Oct. 21, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

I heard the glorious final bars of “The Fairy Garden,” the last piece in Ravel’s “Mother Goose Suite,” as I was ascending the stairs to the auditorium of Lewiston’s Franco Center. (A recent survey showed that a majority of Midcoast Symphony Orchestra supporters preferred 7:00 to 7:30 as a concert starting time. I didn’t get the memo.)

It was an appropriate beginning to a program of masterpieces in orchestration. Perhaps masterpieces is not the exact word. The works chosen by conductor Rohan Smith were more like a test to determine how much an “amateur” orchestra could handle. The members of the Midcoast, privatum et seriatum, passed with flying colors.

The Ravel suite, his orchestration of a set of four-hand piano works, ranks with his transcription of “Pictures at an Exhibition” in subtlety , tone color and innovation, ending with a climax that shakes the rafters.

The Hindemith “Metamorphoses on Themes by Carl Maria von Weber,” is equally demanding, but more eclectic. Hindemith seems to be trying to outdo his contemporary Bartok in unusual instrumental combinations and a heavy-handed use of percussion. (The percussion section has always been one of the Midcoast’s most reliable.)

Hindemith, however, lacking the genius of Ravel or Bartok, overloads his score, sometimes to the point of muddiness, when no one can decide which way to go. A fermata or two would be nice. HIs choice of von Weber melodies also seems odd. There are many of that composer’s tunes that would be more suitable for orchestral variations.

All is redeemed, however, by the final march-like tune from von Weber’s incidental music to “Turandot,” which supposedly stems from China. Wherever it came from, it crowns the entire work, and the Midcoast attacked it with renewed gusto. I haven’t head he final fugue rendered any better.

The instrumentation of Dvorak’s Symphony No. 6 in D Major, while more traditional, is almost as dense, seeking to emulate his mentor Brahms and his predecessor Beethoven. Could I also have detected a smidgen of Tchaikovsky-like whirling snow music? The  flavor, however, is distinctly Dvorak, even in this, his first published symphony. He is not quite as daring in his use of Czech folk materials (except in the Furiant), but there is more than a hint of the “Slavonic Dances.”

The symphony exposes strings, woodwinds, brass and percussion shamelessly, including the Brahms-like French horn, but there was not a single off-color note. Bravo!

I urge anyone interested in well-performed classical music to attend today’s (Sunday, Oct. 22) repeat performance at the Orion Perfuming Arts Center in Topsham, 2:30 sharp.

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

Sebago-Long Lake Concerts Worth the Drive

Sebago-Long Lake Music Festival
Deertrees Theater, Harrison
July 18, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

From Pownal to Harrison is an hour’s drive over twisty roads and 17 (I counted) turns. The Sebago-Long Lake Music Festival at Deertrees Theater, every Tuesday evening from now until August 8, is always worth the trip.

The theater, with its resonating wooden shell, is like being inside a giant cello. The musicians are first-rate and the programming imaginative. One can always hear something new and unexpected, such as the Dvorák Terzetto in C Major for Two Violins and Viola, Opus 74 (1887), which the composer, then at the height of his powers, dashed off for a friend.

I wish I could be more enthusiastic about it, but the work is more fun to play than to listen to in a concert setting. It also suffers from lack of a bass line, although the viola struggles valiantly to make up the deficiency.

That said, Dvorák seldom wrote badly and the work is full of interesting touches, characteristic melodies and some successful experiments, such as the tremolo variation in the final movement.

The Brahms Trio in A Minor for Clarinet, Cello and Piano, Op. 114, was also written for a friend, the clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld, whose playing brought the aging composer out of retirement. It is more thoroughly composed than the Dvorák, but was obviously written to show off the beauties of a wind instrument assuming its modern form under the fingers of a virtuoso.

Brahms is even reticent with the piano part, which must have cost him a great deal of angst. It also contains one of Brahms’ most charming waltzes and harks back to the earlier Hungarian dances in the final movement. My favorite sections were the compare-and-contrast interludes with the cello, and wherever clarinetist Carmelo Galante produced that lovely burbling signature sound.

Does any one recall “Music Minus One?” I had the recording of Schumann’s great Piano Quintet in E-Flat Major, Op. 44, to attempt playing the piano part with a famous quartet. It didn’t work. Not only was the score difficult to play in strict tempo, but matching the pitch of the recording to the piano tuning was virtually impossible. Still, I got to know the quintet well enough to appreciate a really exciting performance by Mihae Lee, whose rapid chord scales in the Scherzo almost (but not quite) turned the piece into a piano concerto for Clara.

The entire work went by too fast, from the glorious opening theme to the final fugue, which evolves naturally from what has gone before instead of being an obligatory homage to Bach, as with other Romanic efforts.

It earned a typical Deertrees standing ovation from the large audience, with deafening foot-stamping to take advantage of the theater’s resonance.

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

An Outstanding Brandenburg 2

Portland Bach Festival
Episcopal Church of St. Mary
June 18, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

Like Oscar Wilde, I have very simple tastes: I am always satisfied with the best. Such as the Portland Bach Festival’s performance of the Bach Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 at St. Mary’s Church on Sunday.

I was brought up on that and the No. 5, on what I now realize was a bad recording (better than nothing), and have never missed an opportunity to hear it once again. Sunday’s rendition by the festival orchestra under Lewis Kaplan, with soloists John Theissen, piccolo trumpet, Emi Ferguson, flute, John Ferrillo, oboe and Renée Jolles, violin, was quite simply the best I have heard.

It also flirted with danger, setting a rapid tempo in the first movement that only the most experienced of soloists could maintain accurately. Thiessen was phenomenal in his melodic and unstrained negotiation of a score that gives most trumpet players nightmares.

A little clarino goes a long way, and Bach wisely omitted the part in the second movement, providing room for some limpid and graceful work by the remaining trio, led by Ferguson, whose attitude reminds me of the musicians on Greek vases. She can also hold her own with the piccolo trumpet; some passages in unison almost made the timbres of the two instruments sound the same.

The third movement echoed the virtuosity of the first, but more so, ending in a standing ovation by an overflow crowd. (Other music lovers could watch and hear the program gratis on a large TV screen outside.) Inside the church, the acoustics were remarkable, every instrument in the concerto clearly identifiable.

The evening began with the Bach Cello Suite in C Major, BWV 1009, in an outstanding performance by Paul Dwyer, making the most of the contrast between open and stopped strings, as Bach intended. The contrasts also emphasized the sonic distinction of the baroque cello on which he was playing.

The evening ended with a fine performance of the cantata “Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben,” BWV 147, with Festival Choir-in-Residence, the Oratorio Chorale, and soloists Jolle Greenleaf soprano, Jay Carter, countertenor, Steven Caldicott Wilson tenor, and David McFerrin, baritone.

This seems Maine’s year of the countertenor, with effective use of the high male voice in Negro spirituals, a Gluck opera and now a cantata. It is a welcome addition, but it was matched by the clarity and enchanting inflections of Greenleaf in the soprano aria “Bereite dir, Jesu…”

Of course, what most of he audience was waiting for was the chorus and orchestra in “Jesu , joy of man’s desiring.” They were not disappointed, and showed their appreciation with the longest standing ovation I have seen at St. Mary’s.

There’s more to come this week. See the schedule on www.portlandbachfestival.org. and hope that there are still a few seats available.

I was unable to hear Kaplan last week in the famous Bach Chaconne, so I played Brahms’ piano transcription for the left hand (which Kaplan recommended over the better-known Busoni). It was lovely, and pretty authentic, but my left hand almost fell off after the final bar.

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

Awadagin Pratt Graces DaPonte 25th Anniversary

DaPonte String Quartet
25th Anniversary Concert
Studzinski Hall, Bowdoin College
May 18, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

I don’t know whose idea it was, but getting pianist Awadagin Pratt to play quintets with the DaPonte String Quartet for its 25th anniversary celebration was a stroke of genius.

A full house at Bowdoin’s Studzinski Recital Hall was treated to two masterpieces of the genre—the Dvorak Quintet for Piano and Strings in A Major, Op. 81, and the Brahms Quintet for Piano and Strings in F Minor, Op. 34.

The DaPonte was its usual energetic and thoughtful self, alternating between Ferdinand Liva and Lydia Forbes at first violin in the Dvorak and the Brahms respectively. Pratt, however, was phenomenal.

He was the first student at Peabody Conservatory to receive diplomas in piano, violin, and conducting, and it shows. There could not be a better partner for any string quartet. He is a virtuoso when needed and an equal partner at other times, with an uncanny ability to blend in, as if the piano were another stringed instrument. Above all, he listens.

Watching him at the keyboard, I thought immediately of Brahms, thinking through a multitude of permutations and dictating his comments from the piano. All that was needed was a cigar for the resemblance to be perfect.

Either one of the quintets could have degenerated into a piano concerto at any time, but Pratt never let that happen, even in the concluding movement of the Brahms, where there is an explosive passage that outshines, in terms of pyrotechnics, most codas in the concerto literature.

The two works on the program are very different.The Dvorak, which began the celebration, is the quintessence of melody, beginning with a ravishing first theme and never letting up. The Dumka was particularly fine, a reverie with fleeting images of past delights, all perfectly characterized.

The Brahms is more thoroughly composed, building on motifs rather than long-limbed songs, but equally effective and even more passionate. If there were balance issues caused by substituting a Steinway grand for a Graf wooden-framed piano (for which the quintet was composed) I could not hear them.

The most exciting section of the Brahms quintet was the Scherzo: Allegro, a tribute to Robert Schumann in the form of a ferocious march with cross-rhythms that could be one of the older composer’s odes to the Davidsbundler.

The concluding movement begins with a dirge-like theme which soon gives way to the triumphant piano part mentioned earlier.
Both performances received well-deserved standing ovations with unexpected cheers and whistles.

Must be something in the air section: In its July concert series, the DaPonte will play Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, recently performed by the Portland Symphony Orchestra, while the August series will showcase soprano Kate Aldrich (who recently sang at a gala for Opera Maine) performing Dover Beach, featured at another gala for the Portland Chamber Music Festival. For details of these concerts, go to www.daponte.org.

Mozart and Gershwin at the Franco Center

Kevin Ayesh, Piano
Franco Center, Lewiston

April 19, 2017

by Christopher Hyde

On Friday night I took my grandson, nine-year-old Jordan Seavey, to hear Kevin Ayesh, in the penultimate concert of the Franco Center’s 2016-2017 piano series.

It was a good choice. Jordan is beginning to study piano seriously and Dr. Ayesh is a noted teacher and performer whose approach is musical rather than virtuosic. In my experience, Lisztian displays often do more to discourage budding musicians than to inspire them.
Jordan also happens to love the Gershwin “Rhapsody in Blue,” which was the final work on the scheduled program. (The encore was Dame Myra Hess’ transcription of the Bach “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.”)

Friday’s night’s performance marked the first time I had heard the solo piano score, written by Gershwin himself, and I liked it better than any of the versions orchestrated by Ferde Grofe, always excepting the opening clarinet glissando, which Ayesh imitated well on the piano.

Gershwin himself was a pianist and the piano must have been what he heard in the railroad noises that inspired the work. It does feel closer to the spirit of the composition, and it seems to hold together better than the concerto-with-orchestra that Leonard Bernstein deplored as fragmented.

Ayesh is as much at home in Mozart as in Gershwin, opening the program with a remarkable performance of the Sonata No. 9 in D Major, K. 311.  It seemed an almost complete realization of the composer’s intentions in  dynamic range, tempo and clear delineation of voices.

His inherently thoughtful approach was not as useful in four works by Chopin that concluded the first half of the program. The opening Nocturne in C Minor, Op. 48, No. 1, was the most successful, bringing out the unusual amount of drama in the piece.

The well-known melody of the Etude in E Major, Op. 10, No. 3, was a bit idiosyncratic, but what is a pianist to do after a few centuries of repetition? I once asked a famous virtuoso how he maintained his feeling for a composition after a few hundred performances . He replied “fake it.”

I don’t have enough Polish blood to enjoy the mazurkas as I should, and the “Heroic” Polonaise in A-flat Major, which has become display rather than music, needs more artillery power than thought.

However, I very much enjoyed Ayesh’s interpretation of the Brahms Intermezzo in A Major, Op. 118, No. 2, especially his emphasis on the triplets in the central section, and the fermata before the final “A” in that beautiful arpeggiated chord.

The Impromptu No. 3 in A-flat Major, Op. 34 of Gabriel Fauré came as a revelation, full of sparkling French fireworks and a wistful middle theme that recurs in the coda. Very appropriate for the Franco Center.

And Jordan got to meet the artist at the regular champagne reception after the concert.

The final recital of the series will be on June 9, with pianist Tamara Poddubnaya and Music Without Borders Grand Prix winner Vassily Panteleev.

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

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.

Sunday in the Park with Brahms

Portland String Quartet
Woodfords Congregational Church
Dec. 4, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

One of the high points of my musical experience was hearing the Bolivar Symphony Orchestra under Gustavo Dudamel, play Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” at the Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires. The young musicians, graduates of Venezuela’s El Sistema, not only played as well as any major symphony orchestra in the world, but brought an entirely new level of dedication and excitement to the work. No one has ever performed it better.

Thus I was looking forward to hearing violist Jesus Alfonzo, a founding member of El Sistema, play the Brahms String Quintet No. 2 in G Major, Op. 111, with the Portland String Quartet, which has had a close relationship with the Venezuelan program since its beginning.

I was not disappointed. The musicians seemed inspired by the presence of Alfonzo to breathe new life into one of the most popular works in the chamber music repertoire.

Every movement threw off sparks. My notes on the first included “starlight in the park, with distant fireworks,” and an exclamation point about how much Richard Strauss had learned from Brahms.

In the second, Adagio, there was a pianissimo moment when every musician seemed as intent upon listening to the others as a cat in front of a mouse hole. Pardon the simile, but I could think of nothing else having such an immediate physical intensity.

The valse triste of the Poco Allegretto inspired not only Sibelius, as mentioned in the program notes, but also the slow movement of the Ravel piano concerto for the left hand.

The final movement emphasized the surprise occasioned by a ferocious gypsy dance tacked on to the penultimate bars of a relatively decorous development section-—almost as if Brahms had said to himself “This is going to be my last work, so the hell with it. I’ll include a fragment in memory of my misspent youth.”

I have complained about almost everyone’s interpretation of Brahms. This was a notable exception.

Whether intentionally or not, the PSQ coupled this work, by a composer who never wrote an opera, with a quartet by Verdi, who wrote just one purely instrumental work, and the Lyric Quartette (1960) of William Grant Still (1895-1978) an African-American composer who wrote both.

Unfortunately, I missed the Still quartet, but arrived in time for the Verdi String Quartet in E Minor (1873). It still seems more of a curiosity than a serious piece of music, almost a pastiche of tunes held together by a slight framework (rather like an opera?). The exception is the final Scherzo-Fugo, Allegro assai mosso, in which the composer proves, like others before him, that he can write a classical fugue, but then manages to turn it into a rather savage practical joke. As was the case with the Brahms, the PSQ made the most of it.

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