Tag Archives: Britten

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.