Tag Archives: Bruce Fithian

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 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.

Time Travel at the Early Music Festival

Portland Conservatory of Music
Early Music Festival
Woodford’s Church, Portland
Oct. 30. 2016
by Christopher Hyde

The Portland Conservatory of Music’s Early Music Festival (Oct. 28, 29 and 30), now in its fifth year, continues to attract talented performers and ever larger audiences. Its Sunday afternoon concert, featuring Monteverdi’s “Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda,” and music from the court of Henry VIII, exemplified both trends.

“To whose more clear than crystal voice the frost had joined a crystal spell.” I thought of Leonie Adams’ line during soprano Anna Schwartzberg’s singing of “I love, loved,“ by Robert Fayrfax (1464-1521). But everything attempted by the Bowdoin Chamber Choir, under Robert Greenlee, was well sung, by both soloists and full chorus.

Amour seems to have been the principal pastime of both the monarch and his court, if the songs from that era are any indication. Like Shakespeare’s in-jokes, they are full of double entendres that now reveal themselves only to scholars but were probably common parlance at the time.

The first song, “Pastime with Good Company,” written and set to music by Henry himself, can be read two ways; an encomium to a good husband is interrupted by clucking chickens, and even the long and lively final work, “El Fuego,” about the Virgin providing water to put out the fires of sin, has its sly moments.

Greenlee has worked with the singers to clearly deliniate parts in the polyphonic works, and to clarify diction enough to make verses understandable. The dynamics were impeccable.

The instrumental accompaniments and interludes were also outstanding, with sufficient volume to balance the choir.

The Monteverdi “Combattimento” was equally well sung and played by members of the St. Mary Schola under Bruce Fithian, who directed a chamber orchestra of period instruments from the harpsichord.

The drama, which is a masque rather than an opera, was the first major work to use music to describe action, in this case the combat between a crusader, Tancredi, and a Muslim knight, Clorinda, who happens to be a woman. She loses the battle and is saved by baptism as she expires. The primary singing role is that of the narrator, or Testo, sung by Martin Lescault. Tancredi, Paul McGovern, and Clorinda, Molly Harmon, have relatively minor singing parts, but mime the scenes described by the narrator.

The action is carried forward by the instrumental music. It is hard to believe that sixteenth notes, depicting swords striking steel, were considered revolutionary at the time. That is the primary obstacle to overcome in hearing the masque: putting ourselves in the role of an audience hearing the piece for he first time. Unless the intended feelings can be conveyed, the exercise becomes more educational than emotional. The battle scenes seem tame to modern ears attuned to movie scores, but the tenderer moments, as when Tancredi discovers his true love under his opponent’s visor, still have magic, as does Tasso’s poetry.

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

A Musical Farewell

Portland Bach Festival
Episcopal Church of St. Mary, Falmouth
June 26, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

The Portland Bach Festival closed on a high note Friday, at the Episcopal Church of St. Mary in Falmouth, with stunning performances of three major works and a cameo appearance by Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling, who happens to have studied at Juilliard, majoring in drama. The Mayor emphasized the importance of the arts, especially classical music, in creating a vibrant city.

The concert included a world premiere of Bach’s Concerto for Three Violins BWV 1064R, reconstructed by Sebastian Gottschick. His wife, violinist Ariadne Daskalakis, was one of the soloists in Friday’s performance.

I am familiar with the version for harpsichords, apparently transcribed by Bach from a now lost three-violin concerto. It has virtuoso parts for each of the solo instruments and for the concertino as a whole, and was apparently written as a showpiece for Bach and two of his sons.

The violin version, artfully performed by Daskalakis, Renée Jolles, and Yibin Li, with the Festival Orchestra, works even better than the keyboard arrangement. Each violin (and its player) has a distinctive sound and style, making it easier to separate the voices and appreciate their combinations.

Either version is amazing when performed well, and Friday’s performance was as good as it gets. I must confess that as a youngster I agreed with Berlioz, that most of Bach was boring. I now share the opinion of festival founder Lewis Kaplan, that Bach is simply the greatest composer in the Western Classical Music pantheon. I was misled by somber, academic performances, and in any music, performance is (just about) everything.

The myriad cantatas are a case in point. The program began with Cantata No. 196, “Der Herr denket an uns.” written to be performed at a betrothal. As sung by Sarah Bailey, soprano, Jonathan Woody, bass-baritone, and Jason McStoots, tenor, with the festival orchestra and the Oratorio Chorale under Emily Isaacson, it was enough to make one want to go to church every Sunday in the year. Pure joy.

Its high point was an unusual duet for tenor and bass, which repeats the phrase “more and more” from “May the Lord bless you more and more, you and your children.” eleven times. Bach had 20 children, 10 of whom survived into adulthood.

The evening concluded with the Brandenburg Concerto No. 5, BWV 1050, with Jolles, violin, Emi Ferguson, flute, and Arthur Haas, harpsichord, with the Festival Orchestra.

I used to like the piano version, as played by Glenn Gould, since the keyboard part stood out, but the harpsichord, under Hass’ touch, wins the contest. unifying the structure and spinning out the intricate solo like a string of understated pearls. The combination of flute and violin, contrasting with the tone of Rob Regier’s harpsichord, was ravishing.

After the final note, and a long standing ovation, the audience didn’t want to go home. Kaplan and Isaacson plan to do it again in 2017. Better get your tickets now.

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

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