Tag Archives: Debussy

Pianist Excels in Final Concert of Franco Center Series

Jonathan Bass, Pianist
Franco Center, Lewiston
June 1, 2018
by Christopher Hyde

The final concert of the 2017-18 Piano Series, June 1 at Lewiston’s Franco Center, ended on a low note— “D” three octaves below Middle “C,” to be exact.

Sorry, I always wanted to write that, now that I don’t have to worry about an editor or headline composer.

The concert did end on the lowest note of Chopin’s Prelude 24, Opus 28, but Jonathan Bass, Professor of Piano at Boston Conservatory at Berklee, had just played a concert that exemplified everything that was best about the series—which deserves to be better known throughout Maine.

Bass is everything a pianist should be, encompassing technical brilliance without showiness, musical and emotional depth, careful thought and an architectural sense of structure. He has a huge dynamic range, and what impressed me most about his performance was his extremely delicate and controlled pianissimo, probably the hardest thing to do well on the piano. After his interpretation of Debussy’s “L’isle joyeuse,“ I would dearly love to hear his “Serenade for the Doll.”

The Debussy was preceded by a little known Nocturne No. 6 in D-flat Major, Op. 63, of Gabriel Fauré, a sonata-like work with abundant pianistic filagree,  that established an historical context for the more Impressionist piece. The coloring of both was superb.

Bass is no slouch in conveying drama, either, as evidenced by the Beethoven Sonata No. 26 in E-flat Major, Op. 81a, with its three movements entitled “Farewell,” “Absence” and “Return.” The final “very lively” section was Beethoven at his wildest, with crashing sforzandos, violent but joyous contrasts and virtuoso passagework. It also had more false cadences than the Gobi Desert has mirages. The small but enlightened audience didn’t bite on a single one.

After intermission, with its traditional wine, crepes and tortieres, everything came together with a rare performance of all  24 Chopin Preludes of Opus 28. in numerical order. Andre Gide called these Chopin’s “eagle feathers” and Bass pointed out that if the composer had written nothing else, the Preludes would have made him world-famous anyway.

The Preludes run the gamut of emotions from Beethoven-esque violence, through rain in Majorca, to a wistful and short waltz, and the world’s most somber funeral march. I had virtually no quarrel with any of Bass’ readings. In fact, a recording of the set could serve as a model for aspiring pianists.

I did think that the difficult No. 8 was a bit fast, but I’d like to be able to play it at that tempo, then slow down if necessary, instead of vice versa.

After that astonishing performance, there was no need for an encore.

A friend in the audience, who agrees with my prejudice against encores, especially after soul-wrenching concertos, had a brilliant suggestion. Why not play the encore first? A bit of technically demanding fluff would warm up the soloist and show his or her ability to play the most difficult cadenzas of the premiere work on the program. The audience would not have to worry about whether the soprano could hit high C and they could go home whistling themes from the concerto.  Just a suggestion…

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

Students Shine at Piano Recital

Ginger Hwalek Student Recital
Minsky Recital Hall, UMO
May 20, 2018
by Christopher Hyde

A well-tempered Steinway concert grand must be a powerful incentive to piano students. The recital Sunday afternoon at the University of Maine’s MInsky Recital Hall, by students of Ginger Yang Hwalek, was not only impressive in terms of technical achievement, but also enjoyable musically. The 20-some compositions ranged from Bach to Stravinsky, without a piano-method special in the bunch.

In fact, the technical expertise of the performers led a critic to evaluate them in terms of interpretation or realization of the composer’s intent rather than the ability to play the notes correctly. The first on stage, 10-year-old Jordan Seavey,* emphasized the easy flow of the Sonatina in A Minor by Anton Benda, and achieved a good Stravinsky coloration in that composer’s “Five Finger Toccata.”

Later on in the program, Julia Hammond’s “Golliwog’s Cakewalk “ painted a minstrel in brilliant colors. Her “Doctor Gradus ad Parnassus,” from the same “Children’s Corner “ suite, generated beautiful waves of sound, but I prefer the image of a student plodding through a five-finger exercise, slyly changing key or soaring off in flights of fantasy from the boredom before him. But that’s just an opinion. Debussy, unlike Stravinsky, is always open to alternative readings.

Speaking of waves of sound, some of the works were of a high degree of difficulty, navigated almost perfectly. The Schumann “Aufschwung,” by Ha Do, was one example. Others included Anh Tran’s Fantasie-Impromptu, Op. 66 (Chopin), the Beethoven “Moonlight” Sonata, by Helen Shearer, the Beethoven Sonata in F Minor, Op. 2, No. 1, by Lilja Hanson, and a rousing piano four-hands version of the Mozart Sonata in D Major (KV 381), by Cecilia Doering and her teacher.(The sonata selections were excerpts, which did not make them any the less entertaining.)

While most of the works were by prominent composers, some of the lesser-known were also interesting. Shearer played “The Story of Gaydar” by Russian composer Grigori Frid, a Brahms Ballade written by Grieg. Sofie Rueter sketched two animal portraits by Linda Namath, and Mei Tian played a brilliantly syncopated “Crimson,” from “Sketches in Color” by Robert Starer.

Fine intermediate composers had their place too: an Allegro by William Friedmann Bach and an Etude by Dimiry Kabaalevsky, played by William Xu, were followed by Vetri Vel’s interpretation of the Sonatina in C Major, Op. 55, No. 1 of Friedrich Kuhlau, plus the better-known “Siciliano” of Schumann.

The program ended with some fine pianistic coloration by Emma Shearer of “Two Arabesques” by Debussy. The works on display had one thing in common, as Hwalek pointed out: Each of the students had made them their own.

*Jordan Seavey is the grandson of Christopher Hyde, a writer and musician who lives in Pownal and can be reached at classbeat@netscape.net.

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.