Tag Archives: Dvorak

Portland Chamber Music Festival Ends on a Happy Note

Portland Chamber Music Festival
Hannaford Hall, USM
Aug. 19, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

Alban Berg, serialist of “Wozzek” fame, is not a composer one normally associates with the theme of “happily ever after.” HIs “Seven Early Songs” (1905-1908), however, depict the progress of a successful love affair that is not only consummated but fades away into an everlasting summer sunset.

It was lovingly rendered by soprano Tony Arnold, with Diane Walsh, piano, in the final concert of the Portland Chamber Music Festival, Saturday night at Hannaford Hall.

Although the songs are more late Romantic than 12-tone in style, no one goes home whistling their melodies, as Berg’s teacher, Schoenberg, hoped would have happened by now. Perhaps the upbeat theme of the set is behind it, but they seem less dark in feeling than their models by Richard Strauss, some of which we heard last week at the Salt Bay Chamberfest.

Berg, however, is a master at creating an emotional universe to encase a poem, and Arnold, a noted interpretor of “modern” composers, recreated the atmosphere of each precisely. I would like to hear her interpretation of the later “Altenberg Leider.”

Ironically, a contemporary work by David Bruce (b. 1970), “Gumboots” for Clarinet and String Quartet, (2008), was more easily accessible. The unfortunate title (think of galoshes), refers to the boots that South African wage slaves had to wear in flooded mines, and which they employed to develop a sort of covert rhythmical language.

“Gumboots,” commissioned by clarinetist Todd Palmer, who played it at the concert, consists of five lively dances and an interlude, which the composer sees as the “abstract celebration of the rejuvenating power of dance, moving as it does from introspection through to celebration.”

Each dance is a polyrhythmic romp on the strings, supporting an incredibly virtuosic clarinet part, heavily influenced by traditional African musical forms. Although there is little “progress” through the movements, each was great fun, with the only atonality occurring in some of the clarinet’s grace notes.

The evening concluded with the closest approach to a string orchestra (12 players) that I have heard at a PCMF concert, in the Dvorák Serenade in E Major, Op. 22.

Unless one were familiar with this early work, it would be difficult to tell, except for the last movement, that it was by Dvorák at all. Some of it sounds weirdly like Borodin. The orchestra was sometimes in need of a conductor, but it was still a pleasant, if not memorable experience, and was received with a standing ovation by the large audience.

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.

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.

Definitive Performances By Lincoln Center Chamber Music Society

Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center
Hannaford Hall, USM Portland
April 9, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

I wondered how Portland Ovations had managed to attract such a large audience to Hannaford Hall on a sunny Saturday afternoon. As soon as I heard the first bars of the Beethoven Quartet in E-flat Major for Piano, Violin, Viola and Cello (Op. 16), it all became clear. These people must have heard artists from the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center before, and knew that the afternoon’s performances would define what to listen for in years too come.

The Society comprises prominent musicians from around the world, who collaborate as trios, quartets, chamber orchestras or other ensembles to perform works from the entire chamber music repertoire. Appearing under the auspices of Portland Ovations were: Gilles Vonsattel, piano, Arnaud Sussmann , violin, Paul Neubauer, viola and Paul Watkins, cello.

They played a program centered around the Dvorák Quartet in E-flat Major, Op. 87, including works that influenced or were influenced by that seminal composition. And what playing. They might have been together for a century to have developed such a degree of coordination. One could see them smiling at each other when listening for the beats that would define a microtone of pitch differential.

The early Beethoven quartet was simply gorgeous, perhaps more melodic and easily accessible on first hearing than his later works. One could see why Dvorak might have loved it.

Everything about the performance was almost perfect—the balance between instruments, precise entrances and phrase endings (the latter more difficult than anything else), dynamics, lyrical singing tones where appropriate, and so on, but most compelling was the sheer joy of playing. The overall impression was one of confidence and solidity, forming the basis of free expression. And they retuned between every movement.

After the Beethoven came the Serenade in C Major for Violin, Viola and Cello, Op. 10, written by Ernõ Dohnányi in 1902, and making even greater use of folk motifs than Dvorák. While not in the same league as the Beethoven quartet, it was fascinating in its innovations, beginning with a melody over a bagpipe drone in the first bars, and ending with a strong sforzando. Its tonal ambiguity made one realize just how much folk music provided a doorway to atonality.

Too much perfection is inhuman, so I was happy to hear a single wrong note from the piano during the passionate opening movement of the Dvorak piano quartet. (Maybe he did it on purpose.) The rest was a definitive rendering of one of the most melodic works in the repertoire.

Sometimes it was bit too lush, as in the best known and repetitive melodic passages, accompanied by a treble piano obligato. It conjured up memories of the Plaza Palm Court and its strolling musicians. But that was the fault of the composer, not his interpreters.

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

Oratorio Chorale Misfires, Then Hits the Mark

Oratorio Chorale
Woodfords Congregational Church
Mar. 5, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

I like to listen to new music, but sometimes I have to remind myself that, like all music ever composed, 99.9 percent of it is ephemeral. Not merely fleeting in time, but rather easily forgettable.

I was looking forward to hearing the revitalized Oratorio Chorale, under Emily Isaacson, perform Nico Muhly’s “Bright Mass with Canons,” (2005), but alas it was no “1812 Overture.” That’s a joke, son. The canons refer to a simple sort of fugue, like “Row, Row, Row Your Boat,” that pervades the mass. Why it is called bright, I have no idea, except that it sounds good on paper.

The opening night was at Woodford’s Congregational Church, and there will be two performances today (Mar. 6) at the Seventh Day Adventist Church in Brunswick.

Muhly, born in 1981, is a sort of compositional wunderkind who, in addition to other feats, had an opera of his (“Two Boys”) performed at the Met, which then commissioned another one, to be staged in 2019-2020, based on the Hitchcock movie “Marnie.”

The mass has some nice atmospheric touches, like the imitation of flowing water in the Sanctus and Benedictus, but essentially, in the composer’s own words, it “(creates) a flurry of sound to fill the space in the sanctuary.” Some of it is actually irritating, like the low pedal points on the organ that made one wonder if something was wrong with the heating system.

The organ was Muhly’s primary mistake. If the object is to imitate early English polyphony, the mass has to be sung a cappella. Otherwise the precise intervals at the juxtaposition of melodic lines cannot be heard at all.

The chorus and soloists gave it their best shot, but the cannons misfired.

The lovely Dvorák Mass in D, Op. 86, was a different matter entirely. The organ works well in what is essentially a homophonic composition, although the composer breaks into a fugue every time the concatenation of voices suggests it.

Its beauties are too many to list, but the quartet at the end, with the individual voices entering one by one, was a high point, set off by the gentle conclusion of the “dona nobis pacem.” One could almost hear the voices of Dvorák’s friends and family in the country chapel for which it was written. The entire work is a hymn to Pan, the “Piper at the Gates of Dawn.”

The soloists, Deborah Selig, soprano, Margaret Lias, mezzo-soprano, Gregory Zavracky, tenor, and John David Adams, bass baritone, were uniformly excellent, with enough volume to fill the large expanse of Woodfords Church. They should sound even better in Sunday’s smaller venue.

The chorale was more enthusiastic in the second half of the program, with a full range of dynamics, but not quite enough power in the bass line. The latter is still hard to do in Maine, whose Russian community is too far from Portland.

The Dvorák made the evening more than worthwhile, and the program was short, about an hour in length, with 40 minutes of that time filled with melody, leaving time to caucus.

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