Tag Archives: Elizabeth Marshall

Magical Music and Musical Magic

“Magic of Christmas”
Portland Symphony Orchestra
Merrill Auditorium
Dec. 14-23, 2018
by Christopher Hyde

Bruce Hangen has returned after 39 years to conduct another series of the Portland Symphony Orchestra’s “Magic of Christmas” concerts at Merrill Auditorium. He has put the emphasis on the music to create a truly magical experience.

Assistance from one of Maine’s glorious sopranos, Elisabeth Marshall, the Windham Chamber Singers under Dr. Richard Nickerson, the 80-strong Magic of Christmas Chorus under Nicolás Alberto Dosman, Christopher Pelonzi on the Kotzschmar Organ and narrator Zach Handlen, helped make the season brighter for a couple of hours.

The orchestra and chorus collaborated well on the opening “A Christmas Festival,” a much better medley than is usually arranged, and an unusual Festival Gloria, which was powerful yet clear.

The orchestral arrangement of Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” that followed, was worth the price of admission, but things got better still, with Marshall’s rendition of “Rejoice” from “Messiah,” one of the most difficult and highly ornamented arias in the repertoire.

I have never heard it performed as well. Most sopranos just sweat it out, but Marshall revealed its inner beauties with seeming ease. The orchestra and chorus sang the “Hallelujah” very well, but it was not this sort of revelation.

She was equally spectacular following intermission in a piece called “The Twelve Gifts of Christmas, in which her true love gives her gifts of individual instruments and sections of the orchestra. To add to the fun, each of the sections, when possible,  plays an easily recognizable passage from the classics. A sort of Christmas “Young People’s Guide to the Orchestra.”

Marshall joined the Windham Chamber Singers, of which she is an alumna, in an authentic gospel version of “Go, Tell It On the Mountain.”

Handlen did a fine job of projecting over the orchestra in a clever musical version of “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” and paired with Marshall, the orchestra and choruses in a rousing “PSO Polar Express Suite.”

The Magic of Christmas Chorus was at its best in “Many Moods of Christmas,” with a tremendous march-like rendering of “Adeste Fideles.”

No “Magic” concert would be complete without a raucous version of “Sleigh Ride,” but Hangen killed two birds with one stone by having a youngster conduct it (as used to be the case with “Waltz of the Flowers”). “See, it’s easy, all you have to do is wave your arms until the music stops and then take a bow,” Hangen quipped. The requisite “Nutcracker” selection was filled by the “March,” with scurrying mice.

If I had any quibble with this year’s version of “Magic,’ it would be with the sing-along carols, which seemed a little heavy on the “Frosty the Snowman/Rudolf” side. Still, the most relevant and vital side of the holiday had already been covered by the orchestra and chorus, and the kids in the audience knew most of the words without a program.

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

Back Cove Festival Opens on a High Note

Back Cove Contemporary Music Festival
Woodford’s Congregational Church
April 7, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

I came to the Back Cove Contemporary Music Festival (April 7, 8, 9) to hear the world premiere of Elliott Schwartz’s String Quartet No. 3 (“Portrait for Deedee”) played by the Portland String Quartet.
The quartet, Schwartz’ final work before his death last year, was all that I had hoped, but it was surrounded by other fine works, most of them in traditional forms, without the experimentalism that usually characterizes such festivals.

Looking at the programs for Saturday and Sunday, the remaining two days appear to be equally accessible.

The Portland String Quartet realized the Schwartz composition, written in memory of his wife, Deedee, almost perfectly. While it includes many of the composer’s mannerisms, such as musical quotes and use of the alphabet and numerology to generate motifs, it is considerably more dark in color than most of his work. I hesitate to use the word “tragic” in reference to one known for his unfailing good humor in the face of adversity.

The quartet also seems more thoroughly composed. The recurrent themes are developed and maintained, while the quotes, from his wife’s favorite music, fit in perfectly, like ghostly comments on the score. This promises to become one of Schwartz’s most popular works, almost making one believe in the magical power of numbers.

As for the rest of the program, I was particularly impressed by the work of the Portland Piano Trio, consisting of Tracey Jasas-Hardel, violin, Benjamin Noyes, cello, and Anastasia Antonacos, piano. They played four difficult works, in a variety of styles, with both spirit and understanding, an unusual combination.

They began the evening with “Number the Clouds,” by Delvyn Case, a dense and atmospheric setting of the Book of Job. After intermission, Case also contributed a highly effective musiking of “The Lord’s Prayer,” sung by soprano Elizabeth Marshall, accompanied by Harold Stover on the organ. Marshall performed the difficult feat of maintaining perfect intervals against the equal temperament of the organ.

Stover also played his own “Five Preludes on American Folk Hymns,” coaxing voices from the Woodford’s organ never heard before. The variations were truly amazing, even though I didn’t know most of the tunes. I wonder what he could do with “A Mighty Fortress…”

The Portland Trio finished the evening with Trio No. 1, by Nancy Gunn; “Choreodography (sic) No. 2” by Francis Kayali, a student of Elliott Schwartz; and  “Ancestry Variations” by Stepahie Ann Boyd, which takes a folk tune and varies it according to the styles of some famous composers. Entertaining and well-written, it was probably the most traditional of the three.

Gunn’s trio was also relatively tonal, with a driving, almost violent first movement, contrasted with a slower, nostalgic second.

Kayali’s offering was almost as quirky as Stover’s variations, consisting of Schoenbergian manipulations of a theme (not a tone row), which dissolve into a puddle of tonality.

Many of the composers were in the audience, accepting warm applause with the performers.

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

A Traditional “Magic of Christmas”

Portland Symphony Orchestra
“Magic of Christmas”
Merrill Auditorium
Dec. 9, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

Perhaps it’s the world situation, but the Portland Symphony Orchestra’s “Magic of Christmas” concert, on Friday’s opening night at Merrill Auditorium, seemed more movingly traditional than usual, emphasizing the orchestra and chorus, with a remarkable soprano, Elizabeth Marshall.

It was the first time I had seen the new assistant conductor, Andrew Crust, who did an admirable job as master of the Magic of Christmas Chorus, and in alternating as orchestral conductor with music director Robert Moody.

Tania Holt and Alexander Fedorchev, of Cirque de la Symphony, held the audience spellbound with their athletic feats on silk fabric 30 feet above the stage. Their duos were romantic enough to provoke a comment from Moody to the effect that the audience would either rush out to take gymnastic lessons or buy a Harlequin Romance.

As usual, the arrangements of Christmas favorites were a mixed bag, ranging from pedestrian—Anderson’s Christmas Festival Overture— to superb —the Rutter/Adam “O Holy Night,”—marred only by an unnecessary modulation in the second verse.

I would go to this concert again (December 10, 16, and 17 at 2:00 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., Dec. 11 and 18 at 1:00 p.m. and 5:00 p.m.) just to hear Marshall’s sweet but powerful voice hitting the high notes of “O Holy Night” without effort.

She also appeared in another French traditional song, “Quelle est cette odeur agréable?” with the Magic of Christmas Chorus, and in the Rouse arrangement of “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” I prefer the more common tune, whether original or not, but will accept the alternative if it leads to another soprano solo over massed chorus and orchestra.

An unexpected combination of voice and orchestra was especially effective, pairing a section from Ravel’s “”Ma merè l’Oye,” “The Enchanted Garden,” with a contemporary Life of Christ read dramatically by Mathew Faberge.

Crust’s work with the chorus was outstanding, although the large, traditional group of 108, still needs a few more good bass voices. It was particularly good in an up-tempo “Hallelujah” chorus, for which the American audience stood like good subjects of King George.

The desire of that audience for some old-fashioned Christmas cheer was apparent in the concluding Christmas Carol sing-along, which was enthusiastic, with some audible evidence of part singing.

Judging from the reaction of the children seated near me, this year’s production holds attention very well, even without Santa Claus.

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