Tag Archives: Elliott Schwartz

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.

In Memoriam Elliott Schwartz

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One of my most treasured possessions is a birthday greeting from Maine’s pre-eminent composer, Elliott Schwartz, who died on Wednesday at the age of 80, surrounded by family, friends and former students of Bowdoin College, where he taught for many years.

The greeting is six bars of piano music in 4/4 time, marked “Slow, stately.” Elliott played it at my party, and I have returned to it many times since. In these few bars are contained some of the qualities that made Elliott a great musician and an even greater man.

The piece exemplifies Elliott’s long-term interest in the alphabet and numerology as sources of motifs for his compositions. His lectures on hidden codes in music are legendary, and in the greeting he uses the letters of my name, my date of birth and the date of the birthday party to build both melody and harmony. The only letter for which there is no musical equivalent is “Y”. The player has to shout out this syllable at the appropriate time, leading to the title of the work: “The Answered Question.”

Following that theme, the work progresses from relative dissonance to a satisfying tonic-sounding conclusion, even though there is no key signature.

“The Answered Question” illustrates Elliott’s characteristic musical inventiveness, and his ability to combine disparate elements into a satisfying whole.

It also contains a bit of psychological acuity,  a great deal of generosity, and considerable humor. It tells a story without words.

I first met Elliott at the beginning of my tenure as classical music critic for the Portland Press Herald. I interviewed him about his “Bellagio Variations,” but the conversation continued for well over an hour, covering a wide range of topics, end ended with his giving me R. Murray Schafer’s seminal book, ”The Soundscape.” It was the beginning of a long friendship with Elliott and his beautiful wife, Deedee, who died in 2014.

Although Elliott was in considerable pain after an automobile accident that almost took the lives of both him and Deedee, I never saw him in anything but a good humor. When I wrote disparagingly about Ralph Vaughn Williams and Edward Elgar, about whom Elliott was the acknowledge\d authority,  he merely remarked that there might be something in them after all and suggested a few recordings.

Perhaps there was a little synchronicity involved in the relationship. At one dinner party we had invited the late poet Henry Braun and his wife, Joan. She and Elliott were surprised at meeting (again). They had both attended the same high school in Brooklyn, at the same time, and had not seen each other for about 40 years.

On another occasion, two noted violinists, my wife Judy and I, and Elliott and Deedee, spent an hour after dessert playing a sextet on wine glasses.

I saw him at a concerts and festivals in recent years, but I recall most vividly a lecture he gave at Thornton Oaks, where he spent the last years of his life. It ended with one of the most spectacular recordings ever of the Rachmaninoff Third Piano Concerto, with a photograph of Vladimir Horowitz displaying a rare smile after the performance. I wondered “Where does he find such people?”

Where will the State of Maine,, the nation, and the world, find another Elliott Schwartz?

Christopher Hyde, Pownal, Maine. Dec. 8, 2016

Celebration at Back Cove Honors Elliott Schwartz

Back Cove Contemporary Music Festival
Woodfords Congregational Church
April 8, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

There are several reasons to attend today’s concerts of the Back Cove Contemporary Music Festival, 3:00 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. at Woodfords Congregational Church.

One is to celebrate the 80th birthday of Maine’s pre-eminent composer, Elliott Schwartz.

Two is to hear a wide selection of the best contemporary music, which, no matter what you think of it, is unfailingly interesting, even to children.

Three is to obtain a copy of an Elliott Schwartz Festschrift (celebration writing), which contains 30 short musical scores by a Who’s Who of modern composers, many of them playable by any moderately accomplished pianist, and some by anyone with no musical skills whatsoever. At $10.00 it is an absolute steal.

All of the miniatures in the book, based on a tone row built from the letters of the composer’s name, are being premiered at the festival, now in its 8th annual session under the auspices of the Portland Conservatory of Music.

The opening night of the festival, on Friday, offered a highly varied selection of works, from improvisations on “Daphnis and Chloe,” through some characteristic Elliott Schwartz compositions, to the latest in audio-visual and electronic music.

It began with a pensive “Blue Prelude” on the organ by Harold lStover, evoking the Art Deco era of New York, and sometimes proving, like Fats Waller’s work, that the ponderous instrument can dance.

It was followed by an appropriately soothing (and sometimes growling) Lullaby for contrabass and piano, played by the composer, Joshua DeScherer, and pianist Jesse Feinberg, calling up images of waves and swaying grass.

Feinberg returned with pianist Gregory Hall for Improvisations on “Daphnis and Chloe,” which floated on a veritable cloud of notes, using “templates” published by Hall. The templates are like a jazz pianist’s cheat sheets written by Einstein. They contain information about melodies, keys, scales and chord progressions, among other indications, and enabled the two musicians to coordinate their playing perfectly. I am not a fan of electronic pianos, but in this case the contrasting sounds of a keyboard and a concert grand provided sonic variety in a virtuoso performance.

“Cycles” by Jonathan Hallstrom, combined projected images of emerging biomorphic forms with an electronic score that made one think of alligators in a swamp with peep frogs—delicious—as was Bill Matthews’ totally acoustical “Island” for stereo loudspeakers, a perfectly executed tribute to the soundscape of the Maine coast.

“small hands”(sic) by Frank Mauceri, digital video generation, and Macief Walczak, saxophone and digital signal processing, concluded the program on a somewhat disturbing note, whether or not the piece refers to a subject of the recent political debates. The composers describe it as a depiction of “the collective anxiety of living in a society organized in contradiction to our needs.”

Schwartz himself was represented by two characteristic works, his Prelude, Memorial and Aria, written for the memorial service of his friend, Ezra Lamdin, and “Dialog No. 1,” composed circa 1970 for bass player Bertram Turetsky.

Both are masterpieces, in different ways. The first, for cello and piano, begins as a cello solo interrupted by the piano, which eventually takes over, progresses through an interlude based on Lambdin’s age, (Nine by Nine), and ends with a waltz that although abbreviated, ranks with Ravel’s. The piece progresses from an unembellished “modern” style to end in a comforting tonality. It was lovingly played by Feinberg and Philip Carlsen, cello.

The composer’s noted sense of humor comes out in “Dialog No.1,” played by DeScherer. The dialog is between the musician and his instrument, and involves shouts, muttering, drumming, slaps and physical contortions, as well as some virtuoso playing, until the two resolve their differences.

What one will come away with from any of the concerts is an expanded awareness of what is happening in music today, and a better sense of Schwartz’ contribution to almost every aspect of the art.

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