Tag Archives: Emily Isaacson

A Revelatory Brandenburg 3

Portland Bach Festival
Cathedral Church of St.. Luke
June 23, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

Now No. 3 has to be admitted to the pantheon. The performance of the third Brandenburg Concerto by the Bach Festival Orchestra Friday night at St. Luke’s Cathedral came like a revelation, or was it an epiphany?

Scholars have been debating for centuries about the absence of a slow movement in this work, but Arthur Haas at the harpsichord improvised a riff on Bach’s central cadence that showed what had been there all along, inspiring Beethoven to write equally short movements.

A form exists as a frame for the composer, not an edict from on high. A convenient convention.

A discussion over a late dinner at Bao Bao, around the corner from St. Luke’s, centered on what made the Portland Bach Festival, playing works that have been reiterated for 300 years, so fresh and, yes, joyful.

The consensus was that Lewis Kaplan and Emily Isaacson have assembled a critical mass of fine musicians, whose abilities play off one another to create a chain reaction of some kind. The Brandenburg No. 3 seemed almost like a jazz session (in heaven rather than Preservation Hall) with each string section responding and building upon the work of the preceding one.

That they had a work of supreme genius to recreate didn’t hurt either. What Bach does with strings and continuo alone is sui generis. The result had the capacity audience leaping to its feet.

He isn’t bad with solo instruments either, as shown by the opening Orchestral Suite No. 2 in B Minor, basically a flute concerto based on a succession of dances. I have only heard flautist Emi Ferguson in works by Bach, but if she is equally good in other classics and moderns, Rampal may have to move over. I want to hear her Debussy.

As she moved from one ballroom to the next, the only question was how she could possibly out-do what had gone before. The spectacular final Badinerie provided a definitive answer.

The Harpsichord Concerto in D Major, with Haas at the keyboard, was equally delightful but too intimate for a large hall, in spite of Rod Regier’s strong and handsome instrument. Except in the cadenzas, it was difficult to hear the delicate nuances of the keyboard part.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, the organ was a little too powerful in the Motet: “Jesu, Meine Freude.” But the Oratorio Chorale, under Emily Isaacson, gave an outstanding performance of one of Bach’s most inventive compositions for voice, blessedly without recitative. One could wish for more of the five soloists—Sherezade Panthaki, soprano, Jolle Greenleaf, soprano, Jay Carter, countertenor, Steven Caldicott Wilson, tenor,  and David McFerrin, baritone. Sherezade, in particular, has a phenomenal voice. But even at the PBF one can’t have everything.

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

Concertos and Brandenburg Concertos

Concertos and Brandenburg Concertos
Portland Bach Festival
June 17-25, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

I don’t know which of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos are most popular, but my favorites are No. 5, with its virtuoso keyboard passages, played at last year’s Portland Bach Festival by Arthur Haas on the harpsichord, and No 2, with its rousing piccolo trumpet part, to be performed this year on June 18 at St. Mary’s Church in Falmouth by John Thiessen.

Thiessen is noted for his virtuosity on this instrument, and the No. 2, with returning Festival artists, should be as outstanding as No. 5.

Haas will be returning as well, in the Vivaldi Flute Concerto in D Minor, with Emi Ferguson, flute, June 22 at Etz Chaim Synagog, and the Bach Harpsichord Concerto in D Major (BWV 1067) in the Sanctuary at St. Luke’s on June 23. He will appear in a number of other concerts, since  harpsichord continuo is virtually a necessity for baroque music, plus participating in a post concert lecture at Etz Chaim.

If the Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 in G Major (BWV 1048) is your cup of tea, you can hear that one too at St. Luke’s, plus the Orchestral Suite No. 2 in B Minor (BWV 1067), and the Motet “Jesu meine Freude” (BWV 227) by the Oratorio Chorale and soloists under Emily Isaacson.

The penultimate concert, June 24 at St. Luke’s,  promises to be something entirely different, featuring works that influenced Bach and others that were influenced by him, including a trio sonata by CPE Bach, the Vivaldi “Winter” Concerto and a Ligeti viola sonata.

The final work of the Festival will be the Cantata “Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen” (BWV 51) with soprano Sherezade Panthaki, whom Festival founder Lewis Kaplan calls “the greatest baroque soprano I have ever heard.” Be sure to hear her and soprano Jolle Greenleaf in the François Couperin “ Troisième Leçon à deux voix“ at the “Before and After” concert.

Cellist Beiliang Zhu will once again be playing an Amati lent to her by Florian Leonhard Fine Violins, who will also be binging other famous baroque instruments for display at the Bach and Beer event on June 19.

For further details of concerts and events, visit www.portlandbachfestival.org.

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

Second Bach Festival Offers Even More

Second Portland Bach Festival
Offers Even More
by Christopher Hyde

The first Portland Bach Festival, in June of 2016, was one of the most successful premieres in recent Maine history. In fact, it was so popular that it was difficult to find seats at some of the smaller venues.

This year’s festival, June 17-25, will maintain the world-class quality of solo and ensemble performance, while adding some new features intended to broaden its audience, according to associate artistic director Emily Isaacson , who with violinist Lewis Kaplan founded and co-directed the first programs.

The festival will open with one of its most unusual concerts: “Bachtails” at the newly renovated Bayside Bowl on Alder Street in Portland. The facilities are large and complex, with room for 15 different 15-minute performances in various areas, including the rooftop, beginning at around 5:00 p.m. with “Musical Games for Kids.”
Visitors can hear all of the performances, or just one or two, Isaacson said, while enjoying cocktails, wine and beer, the last of which H.L. Mencken declared “the universal solvent for the music of old J.S. Bach.” Admission is free but drinks and food are not.

“The less formal setting for hearing early music is not that unusual,” Isaacson pointed out, since much of Bach’s non-liturgical music was meant to be heard in an intimate social setting rather than a concert hall.

The second public concert will be on Sunday, June 18, 6:30 p.m., at St. Mary’s Church in Falmouth. Tickets will be required for the concert inside the church, but it will also be broadcast on a large screen outside for the general public. “Bach on a Blanket” will feature the Brandenburg Concerto No. 2, in F Major, and the Cantata “Herz und mund,“ with soloists, the Oratorio Chorale and the Festival Orchestra conduced by Lewis Kaplan.

Both free concerts are an extension of last year’s popular “Bach and Beer” party at Ocean Gateway, which this year will be on Monday, June 19.

Bach Virtuosi Institute, June 14-25

In what Isaacson believes is the first program of its kind in the country, exceptional students from around the world will attend a twelve-day program to refine their craft, focus on the performance practice of Baroque music, and immerse themselves in the music of Bach and those inspired by his work.

The Bach Virtuosi Institute focuses on learning through performance. Fellows will perform alongside distinguished international musicians in an intimate, collegial atmosphere. Limited enrollment (10 students this year) allows all participants significant coaching and performance opportunities. Selected Fellows will perform in PBF concerts, Bach Virtuosi concerts,  at “Bach and Beer,” and at outreach concerts in the community.

All participants receive a full scholarship including tuition, room and board and stipend

For the ultimate in outreach, there will be a Cantata Sing-Along at St. Mary’s on Wednesday, June 21, with soloists and piano accompaniment to the early Cantata “Christ lag in Totes Banden (BWV 4).

For further information about individual concerts, visit www.portlandbachfestival.org. Advance tickets, including season passes, are still available but they are going fast. The first festival was sold out.

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

“Joy shall be yours in the morning…” PSO Does the Ninth

Portland Symphony Orchestra
Merrill Auditorium
April 25, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

Isak Dinesen once observed that there are three sources of joy: love, to have been in pain and be out of it, and to feel in oneself an excess of strength.. Each of these applies to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony , which ends with Schiiler’s “Ode to Joy,” gloriously performed by the Portland Symphony Orchestra under music director Robert Moody on April 23 and 25.

One suspects that people nowadays are desperate for any source of joy—witness sold-out houses at Merrill Auditorium on both days. But there is another source of joy that Baroness Blixen neglected to mention—what William James called the “oceanic” feeling— the experience of being one with the universe, or the universal brotherhood celebrated by Schiller, Beethoven and Karl Marx.

Universal brotherhood was a subversive concept during the Romantic period, with the aristocracy desperately trying to hold on to power in the face of the French Revolution. and other popular movements. Beethoven had pondered setting Schiller’s poem to music for over 30 years before he wrote the Ninth, and there is evidence that the poet originally intended his ode to be in praise of liberty, rather than joy.

Music doesn’t have to be about anything but itself, but there must have been a powerful impulse at work for Beethoven to devote all of his genius, for an extended period, to a work that he would never hear, except in his own mind.

The Ninth is such a monumental creation that it is seldom heard live. To pull it off, Moody had to recruit a quartet of fine soloists: Mary Boehlke-Wilson, soprano; Margaret Lias, alto; John McVeigh, tenor; and Philip Cutlip, baritone, willing to risk their voices in Beethoven’s impossible roles, the combined forces of the Oratorio Chorale, under Emily Isaacson and the Choral Art Masterworks, under Robert Riussell, plus the full orchestra devoted to a demanding score lasting over an hour.

Although there were a couple of strained points, inevitable in such an undertaking, Moody held everything together admirably. The soloists tackled the impossible successfully, and the combined choruses were able to hold their own against the orchestra gracefully, and to sing a monumental fugue without the muddiness that often accompanies large numbers of voices.

The result was tremendously moving, in spite of superfluous supertitles (there is not a single decent translation of the Schiller ode anywhere on the internet). After the final fortissimo the audience leaped to its collective feet instantly, with the accompaniment of cheers and foot stomping. No one wanted to leave.

In the face of the Ninth, the opening Samuel Barber Adagio for Strings seemed a little muted, at least in retrospect, but its selection to set the sombre opening mood of the Beethoven symphony was inspired programming.

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

Sweetest in the Gale’s Baroque Beauties

Oratorio Chorale
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Brunswick
April 9, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

The Oratorio Chorale’s women’s choir is named “Sweetest in the Gale,” (from the Emily Dickinson poem “Hope is a Thing with Feathers”). Sunday’s concert at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Brunswick was more like an inland breeze from the ocean on a hot day, both surprising and refreshing.

Director Emily Isaacson has a knack for choosing scores that perfectly illustrate her concert titles, in this case “Beauties of the Baroque,” and that offer something to every member of the audience. The choir she has founded and coached is little short of phenomenal, and her choice of soloists, Mary Sullivan, soprano, and Jenna Guiggey, alto, complements it very well.

Add to this a fine baroque chamber ensemble, and you have recipe for a delightful, if short (one hour) Sunday afternoon.

The opening work, Claudio Monteverdi’s (1567-1643) “Angelus ad pastors ait; Ubi Duo,” was both sweet and surprising. Sweet in the harmonies that Monteverdi achieves through counterpoint, and surprising for the contrasting lines the choir is able to obtain with female voices alone. The low altos served the essential purpose of the bass in mixed choirs that we have long been arguing for,

The second piece, “Duo Seraphim,” by Tomás Luis de Victoria (c.1548-1611), was surprising for what came after it: a setting of the same text by Caterina Assandra (c. 1590-after 1611). It is a good example for those who argue that female composers of the past may have been the equals of their male counterparts, but suppressed by societal conventions.

More evidence was offered by the sprightly and modern-sounding “Quis dabit mihi,” by Barbara Strozzi (1619-1677), which describes what seems to be a love affair between the composer and Jesus, evoking images of the ecstasy of St. Teresa as depicted by Bernini.

The second half of the program was devoted to the great “Stabat Mater” of Giovanni Batista Pergolesi (1710-1736), which describes in 12 cantos the agony of Christ’s mother beneath the cross. The narrative, which alternates between chorus and soloists, both alone and in duets, is highly operatic and ornamented to an extent that offers major challenges to the singers. There are dramatic leaps in pitch and changes in volume that must have delighted divas of the past, but tend to dismay modern singers. Not so Sullivan and Guiggey.

What is surprising about the Stabat Mater is how much musical conventions have changed. There are sections that to a modern ear sound almost cheerful, but which were intended to describe the depths of suffering. The music is still effective; it just doesn’t seem to illustrate the text as well as it used to. One thinks of the high-pitched counter tenors chosen by Purcell to depict British heroes.

Isaacson’s lively direction of the chorus and the baroque ensemble unified the work and brought it to life once more, earning a standing ovation from the capacity audience.

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

An English Deutsches Requiem at the PSO

Portland Symphony Orchestra
Merrill Auditorium
March 13, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

The change of date, from March 14 to March 13 to beat an oncoming blizzard, didn’t seem to affect attendance at Merrill Auditorium for the Portland Symphony Orchestra’s Lenten program.

It wasn’t billed as Lenten, but that was the impression given by three Christian religious works, played without intermission, backed by the combined forces of the Choral Art Society and the Oratorio Chorale, plus two soloists: baritone Troy Cook and soprano Twyla Robinson.

Music director Robert Moody began the program with a Bach Chorale, “Kumm süsser Tod,” transcribed for full orchestra by Leopold Stokowski. (Disclaimer: I met Stokowski once many years ago when he came to Kodak looking for a grant to stage the Scriabin “Poem of Fire,” complete with light organ to be built by us. He was turned down.)

The chorale is one of Bach’s inspired shorter works, but everything transcribed by Stokowski sounds like, well… Stokowski. Given the state of world affairs, I’m not sure that the sentiment in the title is one that should be widely promulgated.

“Come sweet death” was followed immediately by “In Paradisum,” for orchestra and chorus, by Dan Forrest (b. 1978). It was pleasant enough, well played and sung in traditional harmony, but bears the same relation to religious music as Bob Jones University (which commissioned the work) does to Christianity. It descended into kitsch with a part for handbell ringers in the aisles.

Now we come to the meat of the evening, the great Brahms “Deutsches Requiem,” one of the most profound expressions of religious sentiment ever written, by a man who wasn’t very religious himself.

Only God knows why the work was sung in English. Brahms chose the passages from the Lutheran Bible himself, and the music was written to fit them—as beloved of the Germans as the King James Bible is of us— certainly not English.

With supertitles, one can follow the text perfectly well, no matter what language is being sung. So why the translation? Incidentally, the supertitles in both the Forrest and the Brahms, were their usual ham-fisted selves, complete with misspellings.

Moody put Robinson on the balcony for the movement that was written to commemorate the death of the composer’s mother,  in which she seems to communicate with him. It was a nice touch, but the spotlighted singer could not be seen from under the left balcony overhang, and her part seemed to emanate from somewhere in the chorus. Both she and Cook have clear, well-projected voices, which would have been a delight to hear in German.

The orchestra was on its best behavior, but needed to expand its dynamic range beyond mezzo-forte to piano.

The combed choruses, under the direction of Emily Isaacson and Robert Russell, were fine, but could have been a little smaller, for better focus, and shifted toward the bass end of the spectrum.
Still, I would walk miles in the cold to hear the Requiem sung by a high school choir, and the audience agreed, giving the performance a for-once-deserved standing ovation.

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

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.

Portland Bach Festival Coming Soon

Portland Bach Festival
June 19-24, Portland, Maine
by Christopher Hyde

The new Portland Bach Festival, (June 19-24) featuring internationally known artists, the Oratorio Chorale, St. Mary Schola, period instruments, a Bach and beer party at Ocean Gateway, and the Maine premier of a Bach concerto for three violins, is coming up soon, and ticket sales are brisk, according to festival artistic director Lewis Kaplan. Since the venues are intimate—St. Mary’s Church in Falmouth, and St. Luke’s in Portland— it would be advisable to purchase them soon.

The festival is the brainchild of Kaplan and Emily Isaacson, director of the Oratorio Chorale. Kaplan, a prominent violinist and teacher (at Juilliard), recently resigned as artistic director of the acclaimed Bowdoin International Music Festival, which he co-founded over 40 years ago.

While there is always interest in Bach, regarded by many as the pre-eminent composer of all time, the festival also fills in a (relatively) empty time slot, between the regular concert season and the beginning of summer music festivals throughout the state.

Kaplan believes that it will be well attended by local audiences, and also serve as an incentive to music lovers to visit the state. “Concerts in the round, with period instruments, will give audiences an authentic experience of Bach. I’ve played in concerts around he world, and I want people attending these in Maine to feel that the musicians are playing just for them.”

As for the premiere of the Bach Concerto for Three Violins, here is what violinist Ariadne Daskalakis, who will be playing the work, wrote to me about it:

“It is surmised that Bach originally composed a Concerto for 3 Violins in D Major (sometime around 1716 – in which case we would have a 300th year anniversary!) which he then transcribed for 3 harpsichords. (It was a common practice to transcribe pieces for different instruments and to reuse material as necessary.) In the meantime only the autograph of the version for 3 harpsichords survived – known today as the Concerto for 3 Harpsichords in C Major BWV 1064. Various scholars have used that piece to reconstruct the version for 3 violins – now known as the Concerto for 3 Violins in D Major BWV 1064R. At the Portland Bach Festival in June we will perform a reconstruction of this piece by the German musician Sebastian Gottschick (who happens to be my husband). The music is all original Bach, and the score has been reconstructed with the intention of capturing all the voices in a manner suitable for the instrumentation.
It is a substantial 3 movement work. The 2 outer movements are quite festive and the slow middle movement is plaintive and lyrical. The 3 solo violins have significant individual roles throughout the piece, and sometimes they play together as a group within the ensemble.”

The concerto will be played at the final concert of the festival, at St. Mary’s Church, on June 24. The program also includes my favorite Brandenburg Concerto, Number 5, with its glorious harpsichord part, to be played by Arthur Haas on a harpsichord by R.G. Regier of Freeport.

Other highlights, in chronological order, include the Cello Suite No. 6, played by the award-winning cellist Beiliang Zhu, on a baroque five-string cello, the Trio Sonata for Flute, Violin, and Continuo in C Minor from “A Musical Offering” – BWV 1079 and the famous Chaconne from the Partita for Violin in D Minor – BWV 1004, played by Kaplan.

Chorale works will include the Cantata, “Wachet Auf” – BWV 140, and the Cantata, “Der Herr denket an uns” – BWV 196, sung by the Oratorio Chorale, and the Motet, “Singet Dem Herrn”­­ – BWV 225, by St. Mary Schola,

Each concert will be preceded by a half-hour exposition of the music, free and open to the public. Children’s events are also free and will include a special concert and an instrument-making workshop.

A complete schedule and information about the artists is at www.portlandbachfestival.org.

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

“Sweetest in the Gale” Is

Oratorio Chorale
Sweetest in the Gale
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church
Brunswick
Apr. 3, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

It is an article of faith among feminists that the reason there have been no women composers among the ranks of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms, is because they were so severely limited by the mores of their times, some even having to resort to male pseudonyms to have their work published at all.

The recent concert of Emily Isaacson’s new women’s chorus, “Sweetest in the Gale,” at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church on Sunday, made a strong case for this view.

While every work on the program, in chronological order from Hildegard of Bingen to Gwyneth Walker, was written by a woman, and all were beautifully sung, the quality of the compositions seemed to improve as their writers began to shake off the shackles of male domination.

The final works on the program, “Three Heavens and Hells,” by Meredith Monk (b. 1942) and “Love is a Rain of Diamonds,” by Gwyneth Walker (b. 1947), are masterpieces that excel most of what I have heard from contemporary male composers of choral music.

The concert was led by assistant conductor Mark Rossnagel rather than Isaacson, who is expecting the birth of her second child this week.

None of the above implies that the earlier works were not masterpieces, although it was hard to tell about Clara Schumann’s Nocturne, Opus 6, No. 2, which accompanist Derek Herzer had to play on an electric piano. Having tried to do something similar, after being used to a real grand piano, I can testify that making anything at all of the score was a minor miracle.

Soprano Mary Sullivan was in rare form in three display pieces that I had not heard before, all of them works of high drama and fiendish difficulty. The first, like Bernini’s sculpture of St. Theresa in ecstasy, is enough to make a normal concert goer blush. It was written by Augusta Holmes (1847-1903), setting verses by St. Teresa of Avila, in which she “dramatically reimagines her intense and transporting encounter with God, which builds to a climax of ecstasy.” Shades of the Tantra.

The second, with members of the chorus, was “Les sirènes,” by Lili Boulanger (1893-1918), who might have rivaled Debussy had she lived longer. It is equally erotic, but in a more classical way. One can hear how the seductive immortals might have tempted Ulysses.

The obligatory Amy Beach (1867-1944) came in the form of a charming “Through the house give glimmering light,” Op. 39, No. 3, reminiscent of bird song, with some unusual and well-done sforzando stops.

Sullivan returned for a heart wrenching rendition of “Anne Boleyn,” from “Try Me, Good King: Last Words of the Wives of Henry VIII,” by Libby Larsen (b. 1950). Needless to say, in spite of her eloquent pleading, she does not get her wish and hopes that the executioner knows his job.

I have already mentioned the final works on a short but brilliant program. “Three heavens and hells” has everything a modern choral work should have, but usually doesn’t. A round is illustrated by a round dance of the singers. The words generate the music, instead of being accompanied by them, and the little details, such as a singer in a monotone totally off key, are both fitting and remarkable. The entire thing, based on a poem by an 11 year old boy, is delightful and make one ponder the corollary of Sartre’s dictum that “Hell is other people.”
“Love Is a Rain of Diamonds,” setting a poem by May Swensen, exudes pure joy, and resulted in a standing ovation from the capacity audience.
Sweetest in the Gale (from “Hope Is a Thing with Feathers,” by Emily Dickinson), is a group of 20 auditioned sopranos and altos formed by Emily Isaacson and the Oratorio Chorale last Fall. After Sunday’s concert one hopes to hear more from them.

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.