Tag Archives: Franco Center

Mozart and Gershwin at the Franco Center

Kevin Ayesh, Piano
Franco Center, Lewiston

April 19, 2017

by Christopher Hyde

On Friday night I took my grandson, nine-year-old Jordan Seavey, to hear Kevin Ayesh, in the penultimate concert of the Franco Center’s 2016-2017 piano series.

It was a good choice. Jordan is beginning to study piano seriously and Dr. Ayesh is a noted teacher and performer whose approach is musical rather than virtuosic. In my experience, Lisztian displays often do more to discourage budding musicians than to inspire them.
Jordan also happens to love the Gershwin “Rhapsody in Blue,” which was the final work on the scheduled program. (The encore was Dame Myra Hess’ transcription of the Bach “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.”)

Friday’s night’s performance marked the first time I had heard the solo piano score, written by Gershwin himself, and I liked it better than any of the versions orchestrated by Ferde Grofe, always excepting the opening clarinet glissando, which Ayesh imitated well on the piano.

Gershwin himself was a pianist and the piano must have been what he heard in the railroad noises that inspired the work. It does feel closer to the spirit of the composition, and it seems to hold together better than the concerto-with-orchestra that Leonard Bernstein deplored as fragmented.

Ayesh is as much at home in Mozart as in Gershwin, opening the program with a remarkable performance of the Sonata No. 9 in D Major, K. 311.  It seemed an almost complete realization of the composer’s intentions in  dynamic range, tempo and clear delineation of voices.

His inherently thoughtful approach was not as useful in four works by Chopin that concluded the first half of the program. The opening Nocturne in C Minor, Op. 48, No. 1, was the most successful, bringing out the unusual amount of drama in the piece.

The well-known melody of the Etude in E Major, Op. 10, No. 3, was a bit idiosyncratic, but what is a pianist to do after a few centuries of repetition? I once asked a famous virtuoso how he maintained his feeling for a composition after a few hundred performances . He replied “fake it.”

I don’t have enough Polish blood to enjoy the mazurkas as I should, and the “Heroic” Polonaise in A-flat Major, which has become display rather than music, needs more artillery power than thought.

However, I very much enjoyed Ayesh’s interpretation of the Brahms Intermezzo in A Major, Op. 118, No. 2, especially his emphasis on the triplets in the central section, and the fermata before the final “A” in that beautiful arpeggiated chord.

The Impromptu No. 3 in A-flat Major, Op. 34 of Gabriel Fauré came as a revelation, full of sparkling French fireworks and a wistful middle theme that recurs in the coda. Very appropriate for the Franco Center.

And Jordan got to meet the artist at the regular champagne reception after the concert.

The final recital of the series will be on June 9, with pianist Tamara Poddubnaya and Music Without Borders Grand Prix winner Vassily Panteleev.

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

Operatic Pops Take On New Luster at MIdcoast

Midcoast Symphony
Franco Center, Lewiston
March 18, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

Mark Twain would have loved Saturday night’s concert of the Midcoast Symphony Orchestra at Lewiston’s Franco Center.

Twain famously remarked that the trouble with opera was sitting through interminable periods of non-musical scene-setting to get to the good parts. On Saturday, the orchestra, under the direction of guest conductor Eric Hewitt, played nothing but the good parts.

One striking aspect of the performance was how much the good parts are sort of a Cliff’s Notes of the opera as a whole, epitomizing , if not the plot, then the emotional atmosphere of the work. Could it be that the composer himself merely used the libretto as an excuse for whatever arias he had in mind?

The Intermezzo from Puccini’s “Manon Lescaut,” for example, tells all one needs to know about the principal character and her fate. It was lushly Romantic and tragic at the same time, played with just the right amount of reserved emotion and tragic portent.

The orchestra entered into the spirit of the works, all quite familiar, with much more enthusiasm than is characteristic of professional (by that I mean for-pay) ensembles. Their interpretation of the “Liebestod” from “Tristan und Isolde” should never have been allowed in mixed company. It is the most graphic depiction of intercourse, raised to the level of religion, ever composed. The climactic measures were earth-shattering,  the best I have ever heard, (and I dislike Wagner with equal passion).

Another aspect of these operatic works is the extreme difficulty of the orchestration. Many of them were re-composed as display pieces, poster children for the operas themselves. Richard Strauss’ Waltz Sequence No. 1 from “Der Rosenkavalier,” (Opus 139), which concluded the program, is the orchestral equivalent of a Godowski piano transcription of “The Blue Danube,” by another Strauss, quite impossible to play. The Midcoast did it anyway, and aside from a few minor glitches, managed it admirably, once again creating a perfect impression of the opera as a whole, as well as illustrating Strauss’s excessive love of the French horn.

I could hear Baron Ochs, besieged in a tavern by a flock of his illegitimate offspring, shouting “Papa. papa,” and muttering to his servant: “Leopold, wir gehens.”

The longest work of the evening was BIzet’s “Carmen” Suite, No. 2, in an arrangement by Ernesto Guiraud which includes some of the lesser-known interludes. It was also very well played, with an authentic Spanish-French flavor and virtuoso work by the trumpet and piccolo.

The regular conductor of the Midcoast, Rohan Smith, was playing in the violin section. I don’t know if he will appear at this afternoon’s concert at the Orion Center in Topsham, but it will be well worth attending in any event.

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

Classics from South America, at the Franco Center

MIchael Lewin, Pianist
Franco Center, Lewiston
March 10, 2017
by Christopher Hyde
One of the finest, and most unusual, piano recitals of the year happened Friday night, Mar. 10, as part of the 2016-17 Piano Series at the Franco Center in Lewiston.

Michael Lewin, Professor of Piano at the Boston Conservatory at Berklee, after acclaimed recordings of Debussy, Scarlatti, Liszt and Charles Tomlinson Griffes, has begun to explore Latin American classical music, and his discoveries made up a large part of the program.

Lewin’s technique is astounding, but always in the service of a musical imagination which contains a refreshing amount of intellectual curiosity. One his recordings deals with musical depictions of birds, and another with music inspired by the spirit world.

The program began with the Beethoven Sonata No. 3 in C Major (Op. 2, No. 3), which is not heard very often, perhaps because its transitional nature, moving away from Mozart and Haydn into his own realm, but more of a showpiece than an expedition into new territory. It does, however, offer premonitions of more characteristic work, while illustrating why the young Beethoven was in demand as a performer.

It was followed by the fiendishly difficult Sonata No. 1, Op. 22 (1952) by Argentine composer Alberto Ginastera (1916-1983). In discussing the work after the concert, Lewin explained that he played it with the score, since he was still perfecting its performance. The work is so complex, dense and rapid that it doesn’t seem as if a score would help in playing it. Even turning the pages was a virtuoso exercise.

Like his compatriot, Astor Piazzolla, Ginastera uses Latin dance forms primarily as a framework for  complex musical ideas and imagery. In fact, these musical echoes may not even be deliberate, but part of each composer’s heritage, sounding “Latin” only to northern ears.

My favorite section of the 15-minute sonata was the Presto Misterioso second movement, with its combinations of chords and sprays of notes at the extreme ends of treble and bass.

After intermission, Lewin played shorter dance works by Erensto Lecouna and Ernesto Nazareth, and “A lenda do cobaclo” (Legend of the Native) of Heitor Villa-Lobos. Lecouna (1895-1963) is best known for “Malagueña,” but his “La conga de la media noche” shows what “The Cuban Gershwin” could do with more sophisticated musical forms and “modern” harmony.

Lewin is known as a Liszt performer, and the final works on the program were the “Petrarch Sonnet,” No. 123, and the “Mephisto Waltz,” No. 1, masterpieces of musical imagery. The encore was an early Scriabin Etude.

The Franco Center piano series remains too much of an undiscovered treasure. Its artists are the equal of any performing in Maine, the venue and its acoustics are superb, and the price is low (including champagne with the pianist). Kevin Ayesh is coming on April 21, and I urge all lovers of the piano to attend and discover what they are missing.

 

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

Pianist Excels at Franco Center Recital

Franco Center Piano Series
Christopher Staknys
Franco Center, Lewiston
Jan. 20, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

At the advanced age of 20, pianist Christopher Staknys has already performed three times at the popular piano series of the Franco Center in Lewiston. The first time, at the age of ten, he had just broken his right arm and played his own composition for the left hand alone.

Probably just a coincidence, but the young pianist’s most successful rendition on Friday evening was the Sonata-Fantasy in G-sharp Minor, Op. 19, of Alexander Scriabin, best known for his Nocturne for the left hand.

Scriabin’s early piano works are heavily influenced by Chopin, but more virtuosic. The sonata, like those of Chopin, requires a master to bring out the internal voices amidst a Russian snowstorm of notes.

Staknys was more than up to the task,  in a well-balanced performance that, in the final presto, seemed like bolts of lightning inside a dark thundercloud.

Staknys, who lives in Falmouth and is now attending Juilliard, may have been nervous at the beginning of the concert, since he attacked the Mozart Sonata No. 8 in A Minor (KV 310) like a falcon dive-bombing a pigeon.

It was fascinating to hear. No one should be able to play that fast and furious without making a single mistake. “No, he can’t possibly negotiate that passage correctly at that speed!” But he does. Miraculous, but unfortunately not Mozart.

The accelerator was slightly less depressed in three waltzes from Chopin’s Opus 34, but they still sounded like Godowsky transcriptions of Strauss. The best was No. 2 in A Minor, which demands some thoughtful melancholy.

During the first half of the program, the young pianist was most at home in “Ondine,” from Ravel’s “Gaspard de la Nuit,” with its sparkling sprays of water flicked off by the nymph of the title, who is trying to get the poet to come with her to her palace under the lake.
A little more contrast of moods, from playful through Romantic to pouting (when the poet refuses her), would have been ideal, but the entire portrait was brilliant and technically flawless.

The second half began with two original preludes, dedicated to the pianist’s mother. They were reminiscent of Scriabin as well in their tonal ambiguity, if not in their playfulness.

A Schubert Allegretto in A-flat Major, No. 6 of Moments Musicaux, Op. 94 (D. 780), demonstrated what Staknys could do with a more relaxed and thoughtful approach. It was gorgeous, especially the certainty of voices in the ever-modulating chords.

The encore was a set of improvisations on “Over the Rainbow,” with a reference to “My Country, ’Tis of Thee” appropriate to Inauguration Day. The occasion may have influenced attendance, but there should have been many more in the hall. A fine concert, crepes and wine at intermission and champagne and conversation with the artist afterward. What could be better than that?

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

True Virtuosity at the Franco Center

Igor Lovchinsky
Franco Center, Lewiston
Nov. 11, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

A detour caused by a traffic accident on Route 9 made us late getting to Lewiston’s Franco Center for a recital by Russian-American pianist Igor Lovchinsky. I was sorry to have missed his performance of two popular works by Ravel, but if his interpretation of other masters is any indication, the Ravel must have been spectacular.

Lovchinsky has the bravura technique of Horowitz, without the attitude. What other young concert pianist is about to receive his doctorate in physics from Harvard?

He was introduced to the Franco Center’s piano concert series when he joined Matthew Graybil for the New England premiere of Walter Piston’s Concerto for Two Pianos Solis.

Although Lovchinsky can spin cascades of notes with the best of them, his technique is at the service of an innate musicality. This was particularly evident in his rendition of the Prokofiev Sonata No. 4 in C Minor, Op. 29, in which the development of the themes was always audible through the thunder and lightning. Prokofiev’s unique voice, in which he sometimes seems to be mocking the virtuoso tradition, came through loud and clear, with echoes of both “Peter and the Wolf” and his piano suite “Visions Fugitives.”

After intermission, the pianist showed why he has become a noted interpreter of Chopin, winning the National Chopin competition of the Kosciuskko Foundation at the age of 19. His renditions of the Nocturne No. 20 in C-sharp Minor (Op. post.) and the Impromptu in A-flat Major, Op. 29, were intimate, without taking overly Romantic liberties. As Chopin recommended, the left hand always marched, no matter the rubato of the right.

The great Ballade No. 4 in F Minor, Op. 52, demonstrated both overwhelming power and perfectly timed development toward the climactic measures. (Both of them.).

I mentioned Horowitz at the beginning because of Lovchinsky’s programming of two fiendishly difficult works by Mily Balakirev (1837-1910) — “The Skylark,” based on a song by Glinka, and his Oriental Fantasy “Islamey.” They reminded me of similar impossible show pieces (played by Horowitz) by Alkan or Godowsky.

The difficulty of “Islamey,” which has been adopted by many famous pianists, can be gauged by the fact that Scriabin injured his hand practicing it.

It is based on three Circassian themes which sound strangely like Alexander Borodin, but decorated so lavishly that they almost disappear. That they were perceptible among Lovchinsky’s coruscating fountains of notes, is a greater accomplishment than being able to execute the ornaments themselves.

Having been to concerts of this series in the past, I was not surprised by the caliber of the music but by the relatively small size of the audience. Where else in Maine can one experience world-class performances, for a very low ticket price, in a fine concert hall, have delicious crepes at intermission and share a glass of champagne with the artist afterward? Unfortunately, the next event in the series won’t be until January 20, with Maine pianist Christopher Staknys.

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

Asakawa Shines in Contemporary Piano Music

Mari Asakawa, Piano
Bates College
Sept. 28, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

Lewiston is becoming the piano music capital of Maine. The Franco Center’s excellent piano series is gaining a wide following and ever since the residency of the late Frank Glazer, Bates College has been showcasing some of the world’s finest talents at Olin Hall. For music lovers on a limited budget, many of the Bates concerts are free and open to the pubic.

Wednesday night’s recital by Mari Asakawa, a world-renowned specialist in contemporary piano music, was one of the most unusual I have attended, except perhaps for the Gamper Festival of Contemporary Music at Bowdoin.

Asakawa began her program with Contrapuncti I, V and VII from Bach’s “The Art of Fugue,” (BWV1080) remarking from the stage that many of the techniques employed by both serial and avant garde composers were already prominent in Bach’s counterpoint..

Her piano interpretations, the first I have heard since Glenn Gould’s, were remarkable in their sharp delineation of voices. Unlike Gould’s, they were played from memory, while the rest of the works on the program were “read” from a score. Asakawa turns her own pages, since I doubt that many page turners could follow the music well enough to be of any assistance.

The Bach was followed by “Eventide” (2016) written specifically for the concert by Hiroya Miura, who was in the audience. The two movements, “In Blue,” and “In Purple,” were in an impressionistic, stream of consciousness style, somewhat reminiscent of Persichetti. One incorporates a quote from the opening guitar solo of “When Doves Cry,” by Prince, who died suddenly at the time that Miura was writing the work.

My favorite of the evening was “Ciaccona” (1998) by Claudio Ambrosini, perhaps because it was easy to follow on first hearing. The theme, modeled on the ancient slow-dance form, is a descending chromatic scale, with treble embellishments that become more and more virtuosic as the dance progresses, reaching the near impossible by the end.

Perhaps serial (twelve-tone) music will catch on eventually, although I doubt that audiences will go home whistling the tunes, as Schoenberg hoped. That thought was prompted by “Post-Partitions” (1966) of Milton Babbitt, so well and carefully constructed that it stands out like a granite monument among ephemera.

A lengthy work by Eliott Carrter, “Night Fantasies,” (1980) concluded the program. As an attempt to capture the thoughts and dreams that dominate the mind late at night, it was unsuccessful, although beautifully played by an artist strongly associated with Carter. There was too little contrast between moments of calm and the lightning flashes of insight, and the dynamics ranged from mezzo-forte to fortissimo.

Strangely enough, Carter was trying to imitate the “poetic moodiness” of certain works by Schumann; like his model, he wound up with too many notes, as if dreading an instant of silence.

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

Piano Series Ends on a High Note

Pianist Jean-François Latour
Gendron Franco Center, Lewiston
May 27, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

Serendipity. I was talking with Lewis Kaplan the other day about the new Bach festival he is organizing for Portland next month (June 19-24) and learned that he would be playing the famous Bach Chaconne from the Partita No 2 in D minor (BWV 1004) for solo violin. I mentioned that I loved the Bach-Busoni piano transcription. He thought it too florid and virtuosic and recommended the version by Brahms for the left hand alone,

I downloaded the music and was reading it when I learned that pianist Jean-François Latour would be playing the Brahms version on May 24 at the Gendron Franco Center (formerly the Franco-American Heritage Center) in Lewiston. Coincidence? I don’t think so; once one begins something, other events seem to fall in line.

Unfortunately, I thought the concert was at 7:30 rather than 7:00, so I missed some of the Chaconne. I did hear enough, from a very fine musician, to agree with Kaplan. Transcribing the piece for the left hand imitates the difficulties of the score for a violinist, without adding to or subtracting from anything of its character.

Bach, who liked to transcribe his own works for other instruments, would have approved.

Latour’s recital was the sixth and final one of this season’s piano series at the Franco Center. The recitals, which attract outstanding talents from all over the world, are too little noted outside Lewiston-Auburn, and well worth the drive from Portland. Besides, there’s cake and champagne with the artist after the performance.

Most of the program was devoted to Brahms, including, in addition to the Chaconne, three Intermezzi, Opus 117 and the 16 Waltzes of Opus 39. For a French-Canadian pianist (He was born in Trois-Rivières, Quebec, and studied at Peabody and the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto) Latour shows a remarkable affinity for Brahms, adding a brilliance to the works that is too often lost in four-square or overly Romantic interpretations. He called the waltzes a necklace of diamonds, and they were.

What is most remarkable about his readings is their emphasis on inner voices, sometimes two or three at once. In Brahms at his best there is sometimes a high-pitched secondary melody that hovers over the work like a bright cloud. The only thing close to it is the treble voice that seems to appear out of thin air in Tuvan throat singing, or the overtones of a didgeridoo. Latour evokes it better than most pianists I have heard.

The program concluded with three posthumous Schubert Impromptus (D.946), which demonstrated an affinity as deep as that for Brahms. Schubert’s mercurial mood (and key) changes came and went like fair-weather cumuli in a summer sky, and no one has decoded the complex rhythms of the final Allegro with more clarity.

My favorite has always been the second Impromptu. I remain convinced that it is the origin of the famous song “Lilly Marlene,” but better composed and less obvious. Latour received a well-deserved standing ovation for his performance of all three.

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

MIdcoast Symphony Presents a Truly Operatic Verdi “Requiem”

Midcoast Symphony Orchestra
Verdi “Requiem”
Franco Center, Lewiston-Auburn
May 14, 2016

Producing Verdi’s “Requiem” is aways a major undertaking, but the Midcoast Symphony under Rohan Smith, the Oratorio Chorale, Vox Nova and a fine cast of soloists carried it off in great style Saturday night at the Franco Center in Lewiston.

The full-length mass was sung without intermission before a full house, the largest audience I have seen for a Midcoast concert at this venue. The performance rightly emphasized the operatic nature of the work.

What never ceases to surprise me about the Midcoast is the caliber of soloists it attracts with regularity. Saturday’s vocalists, who play a star role in the operatic Mass, were no exceptions. They were Rachele Schmiege, soprano, Rebecca Ringle, alto, Kevin Ray, tenor, and Gustav Andreassen, bass. (Really good basses must be named Gustav or Boris.)

All were outstanding, but Verdi’s favorite in this work is the soprano, who gets all the good parts after the final Dies Irae, often seeming to be arguing successfully with God. Schmeige has the power and clarity to soar effortlessly above the full orchestra and two of Maine’s best choirs.

Speaking of choirs, it often appears to be a waste of talent to write the score for two; it is so difficult to distinguish the parts that the composer might as well have specified one large chorus. That is until the great fugue (also after the Dies Irae) in which Vox Nova and the Oratorio Chorale plainly distinguish themselves as separate voices. It makes the whole thing worthwhile.

For the other choral sections, it might help to separate the choirs physically, but that doesn’t seem possible within the limited stage space at the Franco Center.

The orchestral part of the Requiem is ideal for an amateur ensemble, but the Midcoast sounded anything but. The balance of forces was near-perfect. The visions of Hell in the Dies Irae were effective, as were the trumpet calls from the rear of that hall in the Tuba mirum, which startled some of the audience members. One child put his hands over his ears like the young Mozart at the sound of a trumpet.

The pause half-way through, to allow orchestra members to re-tune, was a mistake. It broke their concentration and there were a few sour noes afterward, but only for a measure or two.

All-in-all, it was a grand effort, surpassing a professional performance here a few years ago, and well deserved its standing ovation and curtain calls.

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