Tag Archives: Jeffrey Kahane

A Study in Contrasts

Portland Symphony Orchestra
Merrill Auditorium
Nov. 13, 2018
by Christopher Hyde

Tuesday night’s concert of the Portland Symphony Orchestra, under guest conductor Jeffrey Kahane, was a study in contrasts—two great works in the Western classical tradition but diametrically opposed in mood, scope, dynamics and content.

Mozart is said to have burst into tears when hearing a trumpet as a child. One wonders what he would have thought of the brutal orchestration of the Shostakovich Symphony No. 10 in E Minor (Opus 93). Would he have joined in the standing ovation from a capacity crowd at Merrill Auditorium?

Kahane’s performance of the Mozart Concerto No. 17 in G Major, for Piano and Orchestra, which he conducted from the piano, was uncanny in its realization of the composer’s intent

I asked Matt Guggenheim, the Steinway technical affiliate for Maine, if Kahane had requested a tuning more similar to that of pianos in Mozart’s time. He did not—the tuning is standard for PSO concerts—but the placement of the piano, keyboard toward the audience and strings pointed upstage, coupled with the removal of the lid, gave it an entirely different sound, in addition to enabling Kahane, like Mozart, to conduct effectively, both sitting and standing, from the piano bench.

“Effectively” is not a strong enough word. Every single note, pause and change ini dynamics contributed to a supremely musical and balanced whole, without a scintilla of empty virtuosity. Even the cadenzas, those icons of showmanship, contributed to the sense of unity.

The tempo was fast, yes, but one felt that Mozart would have played it exactly the same way. For anyone familiar with this concerto, it was a peak experience, unequaled by any recording.

Neither could a recording do justice to the monumental 10th. Shostakovich opens the floodgates to the torrent of emotions he experienced on the death of his nemesis, Stalin. One can imagine him echoing the sentiments of another artist confronting powerful critics: “Just outlive the bastards.”

The Stalin-Shostakovich conflict was a matter of life and death rather than mere name calling, and the long opening movement of the symphony is a threnody to the deaths of millions under the dictator’s reign. The shorter second movement is a sustained hiss at evil and totalitarianism. The message is that buffoons in power can also be dangerous.

The scherzo of the third movement is jubilant, and introduces a theme based on the letters of the composer’s name. Here his satyrical waltz motifs, relieved of their double meanings, sound almost Straussian.

Finally, in the Andante-Allegro, Shostakovich goes around shouting his name at the top of his voice, like an ADD schoolboy at recess. He finally comes to his senses, realizing new possibilities, but ends with a final ferocious nailing of the name theme by the timpani.  All it needs is a holly stake.

The audience rewarded a tremendous performance with a long standing ovation, while Kahane went around the stage, congratulating individual orchestra members, from piccolo to percussion, all of whom had given more than heir best.

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

The PSO and the Power of Suggestion

Portland Symphony Orchestra
Merrill Auditorium
Sept 30, 2018
By Christopher Hyde

As we approached Merrill Auditorium Sunday afternoon for the-season- opening concert of the Portland Symphony Orchestra, we noticed a long line snaking around the corner and almost a block up Congress Street. The matinees are well attended, but this was unheard of. We learned later that the first arrivals had used only one of the three doors and that those coming later assumed incorrectly that it was the only one open . Hence the traffic back-up.

It was an eye-opening introduction to the power of suggestion, affirmed during the concert by guest conductor Jeffrey Kahane’s monumental interpretation of Tchaikovsky’s opera-for-orchestra “Francesca da Rimini” (Opus 32).

The music is supposed to depict a descent into Dante’s Inferno by two illici lovers, with a romantic interlude describing their passion—so it is said—in highly graphic terms, rather like Wagner’s Liebestod from “Tristan und Isolde.”

Suppose, however, that one was unfamiliar with the plot of “Francesca da Rimini” and was hearing the music for the first time. It would seem like two gigantic sea interludes by Rimsky Korsakov or a scene from “Peter Grimes” or “The Flying Dutchman,” interrupted by a peaceful on-shore stroll accompanied by clarinet solos.

One can feel the tremendous power of the wind and waves as the storm approaches, thrill to the strain of the sail on the creaking foremast, hear the canons in a sea battle, and sympathize with the ship going down in a whirlpool. In other words, one could write an entirely different scenario, equally convincing, based on the music alone. It is words and their power of suggestion that turn it into a tragic love fest. Or maybe Tchaikovsky suffered from sea sickness, and that was his vision of Hell.

Something to think about next time one hears program music, but it did seem like a fine tribute to the Maine coast from a guest to our state.

The stage was set for the opera by one of Tchaikovski’s most lush works for string orchestra, the Èlégie from the Serenade for Strings (Opus 48).

During the first half of the concert one felt a bit sorry for Amadeus, his “Prague” Symphony No. 38 in D Major, K. 504, relegated to a rather low-key opener for an extremely flashy and well played Concerto for Flute and Orchestra, Opus 39, by Lowell Liebermann (b.1961).

Kahane, who is also a concert pianist, balanced the solo part, played by PSO Principal Lisa Hennessy, almost magically, accentuating all of the sections in which the composer demonstrates the virtuosity of James Galway–equalled by Hennessey in this rendition. The work itself, in a Stravinski-like style, without much dissonance, falls just short of greatness. Its combinations of voices are unique in the literature—muted trumpets and flute, piano-like sounds made by bouncing the bow on the strings, a woodwind ensemble that chirped like a nest full of songbirds—there was something new around every corner.

Like the concluding “Francesca,” it drew an enthusiastic standing ovation from the capacity audience.

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