Tag Archives: Koh

Salt Bay Chamberfest Shares the Madness

Salt Bay Chamberfest
Darrows Barn, Damariscotta
Aug. 8, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

The opening concert of the Salt Bay Chamberfest, before an over-flow crowd Tuesday night at Darrows Barn, continued its tradition of making unusual works not only accessible but enjoyable.

The evening started out with the most avant of the avant garde— two works for solo violin played by virtuoso Jennifer Koh. “Moto Perpetuo,” by David Ludwig, was commissioned by Koh as part of her “Shared Madness” series, now up to 34 pieces that explore the most far-out possibilities of the violin.

She began with a shorter work from the same “Madness” series, “Kinski Paganini,” by Missy Mazzoli, that references Paganini’s 24th Caprice and the film “Paganini” by Klaus KInsky, as inspired by the Devil as the violinist.

If that work was wild, the perpetual motion piece was even further out, with a series of variations interrupted by shrieks, sul ponte hollow sounds, and col legno (playing on the wood), that sounds like crumpling paper. I don’t think Paganini could have played it, Devil or not. The audience loved it.

The shift in mood to mezzo-soprano Kate Aldrich, with pianist Thomas Sauer, was not as radical as it might have been, since she began with “Riedi al soglio” from Rossini’s “Zelmira,” an aria that requires as much virtuosity to sing as a Paganini Caprice does to play.

Aldrich is a soprano on the verge of greatness, if not already there, and her aria was spectacular. For emotional intensity, however, I preferred the four Strauss songs that followed. I know enough German to appreciate the dark poetry of love and loss that the songs portray, but merely the variations in tone and phrasing were enough to bring tears to your eyes. I want to hear Aldrich in “Der Rosenkavalier.”

Sauer did not so much as accompany the singer as collaborate with her in creating dramatic scenes. HIs dynamic range and tempi were a perfect match for Aldrich’s sensitive portrayals.

Sauer demonstrated another sort of technical fireworks and endurance in the final work on the program, the Piano Quartet No. 2 in G minor, Op. 45, of Gabriel Fauré. The turbulent and virtually unceasing piano part often seems as if the composer feared being penalized for a rest.

The quartet is a strange work indeed, Fauré has been called the Brahms of France, but I think he is closer to Max Reger, flirting with atonality but never quite taking the leap. It also owes a great deal to the composer’s friend St.Saens, who showed how much life remained in “old fashioned” forms.

In spite of the continuous presence of the piano, it blended surprisingly well with the strings—Koh on violin, Cynthia Phelps, viola, and festival founder Wilhelmina Smith, cello— producing harmonies that could belong only to Fauré.

The quartet ends with a glorious waltz that doesn’t climax, but simply ends when the composer decides that it’s gone on long enough. It earned a long and boisterous standing ovation.

Future concerts of the Chamberfest will take place on Tuesdays and Fridays until August 18. For information see www.saltbaychamberfest.org.

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

Salt Bay Chamberfest: Then and Now

Salt Bay Chamberfest
Darrows Barn, Round Top Center, Damariscotta
Aug. 12, 2016

“If you build it, they will come.” Twenty two years ago, when I first reviewed a concert at the Salt Bay Chamberfest, the founder. cellist Wilhelmina Smith, was happy to have Darrows Barn half filled. But word gets around. On Friday, in spite of a heat wave, it was standing room only, and that is now typical.

The secret is quite simple—-everyone is satisfied with the best. The festival offers the finest in classical and contemporary music, played by outstanding musicians who devote just as much attention, and affection, to new music as to the classics.

Imaginative programming doesn’t hurt either. On Friday, Haydn’s last quartet (Opus 103) was paired with the early Brahms Sextet for Strings in B-flat, Opus 18. In the middle was some quite fiendish new music by Marc Neikrug (b. 1946), Philip Glass, (b. 1937), Zosha Di Castri (b.1985) and Julia Wolfe (b. 1958). The audience loved it all.

I had visions of Haydn spending his last days playing his favorite tune, the Kaiser Hymn. Instead, he was occupied with a final string quartet, the form that he practically invented and passed on to Mozart and Beethoven. What Opus 103 lacked in cheerfulness it made up in invention. An unusual amount of chromaticism led to unexpected developments. Only two movements were completed, but they show that the old dog could still learn new tricks.

The composers mentioned above were each commissioned by violinist Jennifer Koh, a Chamberfest regular, as part of a project she calls “Shared Madness.” It was. I won’t describe each of these short works, but all explored some aspect of contemporary virtuosity, pushing the violin to extremes, but without resorting to ancillary devices such as drumming on the wood.

One bow-shredding piece came close to being impossible, a melody played on one string while a second produced a sort of growling wolf note. Another explored overtones in registers at the limit of human hearing. One hopes that Koh will soon have enough madness in her collection to produce a CD.

Before intermission came the premiere of a new work by Marc Neikrug, entitled “Ruminations,” commissioned by the Chamberfest. As lovingly rendered by a string trio of Jennifer Koh, violin, Hsin-Yun Huang, viola, and Wilhelmina Smith, cello, it is one of the few “modern” works that appeals to the senses on first hearing. Going by the title, it seems composed of random musical thoughts that eventual;lay coalesce, like clouds into a tornado or leaves into a tree (depending on your mood). The process is satisfying, musically and intellectually.

There was nothing unexpected about the Brahms Sextet, except perhaps for its genius. The young Brahms knows exactly where he’s going with every theme and its development, all of which seems ineveitable— once you hear it. One could see the musicians smiling as the drama unfolded, now in its predictably glorious way. One thing the youthful Brahms has over Mendelssohn at the same period in his life; he is not afraid of being obvious.

There’s more to come at Salt Bay, August 16 and Aug.19. The latter concert includes the (very) early Mendelssohn Piano Quartet in B Minor, Op. 3.

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

A Brilliant Send-Off for Bowdoin Festival

Bowdoin International Music Festival
Festival Friday
Crooker Auditorium of Brunswick High School
Aug. 7

In a review of the Portland String Quartet last month I mentioned liking their variations on the Shaker Hymn “Simple Gifts,” better than Aaron Copland’s in “Appalachian Spring.” I was wrong.

The original version of “Appalachian Spring,” for 13 instruments, as played Friday night at the final Festival Friday concert of the Bowdoin International Music Festival, was a revelation, clear as spring water, perfectly balanced and showing off Copland’s genius in a way that muddy orchestrations never could.

Robert Moody, music director of the Portland Symphony Orchestra, conducted selected virtuosi from the festival in a performance that was simply stunning, from beginning to end. “Appalachian Spring,” still sounds like “Oklahoma,” but there’s nothing wrong with that.

As for the variations on “Simple Gifts,” their inventiveness was remarkable, and the combinations of instrumental timbre far beyond what can be accomplished by a string quartet. Copland has a way of making the grand piano an orchestral instrument that is rare indeed.

As the final work of a successful festival, it was a brilliant send-off indeed.

The Tchaikovsky pieces that preceded it, with violin soloist Jennifer Koh, were also crowd pleasers, but more in the nature of salon music than national icons.

Too many generations of violinists have sawed their way through the “Souvenir d’un Lieu Cher,” Op. 42, and the often paired Serenade Melancolique (Op. 26) and Valse Scherzo (Op. 34) for anything new to be said, but it was good to hear the first three pieces as a set, Tchaikovsky’s original intention.

Jennifer Koh, who has been heard quite often in Maine, is a fine violinist, and made the most of both the romantic and the virtuoso passages, earning a standing ovation. Moody encouraged the Bowdoin Festival Orchestra, which sounds more professional each year.

I had expected more from Kevin Buts’ “Seascapes” (2013) which opened the program. Maybe it’s my literary background, but there are much better written words about the sea than the seven passages he chose to illustrate musically. Perhaps that accounts for the score’s lack of inspiration.

They were given a careful and tender reading by a chamber orchestra of Janet Sung, violin, Caroline Coade, viola, David Requiro, cello, Kurt Muroki, double bass, Tao Lin, piano, Beomjae Kim, flute, and Josh Thompson, horn.
The work came alive quite often, especially in the fourth movement: “Out of the darkness…jets of sparks in fountains of blue come leaping” by D.H. Lawrence, but the excitement couldn’t be sustained. I also liked the sustained chords and bass line of Virginia Woolfe’s “So fine was the morning except for a streak of wind here and there that the sea and sky looked all of one fabric.”

Still, I couldn’t help but think of Vincent Persichetti’s “Poems for Piano,” which attempts the same thing, with considerably more success.