Tag Archives: Mason Bates

A Powerful “Armed Man”

Portland Symphony Orchestra
Merrill Auditorium
Oct. 22, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

The Portland Symphony Orchestra’s presentation of the full version of “The Armed Man,” Sunday afternoon at Merrill Auditorium, demonstrated how much vitality remains in old forms, both musical and literary.

Written in 1999 by Welsh composer Karl Jenkins (b. 1944) for chorus and orchestra, on a commission from the Royal Armouries Museum, it is completely tonal (except for a primal scream) and is unified, like “Carmina Burana,” which it reflects in its chanting rhythms and use of a Medieval song —“The Armed Man.” at the beginning and end.

In form, it is a pastiche of 13 segments, ranging from the aforementioned song through the Muslim Call to Prayer to the Roman Catholic Agnus Dei, with stops at Kipling and Tennyson.
It follows Dante and other poets throughout history in a journey to Hell and back, finding its nadir in the verses of a Japanese poet who died from the effects of Hiroshima, equalled in horror by a passage from an ancient Indian epic, the Mahàbharàta.

The work is long, perhaps too long, and called for a massive effort on the part of both the orchestra and the ChoralArt Masterworks chorus. I have seldom heard the chorus sound as powerful. Soprano Stephanie Foley Davis was superb in “Now the Guns Have Stopped,” a moving portrayal of the “survivors guilt” experienced by soldiers who return while their friends do not.

It is hard not to get caught up in the martial fervor of the descent toward battle, urged on by the tenets of religions, a cavalry charge and what Wilfred Owen called “The old lie: Dolce and decorum est pro patria mori.” The music, like Alexander’s Ragtime Band, “makes you want to go to war,” even when one knows what the result will be —chaos and animals on fire like living torches.

In the end, the almost two-hour work served as a catharsis to the capacity audience at Merrill, who gave it a well deserved standing ovation, many with tears in their eyes at the final “Better Is Peace,” in a nation now fighting seven wars in places that most cannot find on a map.

The lame and sometimes misspelled supertitle translations did not detract from the overall effect.

Leading up to “The Armed Man” were Leonard Bernstein’s Symphony No. 1 (Jeremiah) and a short work for chorus and orchestra by Mason Bates: “The Book of Mathew,” from “Sirens,” arranged by PSO Music Director Robert Moody and P. Scott.
The Bernstein symphony did not have Jenkins’ cutting edge,with the sorrow of the Lamentation movement barely surpassing the bathos of a Broadway musical, in spite of Davis’ dignified solo. It showed the composer’s genius only in the “Profanation” moment, with its syncopated evil-sounding dances. The Devil always gets the best lines.
The Bates had some lovely watery effects, depicting the scene in which Christ calls upon Peter and Andrew to become “fishers of men.” It made me want to hear all of the siren calls.

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

Roman Legions Triumph at First Portland Symphony Concert

Portland Symphony Orchestra
Merrill Auditorium
Oct. 9, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

Until Sunday’s concert of the Portland Symphony Orchestra at Merrill Auditorium, complete with Kotzschmar Organ, I had never realized just how good Ottorino Respighi’s “Pines of Rome” was. It was a shining example, if any were needed, of the absolute necessity of live performance. To think that any substantial percentage of its excitement could be captured electronically is palpably absurd.

Music director Robert Moody pulled out all the stops for this crowd-pleasing conclusion to the first concert of the season—a terrific nightingale recording, off-stage trumpets, reinforced brass and the growl of the afore-mentioned organ. The entire orchestra was on its best behavior in a score that for gorgeousness of orchestral color puts even Rimsky-Korsakov, Respighi’s teacher, to shame.

All four movements of the work were superb examples of musical scene-painting. One could almost feel the warm winds blowing through the pine branches or visualize the ancient Christians chanting in the catacombs, but the final triumphant procession of the Roman legions was sui generis. Compare it to Ravel’s infinitely long crescendo in “Bolero”, the only composition that comes anywhere near to its spectacular climax. It was held to imperceptible gradations in volume by the terrific work of John Tanzer on timpani.

If there are seats left for today’s (Monday, Oct. 10)) performance, it is not to be missed. You will be able to hear it just fine from the nosebleed sections.

The program began with an excellent performance of the Beethoven Symphony No. 4 in B-flat Major (Op. 60), marred somewhat by over-attention to detail and over-blown dynamic contrasts, perhaps resorted to because the piece lacks the inherent appeal of the other eight. The details, however, such as the soaring flute solo in the adagio, posed yet another argument for live performance.

In listening to this seldom-heard symphony, I find it helps to imagine it as aspects of water, beginning with a still lake, eventually ruffled by a breeze. The Fourth doesn’t compel visions, like the Sixth, but the water imagery helps one follow its development.

The most disappointing aspect of the afternoon was a new concerto by Mason Bates (b. 1977), written for cellist Joshua Roman, who performed it as well as could be expected, accompanied by a huge orchestra with no place to go. I believe some of the instruments were used only once in three movements. Their purpose seemed to be the simulation of electronically generated sounds.

In the final movement, a kind of jazzy Irish pub improvisation that goes on forever, without even the consolation of beer, Roman resorted to a guitar pick for some involved pizzicato passages. I guess it’s easier on the fingers.
The audience gave the talented young cellist a standing ovation, but the concerto is the kind of music that would sound better on a CD.

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