Tag Archives: Mendelssohn

Bowdoin Festival Friday Concert Enthralls a Sold-Out Audience

Bowdoin International Music Festival
Crooker Theater
July 14, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

Every time a pundit bemoans the decline or death of classical music, all one need do is think of the Bowdoin International Music Festival, which is now attracting larger audiences than at any time in its history, including many sold out concerts. Maybe classical music is getting too popular. Florence at the height of the Renaissance had a population of about 35,000.

Friday night’s SRO concert at Crooker Theater is just one example. Admittedly, it offered rock-star level violinist Anne Akiko Meyers in the Mendelssohn violin concerto, but the enthusiasm for every work on the program was infectious. When was the last time a contemporary composer, (Jennifer Higdon), received a standing ovation?

The program began with an entertainment by Mozart, his Oboe Quartet in F Major, K. 370, brilliantly executed by James Austin Smith, oboe, Kurt Sassmanhaus, violin, SoHui Yun, viola,, and Ahrin Kim, cello. I use the word “entertainment” advisedly, because the quartet, written for an oboe virtuoso, is a display piece, without much depth. Mozart treats the oboe as a sort of super violin, neglecting the instrument’s primary attraction—its reedy tonal quality.

“Light Refracted,” by Jennifer Higdon (b. 1962), scored for clarinet, violin, viola, cello and piano, is a more introspective work in two movements, “Inward” and “Outward,” that could be a meditation on Shelly’s line:: “Life, like a dome of many-colored glass, stains the white radiance of eternity.”

It begins with a pianissimo clarinet solo, evocative of a light ray from a high window, illuminating dust motes in its path. It goes on, in a relatively passive vein, exploring the ways light affects emotion.
The second movement, ferocious and rhythmical, seems more like the sparkle of a diamond, or a dancehall mirror ball. The audience loved it, and gave the musicians and the composer several curtain calls.

The piece de resistance, of course, was the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in E Minor, Op. 64, with Meyers and the Festival Orchestra, conducted by Angel Gil-Ordóñez.

The Festival Orchestra, of students and faculty, just continues to get better. In this performance it was indistinguishable from a professional ensemble that has played together for years. There was a reversal of the usual balance problems, with the conductor having to turn down the volume to avoid drowning out the soloist.
Meyers was technically and emotionally superb, like a great actress who forces an audience to listen to every word by subtle modulations of a quiet voice. It enthralled the audience at Crooker, which leaped to its feet after the final note. I was brought up on a more heroic approach, but that is just a matter of personal taste.

There was no encore, in spite of repeated curtain calls. Hooray, hooray!

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

Salt Bay Season Ends on a High Note

Salt Bay Chamberfesst
Darrows Barn, Round Top Center, Damariscotta
Aug. 19, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

The Salt Bay Chamberfest ended its 22nd season on a high note Friday night, with three outstanding performances by the Brentano String Quartet, with soloists Thomas Sauer, piano, and Romie de Guise-Langlois, clarinet. As usual for the last several seasons, Darrows Barn, at Damariscotta’s Round Top Center, was filled to overflowing.

It is rare in Maine to be able to compare performances of the same work by different artists during the same season, but such was the case with the String Quartet No. 2 (“Intimate Letters”) by Leoš Janáček. The Portland String Quartet showcased the work in April (see review “Intimate Letters”) It was second on Friday night’s program by the Brentano Quartet.

The PSQ version tended to emphasize its new cellist in the role of the composer in this love affair with a married woman 38 younger than he. The Brentano had a more balanced approach, in which lover and beloved were treated with equal passion.

Written in the last year of Janáček’s life (1928), when he was 74, the quartet should nevertheless be X-rated. It depicts every aspect of the long-lasting liaison, using letter keys, numerology and speech patterns to tie incidents to specific times and places and leit-motifs to code specific actions.The official line is that the affair was platonic, but the music says otherwise.

Maybe it was just the second live hearing of the work, but I found the Brentano’s version somewhat more compelling, in an earthy rather than intellectual way.

Speaking of earthy, the opening work on the program, commissioned in 2016 by the Brentano from Israeli composer Shulamit Ran (b. 1949) was named “Stream” . The three movements, for string quartet and clarinet, can depict a stream becoming a river, like Smetana’s “Moldau,” or a stream of consciousness progressing from fragmentary images to firm resolution.

Whatever the chosen program, the quartet is a vehicle for overwhelmingly fluid virtuosity on the clarinet, matched by and complementing its partnership with the strings. Heard live, it was marvelous.

The evening ended with more virtuosity than seems possible for a 15-year-old composer: the Mendelssohn Piano Quartet in B minor, Opus 3. It doesn’t yield much, if at all, to the later piano concertos, in terms of solid construction, inventiveness and pure excitement.

The young composer seems to have just discovered the possibilities of triplets (from Scarlatti?) and purely revels in them. The whole quartet is a sort of tarantella, While the members of the Brentano, absent the second violin, were able to hold it together as a quartet for the first three movements, they had to throw up their hands in the final Allegro vivace, and yield the stage to Sauer, who turned in an astounding performance with seeming nonchalance. It was remarkable for a pianist at the height of his powers. For a teenager it must have seemed the work of the devil.

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 Preview and a Premiere by the DaPonte String Quartet

DaPonte String Quartet
Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens
Aug. 10, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

Is the DaPonte String Quartet spreading itself too thin? In the 25 years of its notable residence in Maine, its mission has been to bring great music, live, to underserved areas of the state. In recent years, however, it has vastly increased its range and the number of venues in which it plays, including those whose acoustics leave something to be desired.

The concert I attended last night, at Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens, was the sixth in a series of seven throughout the state. Add to that a heavy teaching schedule for the quartet’s members and work on a new CD, and it is no wonder that the players seemed a little tired at times.

They began with the holy grail of counterpoint, Bach’s “Art of the Fugue” (BWV 1081). The first Contrapunctus showed the quartet’s characteristic passion, but the second and third succumbed to the academic chill inspired by the presence of greatness. It was a nice historical touch to include the last of the series, left unfinished at Bach’s death, but from a musical standpoint, a climax would have been more satisfying.

I had gone to the concert to hear the premiere of Rocco Havelaar’s String Quartet No. 3, composed in 2015. (Disclaimer: Havelaar is the former husband of Lydia Forbes, who alternates with Ferdinand Liva as first violin of the DaPonte.)

Since I had never heard the work before, it is impossible to critique the performance, but the balance seemed a little off at times, and more could have been made of the composer’s use of motifs to tie the work together.

The quartet is very serious, its opening movement reminding one of Bartok’s visions of nature at night—susurrations and nightingale song punctuated by distant lightening. At the beginning of the Rondo:Scherzo second movement, a dog started to bark. (It was the ringtone on someone’s cell phone.) I thought at first that Havelaar had decided to liven things up, adding to his musical references Chopin’s remark to a badly playing pupil: “Did I just hear a dog barking?”

Alas, it was not to be, and the quartet took the second movement from the top. The entire quartet is too long, but it did catch fire at moments, especially when a theme was presented over a driving ostinato, a la Phillip Glass.

The final adagio is a funeral march without march rhythm, expect for a related pattern from one of Beethoven’s works in that genre. More could have been done with that little motif, but instead, the piece dies away sadly. This is the usual cop-out, but I really would like to hear the piece again, to be able to better follow its developments, whose precision, Havelaar hopes, imitates that of Brahms.

The DaPonte was back to its usual form in the concluding work of the evening, the Mendelssohn String Quartet No. 2 in A Minor, Opus 13, written when he was 19 and recovering from a depression brought on by the rejection of his first and only opera.

It is lovely music, melodic and Beethoven-esque (the DaPonte plays it on the new CD) with all the virtues and vices of youth. Its primary drawback, like the Havelaar quartet, is a dread of appearing obvious, to the extent that Mendelssohn could not think of a novel way to end it, and just quit, leaving the audience unsure whether or not to applaud, especially after all the false cadences the young composer had borrowed from the late Beethoven.

The fugues are miraculous for a 19-year-old, bringing the evening back to the first work on the program.

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

Portland String Quartet Reads “Intimate Letters”

Portland String Quartet
Woodfords Congregational Church
April 23
by Christopher Hyda

It’s a good thing that the form of synesthesia which unites music with visual imagery is rare. Otherwise Leoš Janáček’s great String Quartet No. 2 (“Intimate Letters”) (1928) could not be performed in public, except perhaps with an “adults only” warning.

The work, lovingly rendered by the Portland String Quartet, April 23 at Woodfords Congregational Church, depicts, in four passionate movements, the affair of the aged composer with a woman 38 years his junior. Both were married.

In his always astute program notes, Will Herz suggests that the affair was platonic. If the music itself is any indication, I tend to doubt that (generally accepted) opinion.

The quartet is brimming with wondrous melodies, like Borodin’s but a bit harder to whistle. Most of them are derived from an intricate system of correspondences involving the names of the protagonists, their dates of birth, and numerous other numerical and linguistic sources. (I am indebted to composer Elliott Schwartz’ analysis of these in a lecture he gave in Brunswick a few years ago.)

Another characteristic of the music is the use of speech patterns and inflections to shape its phrases. In some of them one can almost make out the words, such as “the beautiful Madame so-and-so.” The example is in English, but I’m sure that anyone who knows the language(s) of the former Czechoslovakia would recognize many more.

One of my favorite passages in all opera is the speech-song uttered by the young frog at the conclusion of Janáček’s “The Cunning LIttle Vixen.” The pantheism of that opera is also evident in the quartet, in which natural sounds, such as bird song, are employed to express the lovers’ most joyful moments.

All of these beauties and more were brought out by the quartet, in one of its most striking performances of the season. Its new cellist, Patrick Owen, was vital to the amorous depictions.

The program began with Stravinsky’s seven-minute Concertino for String Quartet (1920), generally conceded to be the first work of his “neoclassical” period. It was always an ill fit, and the Concertino is schizophrenic, driving rhythms contrasted with antique dance forms, lyrical passages written in dissonant harmonies, and so on. At the very end, Stravinsky seems actually to be flirting with a tonic resolution until he decides not to go there and ends up in the air.

The afternoon finished with Mendelssohn’s String Quartet in D Major, Opus 44, No. 1, plain vanilla after what had gone before, but a charming and light-hearted chaser for such strong drink. An enduring characteristic of the PSQ has been its faithfulness to the composer’s intentions. In the first movement one could almost see Mendelssohn deciding what to do next with his theme. My note was: ”They show how it works.”

The final Presto con brio (alla tarantella) brought the audience to its feet.

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

Oratorio Chorale’s “Prodigies” Does Not Disappoint

Oratorio Chorale
Woodfords Congregational Church
Nov. 21, 2015
by Christopher Hyde

The Oratorio Chorale’s “Prodigies” concert, Saturday night at Woodfords Congregational Church, examined many aspects of that vexed question, while presenting each in the best possible light. Director Emily Isaacson has mastered the art of combining chorus and orchestra, and the Maine Chamber Ensemble sounded the best it has in years.

The program opened with a work by a child prodigy, Henry Purcell, (1659-1695), written, however, when his genius had fully matured. His “Oh Sing Unto the Lord,” (1688) often sounded like Handel, but more complex (and a little better written). The vocal part is extremely difficult, with the chorus treated as an orchestra, offering varied instrumental combinations. It was written in a day when British households entertained themselves by singing seven-part madrigals.

The orchestral “symphony” itself is also brilliant, both at setting off the choral and recitative sections, and solo, with fugal writing that seems to come as easily to Purcell as to Bach.

It was followed by a premiere of “The Window,” a setting of a poem by Conrad Aiken, written by Christopher Stacknys (b. 1997) of Falmouth, now a sophomore at the Juilliard School. The composition was quite professional in its cycling from harmony to dissonance and back.

His musicality, however, was called into question by a performance of the first movement of the Chopin Concerto No. 1 in E minor. After a lovely opening by the string orchestra, the piano came in like a bull in a china shop, Stacknys apparently overcompensating for the acoustics of an unknown venue.

The performance was brilliant, too fast, and technically flawless. The music got lost in a cloud of notes. A concerto is always a contest between the soloist and the conductor; in this case, Isaacson lost the battle for control of tempo. The large audience loved it.

The two anthems by Mendelssohn (1809-1847), which followed intermission, “Jesu meine Freude” (1828) and “Christie, du Lamm Gottes” (1827) were delightful, lively and perfectly balanced. Any resemblance to the work of J.S. Bach, which the 18-year-old composer had been studying intensely, was purely intentional.

Isaacson saved he most astounding feat for last, a “Te Deum” (1769) written by Mozart when he was 13. He could orchestrate, write fugues, and invent choral harmonies which neither Bach nor Purcell would have disowned. He is one of the great composers whom we can honestly regret losing at an early age.

The concert will be repeated today (Sunday, Nov. 22) at the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Brunswick, at 3:00 and 6:00 p.m.