Tag Archives: Milhaud

An Outstanding Symphonie Fantastique by the Midcoast

Midcoast Symphony Orchestra
Franco Center, Lewiston
Oct. 20, 2018
by Christopher Hyde

Hector Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique is one of the longest and most difficult works in the orchestral repertoire, and also one of the most exciting. Last night’s performance by the Midcoast Symphony Orchestra under Rohan Smith, was one of the best I have heard, and more dramatic than most.

The performance will be repeated this afternoon at the Orion Center for the Performing Arts in Topsham, and should not be missed. Live performances are few and far between, due to lack of resources, and the piece probably will not be scheduled next time you visit New York or Vienna, if you want to hear a comparable rendition.

Smith went for broke in evoking contrasts between movements and within them, reflecting the mercurial Romantic moods of the composer. He unified the structure by emphasis on the recurring “beloved” theme. The glorious waltz of the second movement, for example, almost degenerates, presaging what Ravel did with the form many years later.

The dialog between oboes —the English horn is a large oboe— in the third movement, set in the bucolic countryside, was perfection, with the horn soloist located about halfway up the incline of the Franco Center,  providing a sense of open space. The movement itself, suspended between delight and horror, is the essential interlude.

The final witches’ sabbath, following the famous scene in which the hero, having murdered his inamorata, imagines his affair with the guillotine, is one of the most colorful and imaginative in music. It has everything, from a supernatural flight of locusts, sul legno, (played with the wood of the violin bow), to the world’s most terrifying “Dies Irae” on the low brass.

Every section of the orchestra played admirably, but the percussion often took center stage, including the loudest drum roll I have ever heard.

Part of that effect was due to the addition of mallet percussionist Nathaniel Hackworth, to the battery.

Hackworth, from Presque Isle, is the winner of the MIdcoast’s first Judith Elser Concerto Competition, and just before intermission played the Concerto for Marimba and Vibraphone, Op. 27 of Darius Milhaud (1892-1974). The concerto, which Hackworth played brilliantly, sensitively supported by the orchestra, is jazzy and colorful, full of musical in-jokes. One passage, for example, is lifted verbatim from Stravinsky’s piano transcription of “Petrouschka,” where, for a few measures, the piano does sound very much like a marimba.

The orchestra warmed up with the delightful Prelude and Mazurka from “Coppélia” by Leo Délibes (1815-1910), which first got me interested in ballet many years ago. It immediately conjures up grande jetés by Nureyev.

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

Never a Dull Moment in Dual Piano Concert

Dual Pianists Igor Lovchinsky and Matthew Graybil
Franco Center, Lewiston
Dec. 1, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

The final Piano Series concert of 2017, Friday at the Franco Center in Lewiston, was also one of the most entertaining and unusual.  Igor Lovchinsky and Martin Graybil performed works for two pianos as well as individual solos, without a dull moment in a well-diversified program.

They began with the original two-piano version of Ravel’s “Mother Goose Suite,” which is not heard often enough in this form. The composer wrote it for a friend’s two precocious children and it is not merely brilliant technically, but also a masterpiece of musical description. The pianists seemed to enjoy the glissandos and other fireworks of “The Fairy Garden” as much as the children must have, and the dialog between Beauty and the Beast was characterized perfectly.

Graybil’s turn as soloist was devoted to three movements of a piano version of “Petrushka,” which Stravinsky wrote for Arthur Rubinstein.  Stravinsky, like Bartok, regarded the piano as a percussion instrument and his transcription shows it, with fiendishly difficult rhythmical patterns. It also incorporates the composer’s most recognizable melodies while evoking the atmosphere of the most popular scenes of the ballet. Graybil realized it all perfectly, topping it off with a cooliing draft of Chopin—the Nocturne in B Major, Op. 62, No. 1—that illustrated his melodic as well as rhythmical gifts.

The first half of the program concluded with the Waltz from Anton Arensky’s Suite for Two Pianos (No. 1 in F Major, Op. 15), a glorious period piece with as many soaring decorations as a piece of baroque furniture, all of which were executed with appropriate grace and not the slightest hint of condescension.

After crepes and wine in the Center’s reception room, the program resumed with solos by Lovchinsky, beginning with an understated (for him) transcription of Bach’s “Nun Komm, der Heiden Heiland” by Ferruccio Busoni. That was followed by a Chopin Mazurka in A Minor, Op. 17, No. 4 and the famous Polonaise in A-flat Major, Op. 53.

Although it brought the audience to its feet, I found the tempo of the Polonaise a bit too fast for what is intended as a stately dance. The middle section, with its rapid pattern of descending octaves, should be a canter rather than a gallop.

My favorite of this segment was a Grand Fantasy on “Porgy and Bess” by pianist Earl Wild, based on “Summertime” and “There’s a boat dat’s leavin’ soon for New York.” It is a show-off piece for piano technique, but more important, it captures the character of Gershwin’s own improvisations.

The final work of the evening was a delightful “Scaramouche” for two pianos by Darius Milhaud (1892-1974), which ends in rousing samba. The encore, following a standing ovation, was a set of variations for two pianos on the “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” from Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker.”  Graybil said that it was written by a Cypriot pianist, Nicholas Economou, for himself and Martha Argerich.

The final concert of the 2017-2018 season will be on Mach 8, 2018, by Maine’s own Henry Kramer.

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

VentiCordi: Food for Thought

VentiCordi
Unitarian Universalist Church, Brunswick
Aug. 17, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

VentiCordi (Winds and Strings), is one of Maine’s hidden treasures. Founded by violinist Dean Stein and oboist Kathleen McNerney seven years ago, it is devoted to presenting the repertoire of chamber music written for winds and string instruments. In the process it uncovers a few masterpieces, some unknown works and some very strange ones. All are extremely well played by musicians who love them, and all are fascinating.

At the penultimate concert of the season —the last is tonight at South Congregational Church in Kennebunkport—they were joined by Bridget Convey, piano, Laura Jordan, percussion, and Gary Gorczyca, clarinet, in a selection of works that were primarily contemporary but always accessible. The opening piece, “Tangling Shadows” by Nathan Daughtrey, based on a poem by Pablo Neruda, was tonal, light and romantic. The duo of oboe, MacNerney, and vibraphone, Jordan, was a marriage made in heaven.

Lou Harrison (1917-2003) was an eccentric composer who studied with the equally iconoclastic Henry Cowell. His “Varied Trio,” for Violin, Piano and Percussion, is an eclectic romp that can be enjoyed by anyone. Its percussion effects, which include pitched rice bowls filled with water (not Sake), plucking on the piano strings and hypnotic drum patterns, were especially effective, and his “Rondeau in Honor of Fragonard” also honored Ravel, whose “Tombeau de Couperin” it rivals.

Even more unexpected was the Suite for Violin, Clarinet and Piano, Op. 157b, by Darius Milhaud (1892-1974) which has everything. The other day I disrespected the marimba as being incapable of tragedy. Its bass notes in the suite’s Divertissement proved me wrong, being lugubrious in the extreme, followed by a joyous fete in Jeu, and a totally jazzy Introduction and Final.

After intermission, the “Schilflieder” (Reed Songs) for oboe, viola and piano, of August Klughardt (1847-1902) sounded like Brahms after too many beers—sentimental, showing off gloriously obvious harmonies, and a florid piano accompaniment full of sturm und drang, giving Convey a real workout. It is easy to see why Klughardt was extremely popular in the last days of German Romanticism.

The composer, Stephen Michael Gryc, introduced his “Dream Vegetables” for voice, clarinet, violin and marimba, based on poems by Maggie Anderson, which depict not dreams OF vegetables, but BY vegetables, including exposure, falling, nightmare, insomnia, recurring and flying.

The poems are whimsical, and so are the sometimes minimalist settings, which nevertheless capture dream states unerringly. The bass marimba makes its appearance again in underground sequences. They were dramatically read by McNerney. In case you were wondering, it is the radishes who have insomnia, pacing up and down in their red and white pajamas.

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