Tag Archives: PCMF

Portland Chamber Music Festival Ends on a Happy Note

Portland Chamber Music Festival
Hannaford Hall, USM
Aug. 19, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

Alban Berg, serialist of “Wozzek” fame, is not a composer one normally associates with the theme of “happily ever after.” HIs “Seven Early Songs” (1905-1908), however, depict the progress of a successful love affair that is not only consummated but fades away into an everlasting summer sunset.

It was lovingly rendered by soprano Tony Arnold, with Diane Walsh, piano, in the final concert of the Portland Chamber Music Festival, Saturday night at Hannaford Hall.

Although the songs are more late Romantic than 12-tone in style, no one goes home whistling their melodies, as Berg’s teacher, Schoenberg, hoped would have happened by now. Perhaps the upbeat theme of the set is behind it, but they seem less dark in feeling than their models by Richard Strauss, some of which we heard last week at the Salt Bay Chamberfest.

Berg, however, is a master at creating an emotional universe to encase a poem, and Arnold, a noted interpretor of “modern” composers, recreated the atmosphere of each precisely. I would like to hear her interpretation of the later “Altenberg Leider.”

Ironically, a contemporary work by David Bruce (b. 1970), “Gumboots” for Clarinet and String Quartet, (2008), was more easily accessible. The unfortunate title (think of galoshes), refers to the boots that South African wage slaves had to wear in flooded mines, and which they employed to develop a sort of covert rhythmical language.

“Gumboots,” commissioned by clarinetist Todd Palmer, who played it at the concert, consists of five lively dances and an interlude, which the composer sees as the “abstract celebration of the rejuvenating power of dance, moving as it does from introspection through to celebration.”

Each dance is a polyrhythmic romp on the strings, supporting an incredibly virtuosic clarinet part, heavily influenced by traditional African musical forms. Although there is little “progress” through the movements, each was great fun, with the only atonality occurring in some of the clarinet’s grace notes.

The evening concluded with the closest approach to a string orchestra (12 players) that I have heard at a PCMF concert, in the Dvorák Serenade in E Major, Op. 22.

Unless one were familiar with this early work, it would be difficult to tell, except for the last movement, that it was by Dvorák at all. Some of it sounds weirdly like Borodin. The orchestra was sometimes in need of a conductor, but it was still a pleasant, if not memorable experience, and was received with a standing ovation by the large audience.

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

Darkness Visible. Olsen Trio’s “Sounds Unseen”

Olsen Trio
“Sounds Unseen”
Space Gallery, Portland
Sept. 29, 2015

Portland’s Space Gallery needs an airlock. Just when one is accustomed to listening to music in (almost) total darkness, somebody has to leave the theater, and the blast of light through the open door dashes a bucket of cold water on a mystical experience.

Otherwise, the Olsen Trio’s “Sounds Unseen” concert, performed Tuesday night under the auspices of the Portland Chamber Music Festival, was an unqualified success. A capacity audience was so enraptured by the experience that it remained silent for several minutes after the musicians stopped playing and somehow illuminated themselves in a ghastly green light.

The trio consists of Magnus Boye Hansen, violin, Steven Walter, cellist, and Mathias Susaas Halvorsen, piano, and yes, they also play in the dark. Most musicians can feel their way around a keyboard or frets without looking at their fingers, thus eliminating the bobblehead “marionette effect” when playing from a score. It’s when huge leaps are required at rapid tempo that things become tricky in the dark.

This was never a concern, in spite of some extremely demanding music by contemporary composers Peteris Vasks, Alfred Schnittke and Arvo Pärt. The only non-contemporary work on the program was a part of J.S. Bach’s Violin Sonata in G Major, played by Hansen after distancing himself from the other members of the trio.

The heightened ability to determine the location of a sound was just one of the uncanny effects of listening in darkness. Another was increased alertness. Normally, closing one’s eyes to eliminate distractions can lead to drowsiness. When you can see nothing with eyes wide open, the sense of hearing is highlighted without signaling to the body that it’s time to go to sleep.

The blackness, which one soon gets used to, becomes a canvas on which to project images—in the case of Baltic and Scandinavian composers, lots of moving water, masses of ice, shimmering shards of broken glass and sometimes birdsong, as in the final “episodi e canto perpetuo” of Vasks, which has echoes of Olivier Messiaen’s “Catalogue d’oiseaux.” (As pointed out by a member of the astute and enthusiastic audience).

The stars of the show, however, were the instruments themselves, every sound of which became clarified, singly or in combination. I could have listened to the bass string of a cello playing a single note for the rest of the evening.

The Portland Chamber Music Festival’s Space Gallery casual concerts are rapidly becoming a Portland institution. This one, presented in partnership with The Iris Network, was even more special than usual.

A Brave New Work at Portland Chamber Music Festival

Portland Chamber Music Festival
Hannaford Hall, Abromson Community Education Center
USM Portland
Aug. 20

Thursday night’s concert of the Portland Chamber Music Festival at Hannaford Hall was a journey from the drawing room to the music school to the wide world.

The drawing room was represented by a work that Mozart wrote for performance by his friends, the Quartet in A Major, for Flute and Strings, K. 298, a charming piece based on popular tunes of the day, easy enough to be played by gifted amateurs.

It is a thoroughly charming and graceful gift, with the first violin of the typical string quartet replaced by the flute, played by Laura Gilbert.

It raises the question of traditional string quartet make-up. The flute, in the hands of a musician like Gilbert, would seem to offer more versatility and opportunity for contrast and tonal color than another violin, but the combination never caught on. The example of Haydn? The ubiquity of the fiddle? Someone has probably written a doctoral thesis on the subject.

Which brings us to the schoolroom and Debussy, who wrote his Premiere Rhapsody as a test piece for students of the clarinet. Debussy could not approach a five-finger exercise without making it into a musical jewel, and the Rhapsody is no exception.

Clarinet virtuoso Todd Palmer, one of the resident artists at this year’s festival, has arranged the piece for chamber orchestra of flute, harp, violins, viola, cello and bass. It sets off the clarinet solo very well, even though it sometimes sounds more like “La Mer” than an exercise.

Palmer also played a key role in the piece de resistance of the evening, “Ayre,” by Osvaldo Golijov (b. 1960), with the composer in the audience. Palmer played a bass clarinet duet with the French horn, one of the high points of the song cycle.

“Ayre” takes the notion of fusion a step further than other composers, adding the element of historical time to the juxtaposition of musical cultures. The result of combining Renaissance voices with Piazzolla’s Argentinian tango and Sephardic or Arabic styles, is passing strange, but always musical, while conveying moods from tender love to rage. Some of the effective taped backgrounds evoke scenes from the Arab Spring.

The 11-piece band, or orchestra, sounds like a suk on steroids, if readers will pardon the cliche. Everything seems risen from the level of Arabic street musicians to the stage at the Intergalactic Cafe. There is even a “hyper-accordion,” played by Jose Lezcano, that has the power of a reed organ and something of the character of Piazzolla’s beloved bandoneon. (Golijov was brought up in Argentina.)

I’ve saved the best, soprano Ilana Davidson, for last. Her voice is both powerful and melodious, a more rare combination than one might think, and her portrayal of moods in the 11 songs that make up “Ayre” gives the juxtapositions extraordinary power. She also has the vocal elisions of Sephardic and Arabic music down pat, as difficult a feat as singing the ornamentations in Handel.

Golijov shared in the well-deserved standing ovation.

The festival finale, ending in the Brahms Quintet in F minor, Op 34, will be on Saturday (Aug. 22) at 7:30 PM.