Tag Archives: Portland Symphony Orchestra

Youth Takes Center Stage at PSO’s Final Concert

Portland Symphony Orchestra
Merrill Auditorium
May 16, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

There’s an adage that used to appear regularly on office walls, to the effect that “Youth and skill are no match for old age and treachery.”
Sometimes youth and skill do win out, however, an example being last night’s concert of the Portland Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Marcelo Lehninger, 31, and featuring violinist Alexi Kenney, 23.

It’s too bad that Lehninger is already spoken for (by the Grand Rapids Symphony) or the PSO’s search for a music director would be over. He elicited the best performances from individuals, and the orchestra as a whole, of any conductor I have heard in recent years. while Kenney’s performance of that old chestnut, the Bruch Concerto No. 1 in G Minor for Violin and Orchestra (Op. 26) made it sound better than it is.

Kenny has superb technique, but even more important a melodic gift that was perfectly suited to the Bruch. His dynamics have a complete range, but are understated, a characteristic that Lehninger’s conducting compensated for perfectly.

The concerto was so well played that it moved the capacity audience to a loud and long-lasting standing ovation…unfortunately, since that led to a solo encore. No,no, no..

You have just created the ideal mood intended by a great composer and you have to spoil it with a gnarly etude (Piazzola Tango Etude No. 3) that can’t compare musically and indicates only that the artist is showing off? For shame. This new post-concerto custom needs a holly stake driven through its heart.

The program began with a light hearted romp through Mozart’s Overture to “The Marriage of Figaro,” marred only by a pedantic program note that insisted on calling the composer “Amadè.” I’m sorry if Wolfgang never used the name Amadeus, but that’s what he will be called, now and forever, amen.

A  primary characteristic of youth made the Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 6 in B Minor, Opus 74, an experience to remember: daring.

At the very beginning, Lehninger called out individual solo voices in a way I have never heard before, then combined them into a musical shape like dots in a pointillist painting. The fermatas were long, some of the sounds almost inaudible, but always portentous.

The drums in the opening movement were the most powerful since the French Revolution, and the march a terrifying epitome of fascism. Lehninger also left no doubt that the final movement, which just peters out, is a suicide note.

The Sixth is both tragic and pathetic, but the performance Tuesday night was also hopeful, showing that no matter how familiar a work is, it can always be heard and performed in new, but nevertheless effective, ways by coming generations.

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

An English Deutsches Requiem at the PSO

Portland Symphony Orchestra
Merrill Auditorium
March 13, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

The change of date, from March 14 to March 13 to beat an oncoming blizzard, didn’t seem to affect attendance at Merrill Auditorium for the Portland Symphony Orchestra’s Lenten program.

It wasn’t billed as Lenten, but that was the impression given by three Christian religious works, played without intermission, backed by the combined forces of the Choral Art Society and the Oratorio Chorale, plus two soloists: baritone Troy Cook and soprano Twyla Robinson.

Music director Robert Moody began the program with a Bach Chorale, “Kumm süsser Tod,” transcribed for full orchestra by Leopold Stokowski. (Disclaimer: I met Stokowski once many years ago when he came to Kodak looking for a grant to stage the Scriabin “Poem of Fire,” complete with light organ to be built by us. He was turned down.)

The chorale is one of Bach’s inspired shorter works, but everything transcribed by Stokowski sounds like, well… Stokowski. Given the state of world affairs, I’m not sure that the sentiment in the title is one that should be widely promulgated.

“Come sweet death” was followed immediately by “In Paradisum,” for orchestra and chorus, by Dan Forrest (b. 1978). It was pleasant enough, well played and sung in traditional harmony, but bears the same relation to religious music as Bob Jones University (which commissioned the work) does to Christianity. It descended into kitsch with a part for handbell ringers in the aisles.

Now we come to the meat of the evening, the great Brahms “Deutsches Requiem,” one of the most profound expressions of religious sentiment ever written, by a man who wasn’t very religious himself.

Only God knows why the work was sung in English. Brahms chose the passages from the Lutheran Bible himself, and the music was written to fit them—as beloved of the Germans as the King James Bible is of us— certainly not English.

With supertitles, one can follow the text perfectly well, no matter what language is being sung. So why the translation? Incidentally, the supertitles in both the Forrest and the Brahms, were their usual ham-fisted selves, complete with misspellings.

Moody put Robinson on the balcony for the movement that was written to commemorate the death of the composer’s mother,  in which she seems to communicate with him. It was a nice touch, but the spotlighted singer could not be seen from under the left balcony overhang, and her part seemed to emanate from somewhere in the chorus. Both she and Cook have clear, well-projected voices, which would have been a delight to hear in German.

The orchestra was on its best behavior, but needed to expand its dynamic range beyond mezzo-forte to piano.

The combed choruses, under the direction of Emily Isaacson and Robert Russell, were fine, but could have been a little smaller, for better focus, and shifted toward the bass end of the spectrum.
Still, I would walk miles in the cold to hear the Requiem sung by a high school choir, and the audience agreed, giving the performance a for-once-deserved standing ovation.

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

Oratorio Chorale: A Bach Festival Preview

Oratorio Chorale
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Brunswick
Feb. 26, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

It would be advisable to buy tickets immediately to the Portland Bach Festival ,June 19-24. The first one, in 2016, was an immediate success, and the Oratorio Chorale’s “Bach+” concert on Sunday, a sort-of preview of the summer programs, was sold out.

As usual, director Emily Isaacson coordinated the Chorale’s chamber singers, guest artists St. Mary Schola, and a baroque trio, into one virtually flawless program. It was short, a little over an hour in length, but fully revealed the grandeur of both J.S. Bach and his predecessor, Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672).

The integration of a baroque ensemble—Bruce Fithian, organ continuo, Timothy Burris, lute and Philip Carlsen, cello— with the chorus and soloists, was particularly well thought-out. For example, in the support given bass voices by the cello.

I hesitate to point this out, once again, but no chorus in Maine has yet developed a powerful enough bass section. Perhaps our current deepening relations with Russia will improve the situation. A Chaliapin pedal point would be paradise enough.

The otherwise astute program notes did not identify soloists in specific sections, but those with individual bass voices were well balanced. Of particular note was the Schola’s artist in residence, soprano Mary Sullivan.

I came to hear the Bach “Jesu meine Freude,” (BWV 227) one of my favorites, and to learn more about Schütz and his “Musikalische Exequien,” which is said to have influenced Brahms’ “German Requiem,” coming up soon at the Portland Symphony.

But I was amazed by the longer, more operatic Schütz work, which, like most of Bach, puts to rest any notion of “progress” in music. It is a dialog between Man and God, illustrating both poetry and Biblical verses, and is unfailingly interesting in its variety of vocal combinations, never the same twice. It also builds continually in intensity to a conclusion of chorus, Seraphim and the Holy Ghost, the latter three voices emanating from the organ loft at the back of the church.

Some of the musical effects are almost tactile, as in the begging repetition of “Lord, I will not let You go except You bless me.”

Both the Bach and the Schütz proceed rapidly through the German verses, without that bane of my youthful existence, the worrying of a phrase over and over, like a dog with a bone, prompting one to mutter “Can’t we just get on with it?”

What is there to say about Bach, who combines melody, inventiveness, technical perfection and architectural elegance in one diamond-like whole? (With a little numerology thrown in for good measure.) The fugue in the middle of the motet is one of his masterpieces, interweaving four voices so that polyphony generates celestial harmony.

Could the chorale, No. 9, have been studied by Mahler, who also employs the phrase “Gute Nacht” to good effect in “Des Knaben Wunderhorn?”

Both the baroque works, which welcome a Christian death, are considerably more cheerful than most of Mahler.  Strange, when one considers that they both originate in the Lutheran tradition, which is said to have generated the aphorism: “It’s always darkest before it gets darker still.”

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

The Ghost of the Piano

Portland Symphony Orchestra
Merrill Auditorium
Feb. 14, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

The Portland Symphony Orchestra’s Valentine’s Day concert at Merrill Auditorium could have been billed as ”A Study in Black and White.” Music Director Robert Moody chose one of Beethoven’s most light-hearted (and least popular) symphonies, No. 2 in D Major, Opus 36, and paired it with Rachmaninoff’s darkly Romantic Symphony No. 2 in E Minor, the “Wuthering Heights” of music.

One doesn’t hear the Beethoven No. 2 very often, perhaps because it’s sort of a musician’s in-joke, which can’t be appreciated by the general public. It is fun to listen to, but lacks the emotion and spirituality of the others.

Some one once said to me, rather dismissively, that “music is not a religious experience,” to which I replied, as Woody Allen pointed out in another context: “It is if it’s done right.”

The orchestra gave the symphony a technically flawless performance, but they too seemed to lack passion. On the other hand, everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves, especially in that section of the Scherzo where a theme is tossed around between sections like a hot potato. The larghetto, which is more of s Spring song than a tragic reflection, was delightful, its bird calls a precursor of those in the Sixth Symphony.

A disclaimer here: the Rachmaninoff is one of my favorite works, perhaps because I first heard it performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy, which was world-famous for its string section.

Hearing it live once again, however, gave me an insight for the first time. It is not a symphony at all, but a piano concerto without piano. Anyone who plays the instrument can imagine a tremendous piano part fitting in perfectly beside or above almost every note of the score. There is even space in its heavenly length for the most brilliant and imaginative cadenzas you can invent.

The other-worldly clarinet solo in the Adagio, perfectly performed by Principal Thomas Parchman, shows where Rachmaninoff’s mind lay, although the clarinet gave him a better sostenuto than the piano to work with.

Speaking of heavenly length, the finale goes on so long that it was sometimes cut for performance. Not so this time, and one hoped it would go on forever. (Note: I have been informed that some, I hope minor, cuts were made to the original score for this performance.. Hope none of them was the real climax.)

Rachmaninoff was pre-occupied with musical climaxes, insisting that one must be found and built up to in every work, even if the composer had left it out. The finale of the symphony has at least five or six, leading the listener to wonder if he suffered, like Bruckner, from anorgasmia.

Moody chose the last one, fortissimo, leading to a standing ovation and the thanks of all the Valentine’s Day couples in the audience.

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

A Traditional “Magic of Christmas”

Portland Symphony Orchestra
“Magic of Christmas”
Merrill Auditorium
Dec. 9, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

Perhaps it’s the world situation, but the Portland Symphony Orchestra’s “Magic of Christmas” concert, on Friday’s opening night at Merrill Auditorium, seemed more movingly traditional than usual, emphasizing the orchestra and chorus, with a remarkable soprano, Elizabeth Marshall.

It was the first time I had seen the new assistant conductor, Andrew Crust, who did an admirable job as master of the Magic of Christmas Chorus, and in alternating as orchestral conductor with music director Robert Moody.

Tania Holt and Alexander Fedorchev, of Cirque de la Symphony, held the audience spellbound with their athletic feats on silk fabric 30 feet above the stage. Their duos were romantic enough to provoke a comment from Moody to the effect that the audience would either rush out to take gymnastic lessons or buy a Harlequin Romance.

As usual, the arrangements of Christmas favorites were a mixed bag, ranging from pedestrian—Anderson’s Christmas Festival Overture— to superb —the Rutter/Adam “O Holy Night,”—marred only by an unnecessary modulation in the second verse.

I would go to this concert again (December 10, 16, and 17 at 2:00 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., Dec. 11 and 18 at 1:00 p.m. and 5:00 p.m.) just to hear Marshall’s sweet but powerful voice hitting the high notes of “O Holy Night” without effort.

She also appeared in another French traditional song, “Quelle est cette odeur agréable?” with the Magic of Christmas Chorus, and in the Rouse arrangement of “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” I prefer the more common tune, whether original or not, but will accept the alternative if it leads to another soprano solo over massed chorus and orchestra.

An unexpected combination of voice and orchestra was especially effective, pairing a section from Ravel’s “”Ma merè l’Oye,” “The Enchanted Garden,” with a contemporary Life of Christ read dramatically by Mathew Faberge.

Crust’s work with the chorus was outstanding, although the large, traditional group of 108, still needs a few more good bass voices. It was particularly good in an up-tempo “Hallelujah” chorus, for which the American audience stood like good subjects of King George.

The desire of that audience for some old-fashioned Christmas cheer was apparent in the concluding Christmas Carol sing-along, which was enthusiastic, with some audible evidence of part singing.

Judging from the reaction of the children seated near me, this year’s production holds attention very well, even without Santa Claus.

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

Sibelius Fifth Fails to Rise

Portland Symphony Orchestra
Merrill Auditorium
Nov. 20, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

A work that almost becomes a horn concerto was a fitting tribute to principal hornist John Boden, who will be retiring at the end of 2016 from the Portland Symphony Orchestra, after a career spanning 35 years.

Sunday affernoon’s concert began with a fine performance of Richard Strauss’ “Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche,” Op. 28, in which the hero is introduced, and sometimes portrayed by, a horn motif. Till is everyone’s lovable rascal, and his “merry pranks” contrast some of Strauss’ most elegant and noble melodies with slapstick orchestral carryings on.

When the law eventually caches up to Till and sentences him to the gallows, the scene-—perhaps a parody of Berlioz” “March to the Scaffold” in Symphony Fantastique—- is transformed from tragedy to comedy by a silly little tune on the flute, like the dropped handkerchief final bars in “Der Rosenkavalier,” indicating that all is well and his spirit lives on.

The Strauss was followed by Prokofiev’s Concerto No. 1 in D Major for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 19, in a brilliantly realized rendition by Benjamin Beilman. I couldn’t detect a single missed note in the fiendishly rapid and difficult score, which includes some really unusual dissonant double stops. More importantly, the young violinist realized the emotional content in some of the most lyrical passages Prokofiev ever wrote. The final extended note that concludes the work was pure magic, earning Beilman one of the rarely well-deserved standing ovations bestowed by a full house at Merrill Auditorium.

Prokofiev’s genius shines through every bar, but his use of the harp’s metallic, bell-like sound, against the sostenuto of the violin, was something I had never heard before, once again illustrating the necessity of live performance.

After two well-played masterpieces,, the orchestra’s performance of the great Sibelius Symphony No. 5 in E-flat Major, (Op. 82) was a disappointment.

It began well, with a first movement full of the composer’s northern pantheism and the pedal point of the forest. (Sibelius liked Niagara Falls for its really low notes.). In contrast the second movement was cheerful, in its playful handling of a five-note motif on plucked strings.

The final movement, although it had some high points, was a failure. It is one of the longest and most glorious crescendos in orchestral history, and its gradual, almost imperceptible increase in volume portrays the great awakening of Nature. Perhaps conductor Robert Moody wanted to try something different from the traditional reading, but under his direction the gradual ascent to Olympus became more of a sine wave of ups and downs, totally dissipating the effect of the climax. The overlong rests in the concluding bars were icing on a fallen cake, completely over the top.

It, too, received a standing ovation.

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

Bluebeard’s Triumph

Portland Symphony Orchestra
Merrill Auditorium
Nov. 1, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

Tuesday night’s concert of the Portland Symphony Orchestra, under Robert Moody, was a study in contrasts.—two works of supreme genius. one a breathtaking accomplishment in modern orchestration and the other an example of how much can be accomplished with minimal resources.

The Bach Concerto in D Minor for Two Violins and String Orchestra (BWV 1043), with soloists Amy Sims and Sasha Callahan, must have been one of his favorite works, since he transcribed it for two harpsichords as well. It could be described as a vehicle for showing off the virtuosity of the composer and his sons if the soloists did not have so much fun playing it.

Sims and Callahan exchanged lines, phrases and ideas, and then combined them with pure delight, accompanied by just the right amount of basso continuo and with enough difference in sound quality to maintain their individuality. The result was heaven on earth, and all too short.

Sims is assistant concertmaster of the PSO, and Callahan a member of the violin section. Both have extensive experience in solo and ensemble playing with major orchestras and chamber music groups throughout the U.S.

Bartok’s early opera, “Duke Bluebeard’s Castle,” (Opus 11), while it ends badly for the new wife, Judith, sung by soprano Michelle DeYoung, is not a tragedy. Bluebeard has not murdered his three former wives, as she suspects, but merely sequestered them in his mental library—the seventh door— from which, as a poet, he can recollect them in tranquility.

Bluebeard, sung by bass-baritone Alan Held, loses his hopes for a soul-mate, but seems quite aware of how the story would end. Judith is the gentle darkness, following wives representing morning, noon and twilight. Bluebeard praises all of them in his dramatic closing lines.

Both protagonists were perfect for their parts: Judith, at first demanding and finally resigned, and Bluebeard exuding power and hope without hope. The opera requires acting as well as voice to carry the action forward, and the duo had ample amounts of both, plus a feeling for the philosophical framework of the libretto.

Had the drama been even more desolate, the opera still could not be termed a tragedy, since the orchestra is triumphant throughout, with some of the most brilliant writing ever committed to a score, and that includes Rimsky-Korsakov and Stravinsky. The music that accompanies the triumphant opening of the door upon Bluebeard’s domains is sui generis, a paean to Bartok’s love of country even as its clouds rain blood.

The complex orchestration that produces the magnificent effects of the opera has best been described by composer Ned Rorem (on the music of the “Lake of Tears” door): “Yes, I see on the staves that one flute and one clarinet repeatedly rise and fall at great speed in close harmony backed by three other flutes flutter-tonguing, while one harp glissandos and another arpeggiates in close harmony with a celesta backed by muted strings divided into a thick A-minor triad—-all of this pianississimo. But could I have guessed that the simultaneous hollow soughing stems from the sustained intoning of two low horns a fifth apart, doubled by a kettledrum chord and a large gong? Fifty separate human players produce his pale whisper…”

Try to hear that on a recording.

All in all a tremendous performance and a daring one, totally effective, even without staging. Its 55 minutes, like those of the opening Bach concerto, passed by all too rapidly.

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

“Duke Bluebeard’s Castle”

“Duke Bluebeard’s Castle”
by Christopher Hyde
Oct. 25, 2016

“Behind every great fortune is a crime.” I used to repeat that quote from Balzac to get a rise out of my friends in New York, who were utterly convinced that great wealth was an outward sign of inner virtue. But that was long ago and in another country, and besides, the wench is dead. Today the quote is a truism, and I thought of it only in connection with the Portland Symphony Orchestra’s production of “Duke Bluebeard’s Castle” on Nov. 1, a daring must-see presentation if there ever was one.

Volumes have been written about the opera, Bartok’s earliest stage work. (The final version was written in 1921.). Like Brahms, he found it difficult to summon up the requisite stupidity. It is most probably an allegory of the artist’s relations with the world, the castle being his mind, and his final wife the public. Bartok was feeling very alone at the time, striking out in new directions that were not very well received, if at all. In a letter to his mother he stated his belief that he would be alone forever.

In the opera, every door that the new wife, Judith, opens, reveals something beautiful but awful—the jewels are stained with blood and the lake is composed of tears. The last chamber, which contains the wraiths of former wives, holds nothing but darkness. The dark secrets behind each door are portrayed by a minor second chord.

Intellectually, the blood represents the pain and struggle of the composer to realize his visions—something he wishes to conceal from his audience, as an artist destroys his preliminary sketches.

There is another reading, however, that also makes sense. Bartok was becoming increasingly alarmed by the rise of fascism in Hungary and wanted to show, on some level, that all of its promises, and the great fortunes of a few, were tainted by blood and tears, and eventually would come to nothing except destruction. As the man, Bluebeard, reveals more and more, the woman, Judith, becomes weaker and weaker, finally vanishing into the darkness, while her husband (in his vocal line) becomes ever stronger.

With its use of folk idiom to portray the tragedy, the opera can also be read as “curiosity killed the cat.” The story of Bluebeard, and woman’s frailty, is as old as the hills.

Bartok’s vision of the castle is dark indeed, but the music, which owes a great deal to Debussy, raises it to the level of Greek tragedy. In this silly season, we could all use a good catharsis.

And there is always the delightful Bach Concerto for Two Violins—also on the program— to remind us that there is still goodness on the earth.

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