Tag Archives: Portland Symphony

“Joy shall be yours in the morning…” PSO Does the Ninth

Portland Symphony Orchestra
Merrill Auditorium
April 25, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

Isak Dinesen once observed that there are three sources of joy: love, to have been in pain and be out of it, and to feel in oneself an excess of strength.. Each of these applies to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony , which ends with Schiiler’s “Ode to Joy,” gloriously performed by the Portland Symphony Orchestra under music director Robert Moody on April 23 and 25.

One suspects that people nowadays are desperate for any source of joy—witness sold-out houses at Merrill Auditorium on both days. But there is another source of joy that Baroness Blixen neglected to mention—what William James called the “oceanic” feeling— the experience of being one with the universe, or the universal brotherhood celebrated by Schiller, Beethoven and Karl Marx.

Universal brotherhood was a subversive concept during the Romantic period, with the aristocracy desperately trying to hold on to power in the face of the French Revolution. and other popular movements. Beethoven had pondered setting Schiller’s poem to music for over 30 years before he wrote the Ninth, and there is evidence that the poet originally intended his ode to be in praise of liberty, rather than joy.

Music doesn’t have to be about anything but itself, but there must have been a powerful impulse at work for Beethoven to devote all of his genius, for an extended period, to a work that he would never hear, except in his own mind.

The Ninth is such a monumental creation that it is seldom heard live. To pull it off, Moody had to recruit a quartet of fine soloists: Mary Boehlke-Wilson, soprano; Margaret Lias, alto; John McVeigh, tenor; and Philip Cutlip, baritone, willing to risk their voices in Beethoven’s impossible roles, the combined forces of the Oratorio Chorale, under Emily Isaacson and the Choral Art Masterworks, under Robert Riussell, plus the full orchestra devoted to a demanding score lasting over an hour.

Although there were a couple of strained points, inevitable in such an undertaking, Moody held everything together admirably. The soloists tackled the impossible successfully, and the combined choruses were able to hold their own against the orchestra gracefully, and to sing a monumental fugue without the muddiness that often accompanies large numbers of voices.

The result was tremendously moving, in spite of superfluous supertitles (there is not a single decent translation of the Schiller ode anywhere on the internet). After the final fortissimo the audience leaped to its collective feet instantly, with the accompaniment of cheers and foot stomping. No one wanted to leave.

In the face of the Ninth, the opening Samuel Barber Adagio for Strings seemed a little muted, at least in retrospect, but its selection to set the sombre opening mood of the Beethoven symphony was inspired programming.

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

Portland Symphony Excels at Norwegian Music

Portland Symphony Orchestra
Merrill Auditorium
June 21, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

Mainers love their Grieg. Merrill Auditorium was sold out Tuesday night for a performance by the Portland Symphony Orchestra of his “Peer Gynt” suites 1 and 2, plus modern Norwegian music of note.

Music Director Robert Moody was called away for personal reasons and assistant conductor Norman Huynh filled in admirably, both in the Grieg pieces and in supporting violinist and composer Henning Kraggerud.

The “Peer Gynt” suits are arguably the best known of classical music, right up there with “The Moldau” and the “1812 Overture.” They are charming, melodic, sad and ferocious, and the PSO played them as if they were brand new.

Like the “1812 Overture,” “In the Hall of the Mountain King,” from Suite No. 1, surprises every time by the inspired craftsmanship of its composition. It builds perfectly and uses orchestral color like Rimsky-Korsakov in one long, and tremendously exciting, crescendo. The last work on the program, it brought the audience to its feet.

The program began with the premier of an orchestration of Ola Gjeilo’s “Meridian” by Delvyn Case Jr. A highly rhythmic piece, it is an ostinato, built on a repeated musical phrase, like Ravel’s “Bolero,” which is directly quoted at one point. The ostinato, introduced by the piano, becomes submerged in the orchestra, which initially plays the melody over it, and finally transforms everything into itself.

The work is tonal, hypnotic and well orchestrated, and was given an enthusiastic response by listeners who had come to hear Grieg.

Kragerrud opened his violin performance with a lovely, and virtuosic, waltz by his great grandfather, Christian Sinding, a Norwegian composer and friend of Grieg who deserves to be better known. His work is certainly romantic, but it also has a cutting edge.

It was followed by excerpts from Kraggerud’s recent composition, “Equinox,” for violin and orchestra. To quote from a jacket blurb: “Equinox comprises four concertos – Afternoon, Evening, Night and Morning – each of which consists of six postludes, making 24 in all. These postludes are written in 24 keys and depict 24 hours and 24 time zones, taking the listener on a kaleidoscopic tour across the world and time, and journeying musically through the circle of fifths, beginning in C major. The postludes are by turn joyful, mournful, effervescent and heart-wrenching.”

They are all of that, and as inventive as Bach in “The Well-Tempered Clavier.” I don’t know which ones he played (there was no mention of “Equinox” in the program) but there was a long line at intermission waiting to buy a CD of the complete set.

At one point Kraggerud turned his back to the audience and presided over the violin section with the loudest notes I have ever heard emanating from that instrument. In an encore, the muted violin played over strumming from every section of the strings, sounding rather like a Balalaika orchestra.

One take-away from the concert-—every composition showed the influence of
Greig in some way or another. It was as if dissonant or 12-tone music had never existed. Which was fine with this audience, and perhaps many others.

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

A Symphony Worth Standing For

Portland Symphony Orchestra
Merrill Auditorium
Apr. 12, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

Audiences at Merrill Auditorium are notorious for giving standing ovations to solo performers, deserved or not, but not so much to symphonies. On Tuesday night, the custom was reversed.

Portland Symphony Orchestra principal hornist John Boden’s fine performance of the Hindemith Concerto for Horn and Orchestra received sustained applause, but no cheers. The Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 5 in E Minor (Op. 64) concluded with the most riotous, shouting ovation that I have heard in years.

The difference was guest conductor Stefan Vladar, who plays the orchestra like a giant Bösendorfer, (formerly the world’s largest and most prestigious piano). Vladar brings the passion,elegance and grace under pressure of a concert pianist to the role of conductor. His disciplined energy was evident from the first bars of the Mendelssohn’s “The Hebrides” (Fingal’s Cave), Op.26.

Vladar transformed an atmospheric work that often seems like plain vanilla into an exciting panorama that mirrored the young composer’s fascination with the changing vistas of the rocky Scottish coast. The secret was dynamic contrasts in volume and texture, and from agitato to dolcissimo and back again, over a strong, precise rhythm.

As a veteran of many hard-fought battles between pianist and conductor, he is also very good at supporting a soloist, as shown by the fine balance of the Hindemith concerto. That composer’s unusual orchestration, such as horn against piccolo and the final susurrations and conversation among equals of the finale, were brought out effectively.

Following intermission, one felt a little anxious for Boden who, after a grueling concerto, returned for one of the most exposed horn solos in the repertoire, the opening of the andante cantabile in Tchaikovsky’s Fifth. Like everything else in this stellar performance, it went off without a hitch.

The symphony was a perfect testimonial, if one is needed, to the necessity of live music. From the beginning clarinets which, after the opening measures return as a delicate obligato to the principal theme, to Boden’s horn calls, there emerged a multitude of fine details that could never be heard in a recording. And the final, titanic clash between the evil “X” and the life force, would have blown every speaker in the house, if the volume could ever have been turned up that high.

Somewhat too exciting for a young girl…but worthy of a sustained uproar, every section of a great orchestra performing in an exalted state.

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

A Craggy Rachmaninoff Third

Portland Symphony Orchestra
Merrill Auditorium
March 13, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

Overheard as the capacity audience left Merrill Auditorium on Sunday afternoon: “That was the best concert I’ve ever heard here.”

Well, not quite, but close. Music lovers jammed the hall to hear pianist Andrew von Oeyen Play the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 3 with the Portland Symphony Orchestra.

They were not disappointed, but it was music director Robert Moody’s programming of two unusual works before the concerto that made for a near-perfect afternoon.

The first was a mysterious agglomeration of eight works made sometime after 1956 by Dmitri Shostakovich, entitled Suite for Variety Orchestra No. 1. Some are straightforward marches and dances, with typical Shostakovich surprises and strange instrumentation..

Others are parodies of conventional waltzes, German bands and circus music. All are thoroughly delightful, but the waltzes take the cake, piling musical cliche on cliche until one expects the entire edifice to collapse under the weight of schmaltz. It doesn’t, and Shostakovich writes it all with a straight face, as if he were honestly trying to outdo Emile Waldteufel. One of them reminded me of Tom Lehrer’s “Weinerschnitzel Waltz,” with unlimited orchestral resources.

The orchestra obviously enjoyed it as much as the audience and its virtuosity at rapid tempo was little short of amazing.

Kurt Weill’s use of hackneyed forms, in his Suite from “The Three-Penny Opera,” was equally imaginative, but in the service of a darker vision. It was equally well played, especially the false fugue of the Overture and the flute and violin solos in “Polly’s Lied.” I had just written about Nico Muhle’s “Bright Mass with Canons,” and Weill’s concluding piece, “Kanonen,” with the same double meaning, was pure synchronicity.

Andrew von Oeyen’s rendition of the Rachmaninoff Concerto No. 3 was exciting and extremely forceful. His power, however, has both advantages and drawbacks. In the first movement the piano was often in danger of drowning out the orchestra, and a dynamic range starting at mezzo forte doesn’t leave much room for a crescendo. Fortunately, the pianist’s fortissimo is so strong that the climaxes still work.

On the plus side, von Oeyen worked well in some of the more delicate dialogs with other instruments, while his volume —and some idiosyncratic emphases— brought out passages obscured in most readings of this work. He also has the quick wit to get out of trouble unnoticed. The passion in the closing bars was palpable and brought tears to the eye and the audience to its feet instantaneously.

Then he spoiled the whole thing with an encore. An encore to the Rachmaninoff Third is bad enough, like putting catsup on foie gras, but the piece he chose had enough schmaltz to make Shostakovich proud. I wish guest artists wouldn’t do that, ruining the after effects of a masterpiece, but the practice seems to be becoming more widespread.

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

A Valentine from the Portland Symphony Orchestra

Portland Symphony Orchestra
Merrill Auditorium
Jan. 26, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

There’s always a spike in the birthrate nine months after the dead of winter, but October 2016 might show more fecundity than usual, due to the Portland Symphony Orchestra’s erotic tribute to Richard Strauss, Jan. 26 at Merrill Auditorium.

The program opened with the Beethoven Symphony No. 8 in F Major, Op. 93, part of the orchestra’s three-year Beethoven cycle. This was great music, well played, except for a bit of distraction at the opening of the Tempo di menuetto, but after intermission it was easy to see where the players’ hearts really lay.

Music director Robert Moody, after requesting no applause between selections, played four works by Strauss as if they were movements of a Romantic symphony, a conceit that worked quite well. The four, which portray various forms of eroticism, built up to a thunderous climax, with a brilliant performance of the final scene of “Salome,” sung passionately by soprano Patricia Racette.

The four were all closely related by Strauss’ unique sound–one of the marks of greatness–and by echoes of other works. The scoring of the final act of “Salome,” for example, recalls another image of despised love, in “Der Rosenkavalier,” but this time without the slightest hint of resignation. It is just Eros vs. Thanatos, and Thanatos wins, or does he? After Salome’s ferocious consummation, there’s nowhere else to go.

(Incidentally, I object to the slur on “Der Rosenkavalier” in the program notes. No, it isn’t Mozart, but something entirely different, and equally a work of genius.)

The first movement was the Prelude to Act. 1 of Strauss’ first opera, “Guntram,” (Op. 25). Influenced by Wagner and the ideal of the Teutonic knight, it has the sensual frisson of “Tristan und Isolde,” but better orchestrated and controlled.

The second, the love scene from “Feursnot,” is probably the world champion musical description of sex. H.L. Mencken would have proclaimed that it should not be played in polite company. It was perfectly (should I say lovingly?) rendered, down to the last high trumpet note.

Returning to the preliminaries was the “Dance of the Seven Veils” from “Salome,” (Op. 74), delightfully seductive, down to the falling whisper of the final garment. This is a work that used to be played more often. It runs counter to the modern predilection for instant gratification.

Racette was seductive, vicious, willful and wistful, clad in brown velvet, as Salome, triumphantly making love to the head of John the Baptist. Her voice, always clear and true, carried over the fortissimos of the orchestra effortlessly, and her portrayal of the various stages of emotion in the doomed heroine was mesmerizing. She and the orchestra received a well-deserved sanding ovation.

As Samuel Pepys used to say: “And now to bed.” Because “Music and woman I cannot but give way to, whatever my business is.”

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

Behind the “Alice” Symphony

When the Portland Symphony Orchestra released its plans for the 2015-2016 concert season, one item stood out: a symphony that commemorates one of the strangest love affairs in the history of music, between American composer David Del Tredici (b. 1937) and “Alice in Wonderland.”

Since 1968, a great deal of Del Tredici’s work has been devoted to the ‘Wonderland” books and their author, Lewis Carroll, beginning with settings of “Turtle Soup” and “Jabberwocky,” juxtaposed with a Litany and a Bach Chorale.

“Jabberwocky” might well appeal to a contemporary composer, with its musical use of nonsense and “portmanteau” words., but there seems to be a much deeper connection between Del Tredici and Carroll.

The key lies in Martin Gardner’s “The Annotated Alice.”

Gardner provides detailed historical background, sketches of the people involved and the originals of the Victorian poems that Carroll parodied. The combination of the original verses with their distorted reflections triggered something in the composer’s rebellious nature.

Del Tredici, born in 1937, has always been known as a maverick. In a musical world dominated by 12-tone serialism, especially at Princeton, where Del Tredici studied, he eventually returned to the music of Bach, Beethoven and the Beatles, prompting horrified reactions from the critics, followed by acceptance and eventually enthusiasm.

There was also a personal aspect to his fascination with the “Alice” books. When the composer was growing up, homosexuality could be punished by a prison term. The great American composer, Henry Cowell, was sentenced to 10 years for such an offense. Carroll’s affection for little girls, such as Alice Liddell, may have seemed equally transgressive.

The first large-scale work to emerge from this inspiration was “An Alice Symphony,” (1969) which the Portland Symphony Orchestra will play on November 10. One of its most famous sections is “The Lobster Quadrille.” The composer’s original program notes about its construction provide an idea of his methods of work on the “Alice” material:

“What particularly caught my fancy in this scene was the possibility of musically blending together both its humor and it grotesquerie.” For this effect he added a mandolin, a banjo, an accordion and two saxophones. “These are very common instruments indeed; however, in the more rarified symphonic realm their presence is somewhat bizarre, and creates a juxtaposition suggesting to me a kind of musical equivalent to the special atmosphere of the dramatic scene.”

Finding what the composer calls the “folk instrument group” of the quadrille may have the PSO scrambling, but they already have a good ukulele player in hornist Nina Allen Miller, who founded the ukulele group FLUKE.

The quadrille also employs the human voice, accelerando, to portray the lines: “‘Will you walk a little faster?’” said a whiting to a snail. “‘There’s a porpoise close behind us, and he’s treading on my tail.’”

Del Tredici set himself a contrapuntal problem in its composition: “that of writing two different sections (Dance I and Dance II) which would make musical sense not only separately but also when superimposed one upon the other.” In ordinary contrapuntal writing, two or more musical lines are superimposed harmoniously. To superimpose two separate compositions is orders of magnitude more difficult.

The result, according to Harry Neville of the Los Angeles Times, requires no knowledge of counterpoint to appreciate: ”The music is suffused with infectious good spirits — a rare quality these days — and altogether struck this listener as one of the most successful attempts yet to combine ‘serious’ and ‘popular’ musical elements.”

”An Alice Symphony,” written when Del Tredici was initially exploring the possibilities of combining tonality with dissonance, is the most modern sounding of the four symphonic works.

The “Acrostic Poem” for soprano in “The Final Alice” (the last of the four full-length “Alice” works), is written in triads (three-note chords), like a Beatles song. The aria does descend into chaos at the end, but is pulled back by the soprano counting slowly, in Spanish. “An Alice Symphony” is of particular importance since it marks Del Tredici’s initial break with academic tradition in music.

A special aspect of its performance in November will be a staged accompaniment by dancers from the Portland Ballet Company, with choreography by Roberto Forleo. Part of the Portland Symphony’s program of collaboration with local arts groups, it promises to be spectacular.

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

A Musical Enormity: PSO Tackles the Berlioz Te Deum

Portland Symphony Orchestra
Merrill Auditorium
Oct. 11, 2015

To paraphrase Lady Bracknell: “A work crowded with incident, I see, but somewhat too loud for Merrill Auditorium.” The Berlioz Te Deum, performed by the Portland Symphony Orchestra before a large audience on Sunday, Oct. 11, is the 19th Century equivalent of a boombox. A few minutes more and the result would have been mass hearing loss.

During the final Judex crederis (the last judgement), tenor René Barbera, who has a rich, powerful voice that could fill La Scala, was totally drowned out by the massed forces of a full orchestra (with plenty of harps), the Kotzschmar Organ, played by Ray Cornils, and three large choruses-—the Masterworks Chorus of the Choral Art Society, the Boston Children’s Chorus, and members of Shannon Chase’s Vox Nova Chamber Choir.

The Te Deum begins with orchestra and organ exchanging fortissimo chords like the blows of heavyweight boxers at the beginning of a bout, and continues that way until all parties, including the audience, are exhausted.

There are a few respites, most notably the great tenor solo in Te ergo quaesumus, but for the most part Berlioz simply tries unsuccessfully to outdo, in volume and cataclysmic dramatics, his opening passage.

The composer gives the organ every opportunity to demonstrate its magnificence—the first performance, in 1855, commemorated the installation of a new organ at the church of Saint-Eustache in Paris, during that year’s World’s Fair—but is much less successful in the few pensive moments of the score, when the chosen organ stops sound like background music at a funeral parlor. An organ always sounds like an organ, no matter what its maker is trying to imitate.

There is not much attempt to differentiate the choruses, although the children’s voices and Vox Nova stood out at times, and there were some characteristic Berlioz effects, such as an unusual interaction between the brass choir and the basses. There was also a fine, distinctive Latinate chant in the Christie, rex gloriae.

The entire Te Deum was beautifully performed, by all parties, but as Ravel said of his Bolero, ”unfortunately, it is not music.” Still, like a performance of the Bolero, the audience, this writer included, enjoyed it immensely, as evidenced by a prolonged standing ovation.

I urge anyone who can do so, to get a ticket for Tuesday night’s (Oct. 13) performance. This is music that can only be experienced live, and it will probably not be heard again in Maine for a very long time.

Music director Robert Moody paired the Te Deum with a charming performance of the Beethoven Symphony No. 1 in C Major, Op. 21, emphasizing its similarities with the work of his predecessors. The minuet movement, which is supposed to mark Beethoven’s break with tradition, sounded like something straight from the pages of Haydn.

I mention this about the symphony only because it was so odd: a pizzicato note from the violin section before Moody indicated the downbeat. The first time was merely a regrettable error, but it happened again before the minuet. Not enough to spoil anything, but a little intrusive nevertheless, and perhaps rattling to other musicians.

A Spectacular Opening for the Portland Symphony Season

The first concert of the Portland Symphony Orchestra, Oct.11 at Merrill Auditorium in Portland, promises to be a study in contrasts. The two major works on the program will be the Beethoven Symphony No. 1, another in the complete cycle of the Beethoven symphonies now being performed by the PSO, and the Berlioz Te Deum, a study in gigantism that makes Louis Moreau Gottshalk’s concert piece for 64 pianos seem like child’s play.

The Beethoven, while it appeared to contemporaries a wild departure from the norms of Haydn and Mozart, has more similarities with than differences from the classic style. Like the first Beethoven piano sonata, it is a delightful piece, clearly in the tradition of Haydn and Mozart, with just enough innovation to presage what would come later. Both works are characterized by delicacy and refinement, two adjectives not generally applied to Beethoven.

One wonders why Maestro Robert Moody decided on what seems to be an arbitrary sequence of the symphonies, instead of presenting them in chronological order to trace Beethoven’s evolution as a composer. He did not spring full-blown from the brow of Minerva.

The motivation behind the selection of the Berlioz Te Deum is clearer—the success of last year’s performance of his “Symphonie Fantastique.” There is also the completion of the multimillion-dollar restoration of the Kotzschmar organ.

Berlioz dreamed for two decades or more of a gigantic military symphony to celebrate a coronation, or a wedding, or a victory over the Prussians, but eventually had to settle for the opening of a Paris World’s Fair in 1855, complete with the christening of a new organ. (Hence the prominence of that instrument in the score, which might have influenced Saint-Saëns Symphony No. 3.)

The sequence of movements more or less follows the form of the Latin mass sung on special occasions, with the composer’s own alterations. The orchestra and chorus at the premiere numbered either 900 or 950 (accounts vary).

Berlioz had the odd notion that a melody which might be rendered ordinary by a single voice would become sublime when sung by 50. He had been intrigued, during a visit to London, by a work sung by 6,500 “children of the poor,” and the Te Deum includes three distinct choruses—one a large children’s chorus— plus a tenor soloist.

For the PSO performance, the orchestra will be joined by tenor René Barbera, the Boston Children’s Chorus, the Choral Art Society and members of the Vox Nova Chamber Choir.

It should be quite a spectacle, enough to hold one’s interest for 45 minutes (even without the two sections reserved for military performances).