Tag Archives: Purcell

Grief and Glory at Salt Bay Chamberfest

Salt Bay Chamberfest
Darrows Barn, Damariscotta
Aug. 14, 2018
by Christopher Hyde

There are many fine classical music festivals in Maine during the summer, but if I had to choose just one, it would be the Salt Bay Chamberfest at Darrows Barn (in what used to be the Round Top Center for the Arts) in Damariscotta.

Founded by cellist Wilhelmina Smith 24 years ago, it always manages to present unusual programs performed by leading artists, in a hall with excellent acoustics.

Tuesday night’s program by the Brentano String Quartet was no exception, although it strayed from the theme of this year’s festival, which was “Troubadours and Tangos,” featuring the guitar and its ancestors.

The theme of the firs half was musical lamentations, which has a tenuous relationship with troubadours in that professional mourners, including musicians, were often hired to express a family’s grief at the loss of a loved one. The earliest examples consisted of two strangely chromatic pieces from 1611 by Carlo Gesualdo (1566-1613). They may have been prompted by remorse, but one doubts it. Gesualdo is best known for killing his wife and her lover and then displaying their bodies as an example of what happens to adulterers.

Probably the most famous example in music is Purcell’s “Dido’s Lament” from “Dido and Aeneas” (1689) which opened the program in a sensitive arrangement for string quartet.

Haydn made it into the category with two of the movements from “Seven Last Words of Christ “(Op. 51) of 1787. It is fascinating to hear how a genius injects musical interest and psychological depth into what could be merely mournful. Just one example is the repeated five-note phrase based on the words “consummatum est” from the final movement. It eventually becomes triumphant.

Shostakovich introduces a note of eroticism to the form in his Elegy (1931), based on a soliloquy from his banned opera “Lady MacBeth of Mtsensk,” in which the heroine laments that she will have no more lovers.

The exploration of grief ended with a work by an obscure French composer, Guillaume Lekeu (1870-1894), a Molto Adagio, written when he was 17, that shows considerably more than promise. Lekeu died of Typhoid Fever at the age of 24.

After intermission, the quartet was joined by pianist Thomas Sauer for the Piano Quintet in F Minor (1879) of César Franck. One could not have devised a greater contrast with what had gone before. The quartet is grand, passionate, sweeping, a little mysterious, and very knobby.

It was played brilliantly throughout, but by the final movement—a grande valse that must have influenced Ravel—there was no doubt who was in charge. There is a strange coda-less ending that may have had something to do with the fact that Franck and Camille St.Saëns, who premiered the work as a pianist, were both in love with student Augusta Holmes. Anyway, St. Saëns is said to have thrown the score into the trash, I wonder what he saw in the notes?

The Darrows Barn audience liked the piece much more than did St. Saens and gave it a well-deserved standing ovation.

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

St. Mary Schola Offers a Believable Orpheus

St. Mary Schola
Cathedral Church of St. Luke
June 13, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

Quick, name an opera with a happy ending. Against the parade of those one knows will end badly, I can think immediately only of “Der Freischutz” and Gluck’s “Orpheo ed Euridice.” The former ends with the hero undergoing a year of probation, and the latter with a dance in the temple of love, after a deus ex machina, Amore, reverses the tragedy.

The excerpts from “Orpheo,” performed Tuesday night by St. Mary Schola at St. Luke’s, fulfilled Mark Twain’s dream of an opera composed entirely of the parts you have to wait too long for: Orpheus’ journey to Hell, his charming of the vengeful spirits, his rescue and loss of Eurydice, and the reuniting of the lovers by Amore, plus nymphs and shepherds at the end.

(Someday, when I figure out the mechanics of it, I’m going to post the dawn serenade of our Airedale and his Golden Doodle friend, which makes Gluck’s Cerberus music seem tame.)

All the sung parts, the chorus and the orchestra of period instruments, plus guest artist Virginia Flanagan on harp, were uniformly excellent, but the surprise of the evening was the voice of counter-tenor Christopher Garrepy, which suddenly made understandable the use of that range by Purcell and his contemporaries for heroic roles.

In Gluck’s scoring, the counter-tenor voice, as clear and resonant as a classic mezzo-soprano, but with a feeling of reserved power, is ravishing, taming the Furies like Daniel Webster’s oratory to the damned in Hell. His aria, “Che farò senza Euridice,” was worth the price of admission.

Garrepy was well supported by soprano Erin Chenard, a believably jealous Eurydice, and soprano Molly Harmon as a no-nonsense, take-no-prisoners Amore. The final dance-like stanzas by soloists and chorus in the Temple of Love were as delightful as Gluck meant them to be.

The first half of the program, though equally well presented, was not as satisfying to modern ears, although the scenes of dancing around the Maypole, and some risqué verses, were often charming. I find the part singing of Morley, Dowland and their contemporaries on the continent a bit puzzling. The polyphony is intricate but it has no nodes—points were the vocal lines converge into harmonic chords. The melodies are not the sort one goes home whistling.

That the disconnect is the fault of the modern ear was borne out by the increasing sense of familiarity with time, in works by Purcell and Monteverdi. The latter contends with Gluck as the inventor of modern opera, and his dance music in “Il Ballo” is equally good.

The final concert of the St. Mary Schola Spring Series, “A Musical Banquet,” will be 7:30 p.m., June 16, at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Portland, It should not be missed.

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.