Tag Archives: Rachmaninoff

A Spectacular American Debut for Ukrainian Organist

Elena Udras, Organist
Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul, Lewiston
Oct. 4, 2018
by Christopher Hyde

You haven’t lived musically until you have heard “The Great Gate of Kiev,” from Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition,” played on a world-class pipe organ. One is immersed in a sea of sound surpassing that of a full orchestra.

Such was the case Thursday night at Lewiston’s Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul as Ukranian organist Elena Udras made her American debut.

Well-known in Europe, Udras is also an accomplished transcriber and composer for organ. Her “Song of a Dolphin,” as played on Thursday, is a tour-de-force of watery imagery that should have been the theme song of TV’s late lamented “Flipper.”

The famed 1938 Casavant organ in the Basilica is a treasure, now being restored, helped by donations at concerts during the Spring and Summer. Under Udras’ capable hands (and feet) it did not seem in need of much help. She calls it “an inspiration.”

The program began with religious works by Ukrainian and Russian composers who deserve to be better known in this country. Their settings of a Sanctus Dei and Ave Maria compare favorably to those of composers in the Western tradition.

More “modern” sounding were two fine symphonic fugues by Igor Asseive (1921-1996). and “Carpathian Meditations” by Valeri Kikta (b. 1941), which had a true regional flavor, somewhere between Bartok and Borodin.

They were followed by a lugubrious Passacaglia by Shostakovich, based on themes from his opera “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk,” highly unusual in its use of a low bass stop as the primary voice.

Like that of the Great Gate of Kiev, Udras’ transcription of the famous Rachmaninoff Prelude ini C-sharp Minor made it seem to have been written specifically for the organ, giving its sonorous bell-like chords their full value.

The following “Waltz of the Flowers,” from Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker,” was ponderous, like the dance of an elephant, perhaps indicating that new electronics might make the Casavant capable of a little more rapid response. It was, however, quite elegant in its own way.

Speaking of rapid response, a Toccata by Vladimir Nazarov (b. 1952) was a fantastic (and ferocious) sequel to the great Bach Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, adding more and more voices and themes to the first familiar bars until the edifice was just of the verge of collapse—and rescued in the nick of time. So spectacular that it should be looked at for next year’s concert series by the Bach Virtuosi in Portland.

The program concluded with a sentimental “When Blue Mountains Sleep,” by Anatol Kos-Anatolsky. and long applause from the audience standing and turning to face the organ loft.

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

A Tribute to Youthful Enthusiasm at Bowdoin

Bowdoin International Music Festival
Studzinski Recital Hall
July 20, 2018
by Christopher Hyde

An evening of youthful effusions made for a bumpy ride Friday night at Studzinski Hall as the Bowdoin International Music Festival entered its final two weeks.

The early opus numbers by Rachmaninoff and Brahms had the virtues and defects of their kind, while “Space Jump” (2013), Opus 46 of Fazil Say, explored the brave new world of classical mixed media, with mixed results.

Say, a Turkish piano prodigy and well-known composer, wrote “Space Jump” to memorialize the descent of daredevil Felix Baumgartner from the stratosphere to earth, during which he seems to have exceeded the speed of sound (not that of light, as stated in the accompanying video clip, which really would have been spectacular). He landed alone in desert scrubland, which made me worry about rattlesnakes.

The musical depiction, for piano, violin and cello, would have been fine on its own, rather like a transcription of “Also Sprach Zarathustra” for music box, but was accompanied by a rather pedestrian video and even worse text. Years ago, I was one of those who thought a poet should be the first man in space, but alas, it was not to be.

What spoiled it completely, however, was the logo of an energy drink on the space suit and its name dominating the film credits.

The evening began with the Rachmaninoff Trio élégiaque No. 1 in G Minor, written when he was 19, but not as a memorial to Tchaikovsky, although one of its themes is an inversion of the first four notes of that composer’s Concerto No. 1.

It shows a lack of experience in writing for strings, but already has the characteristic Rachmaninoff sound in the dominating piano part. Its best section is the concluding funeral march, in which the muted bass of the piano perfectly supports a melodic duet of violin and cello.

The Brahms Piano Quartet No. 1 in G Minor, Op. 25, which concluded the program, was written as a display piece, with flashy show-off sections that must have made the composer blush in later years. It gave his friend Clara Schumann a fine vehicle for her virtuosity.

Whether because of the composer’s youthful exuberance (and plethora of themes), or lack of rehearsal time, the performance seemed lacking in continuity. The piano part, played with bravura by Yong Hi Moon, took center stage, with two movements ending in solo cadenzas. The final one, a fiendishly rapid czardas, brought the house down, as Brahms intended.

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

Portland Symphony’s Apotheosis of the Dance

Portland Symphony Orchestra
Merrill Auditorium
May 13, 2018
by Christopher Hyde

Once in a great while there comes a relatively unknown work that is truly worth reviving. The Concerto in A Minor for Violin and Orchestra, Opus 82, by Alexander Glazunov (1865-1936). is a prime example. As played by the Portland Symphony Orchestra under Daniel Meyer, with violinist Chee-Yun, Sunday afternoon at Merrill Auditorium, it brought something new to late Romanticism, with a voice all its own.

The first section of the concerto seemed a little hum-drum, with statements and development of not very memorable tunes. Then came a very long and technically ferocious cadenza, managed superbly by the soloist. It was followed by a peal of thunder and trumpet calls, and it was off to the races.

Glazunov explores just about every instrumental combination in the book at a high rate of speed, somewhere between a quick march and a jig. The violin quizzically answers massed trumpets, plays duets with various sections and imitates the oboe, all of it held together beautifully by the forgotten opening melodies, transformed by the faster tempo.

A tour de force, and something new under the sun to anyone who had not heard the work before. Then Chee-Yun spoiled it with an encore– a piece of prestidigitation (Recitative and Scherzo by Fritz Kreisler) without any redeeming musical value. Any lasting enjoyment of the concerto, replaying its beauties in the mind, was obliterated. Chee-Yun, who has a fine musical sense as well as technique to burn, should have known better, and Meyer, one of three finalists for the post of PSO music director, should have talked her out of it.

As a young romantic, I imagined impossibilities, such as taking the great hornist Dennis Brain on a fox hunt to perform the calls, or getting the Philadelphia Orchestra into the pit for a performance of “Swan Lake” by the Bolshoi Ballet (even though their own orchestra was pretty good). Meyer’s version of a suite from “Swan Lake” fulfilled more than half of the dream, conjuring up elegant images at every bar.

The music is divinely Romantic, without an ounce of the cuteness that sometimes mars “The Nutcracker.” The violin solo by concert master Charles Dimmick was worth the price of admission; when combined with a cello part, played by David Paschke, it was little short of spectacular. Every part of the suite was danceable, although the tempo in Czardas was a trifle fast.

I have always had a problem with Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances, Opus 45. HIs last works, they seem less inspired than autobiographical. It is fun trying to identify all the snippets of previous works, the orchestration is striking, and the emotion obvious, but they fail to move one like the concertos or the earlier instrumental pieces, such as “Isle of the Dead.”  Speaking of which, the dances comes alive in the finale with a ferocious treatment of the Dies Irae. It finishes with a prolonged cymbal clash which may, or may not, portray the soul leaving the body.

I won’t go so far as to say that Meyer made the music sound better than it is, but he and the orchestra gave it the best possible reading.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. 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.