Tag Archives: Ravel

Festival Fireworks

Bowdoin International Music Festival
Studzinski Recital Hall
July 4, 2018
by Christopher Hyde

Due to the July 4 holiday, a smaller crowd than usual heard some fireworks of their own at Wednesday’s concert of the Bowdoin International Music Festival at Studzinski Hall. The display took the typical “sandwich” form, with a contemporary work, John Harbison’s (b. 1936) Sonata No. 1 for Violin and Piano, between two popular classics.

The program began with the Mozart Violin Sonata No. 32 in B-flat Major (K.454), with the viola, played by Masumi Per Rostad, substituting for the violin. The piano part, played by Chiao-Wen Chang, often dominated the performance. Whether this was due to Mozart’s wanting to show off his skills in front of a visiting virtuoso, or to differences in the sound and articulation of the stringed instruments, is unclear. One listener likened it to a waltz between a dolphin and a manatee.

The viola came off best in the song-like Andante, but there were a few fireworks in the final Allegretto, with some rapid-fire exchanges that would have been difficult enough on the violin.

The Harbison, played by Ayano Ninomiya, violin, and Tao Lin, piano, contained aerial bombs in the form of a brutalist (and virtuoso) ostinato of rapid-fire chords in the Rondo, the fourth and semi-concluding movement, since the sonata tapers off in a final “Mysterious Postscript.”

The  five-movement work begins with an intense and uncompromising Sinfonia, but loosens up substantially as it goes along. The second movement, Intermezzo: Grazioso, has a pleasant conversation in stacatto utterances between the violin and piano.

The piece de resistance, however, was the great Piano Trio in A Minor of Maurice Ravel, which contains everything but the kitchen sink, as if the composer suspected that he would die in the Great War, which he almost did. There are echoes of “La Valse,” ghosts from “Tombeau de Couperin,” Basque themes and Malaysian music,al forms, which influenced both Ravel and Debussy. Somehow, it all comes together gloriously

Like the Mozart sonata, the trio generally leans toward the piano part, but Alan Chow kept it under control, even in the virtuosic Pantoum; Assez Vif, (and in spite of a wolfish bass string in the Steinway. ) He was partnered brilliantly by David Bowlin, violin and Ahrim Kim, cello. A complete fireworks display from set pieces  through pinwheels to multiple rocket bursts. The students in the audience cheered and the rest gave it a rare standing ovation.

Coming up next Wednesday is the sui generis “Quartet for the End of Time” by Olivier Messiaen.

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

Dimmick Excels in Barber Violin Concerto

Portland Symphony Orchestra
Merrill Auditorium
Feb. 11, 2018
by Christopher Hyde

Guest conductor Paul Polivnik did a fine job with the Portland Symphony Orchestra Sunday afternoon at Merrill Auditorium, when Music director Robert Moody was unable to officiate due to the death of his father.

Polivnik, currently music director and conductor emeritus of the New Hampshire Music Festival, has worked with many of the world’s leading orchestras and,  in spite of a few technical glitches by individual players, was able to get the best out of the PSO at short notice, earning several standing ovations.

The high point of the afternoon was a performance of Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto, Op. 16, by concert master Charles Dimmick., who was equally at home in the first two lyrical movements and the fiendish finale.

There is still some controversy about this work, the violinist who commissioned it having turned it down because the finale was too difficult. Critics have said that the explanation can’t be right, since the violinist in question was a virtuoso, but knowing Barber’s piano works—and witnessing Dimmicks prestissimo fingering,— I find the explanation quite satisfactory.

A more important question is the fit of the final presto with what has gone before. No one seems to have noticed the gaelic flavor of the first two movements, with a jig-like motif appearing now and then, even in those funereal sections that are indicated by the beat of a muffled drum. Perhaps the concerto is an American “Death and Transfiguration,” with the flight of the soul portrayed by vastly increasing the tempo of fragments introduced earlier. I loved the ending, with a piano glissando leading up to the final abrupt note on the violin.

Whatever the explanation, the performance by Dimmick was utterly convincing, overcoming some significant lapses in Barber’s orchestration. You do not pit the solo violin against trumpets, the French horn maybe, but not the massed brass, unless you want a string fortissimo to disappear. Polivnik was able to ameliorate the worst of the excesses, but they were still obvious.

The other “modern” work on the program, “Alternative Energy” by Mason Bates (b. 1977), although well played (I think), was not as successful. I could not read all of the program, so I imagined each of the four movements as depicting forms of energy—Fords Farm, the automobile, Chicago, wind power, Xinjiang Province, solar, and Reykjavick, geothermal. Amid the blurts, rumblings and squeaks, the program worked pretty well, down to the recorded seabird calls stolen from Rutavaara’s “Cantus Arcticus.”

It turns out that the symphony depicts an historical dystopia in which a Chinese nuclear plant blows up and the remaining humans, living in a rain forest in Iceland, long for the days of the Model T. Close enough. Syncopated chords tossed around the orchestra get old fast.

The concluding “Bolero” was a miraculously controlled crescendo, with a few nicks in the paint consisting of muffed entrances, which tend to stand out like a sore thumb in Ravel’s orchestration. It nevertheless deserved its own standing ovation.

As usual, the opening work on the program, Brahms’ “Academic Festival” Overture, made me long for college days, which were actually among the more miserable of experiences. Next time, I’ll go to Heidelberg, drink lots of beer and emerge with a duelling scar.

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

Midcoast Symphony Rises to Three Challenges

Midcoast Symphony Orchestra
Franco Center, Lewiston
Oct. 21, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

I heard the glorious final bars of “The Fairy Garden,” the last piece in Ravel’s “Mother Goose Suite,” as I was ascending the stairs to the auditorium of Lewiston’s Franco Center. (A recent survey showed that a majority of Midcoast Symphony Orchestra supporters preferred 7:00 to 7:30 as a concert starting time. I didn’t get the memo.)

It was an appropriate beginning to a program of masterpieces in orchestration. Perhaps masterpieces is not the exact word. The works chosen by conductor Rohan Smith were more like a test to determine how much an “amateur” orchestra could handle. The members of the Midcoast, privatum et seriatum, passed with flying colors.

The Ravel suite, his orchestration of a set of four-hand piano works, ranks with his transcription of “Pictures at an Exhibition” in subtlety , tone color and innovation, ending with a climax that shakes the rafters.

The Hindemith “Metamorphoses on Themes by Carl Maria von Weber,” is equally demanding, but more eclectic. Hindemith seems to be trying to outdo his contemporary Bartok in unusual instrumental combinations and a heavy-handed use of percussion. (The percussion section has always been one of the Midcoast’s most reliable.)

Hindemith, however, lacking the genius of Ravel or Bartok, overloads his score, sometimes to the point of muddiness, when no one can decide which way to go. A fermata or two would be nice. HIs choice of von Weber melodies also seems odd. There are many of that composer’s tunes that would be more suitable for orchestral variations.

All is redeemed, however, by the final march-like tune from von Weber’s incidental music to “Turandot,” which supposedly stems from China. Wherever it came from, it crowns the entire work, and the Midcoast attacked it with renewed gusto. I haven’t head he final fugue rendered any better.

The instrumentation of Dvorak’s Symphony No. 6 in D Major, while more traditional, is almost as dense, seeking to emulate his mentor Brahms and his predecessor Beethoven. Could I also have detected a smidgen of Tchaikovsky-like whirling snow music? The  flavor, however, is distinctly Dvorak, even in this, his first published symphony. He is not quite as daring in his use of Czech folk materials (except in the Furiant), but there is more than a hint of the “Slavonic Dances.”

The symphony exposes strings, woodwinds, brass and percussion shamelessly, including the Brahms-like French horn, but there was not a single off-color note. Bravo!

I urge anyone interested in well-performed classical music to attend today’s (Sunday, Oct. 22) repeat performance at the Orion Perfuming Arts Center in Topsham, 2:30 sharp.

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

A Grand Display of “Pictures at an Exhibition”

Portland Symphony Orchestra
Merrill Auditorium
Sept. 26, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

The first concert of the Portland Symphony Orchestra season at Merrill Auditorium began with an orchestral version of “The Star Spangled Banner,” a tribute, as music director Robert Moody observed, to all of those afflicted by climate disasters in the U.S. and its Caribbean territories.

The arrangement was followed appropriately by a rhythmic and well-executed “Danzón No. 2 (1994) by contemporary Mexican composer Arturo Márquez. I had heard this work before, played by an orchestra stemming from the Venezuelan program “El sistema,” and the Northern version seemed just as authentic and exciting. Enjoyable fluff, with enough contrasts in texture to make it interesting.
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It is impossible to write a concerto for organ and orchestra, but German composer Hans-Andre Stamm gave it a try in 1998, basing the three movements on portions of the 23rd Psalm.
“Impossible” because when the organ is loud enough to hear, it drowns out the orchestra, and vice versa. The sounds of the instrument and and those of individual sections of the band are too similar to provide much contrast, and in a battle for dominance the Kotzschmar will always win.

Both the orchestra and organist James Jones gave it the best possible performance, with some of the tranquil passages —“He leadeth me beside still waters”—miraculously well balanced.
The style of the work, a tonal combination of neo-Romantic and church music, did not help to overcome the sonic difficulties, and it was hard to understand how the concluding middle Eastern dance music fitted into the scheme of the psalm.

The organ does have its uses in a symphony orchestra, as proved by the tremendous conclusion of the Mussorgsky/Ravel “Pictures at an Exhibition:’ “The Great Gate of Kiev.” When I play it on the piano I always wish for a larger Steinway, or maybe a Bosendorfer, but Moody had an ace in the hole with the Kotzschmar. Just when you think the ultimate in sonority has been reached, in comes an organ pipe and moves the earth.

At the time of writing, I have been unable to discover whether the Ravel transcription includes the organ or whether it was borrowed from Stokowski’s later, more “Slavic” version. Whatever the case, it belongs there.

The other “pictures” were equally well rendered, conjuring up images like no other music, from the groaning of an ox cart to the surreal “Hut on Hen’s Legs” and its brilliant percussion. In “With the Dead in the Tongue of the Dead,” the skulls begin to glow..

At the conclusion, the standing ovation was so long that Moody left the stage and allowed the orchestra members to receive it all by themselves.

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

Franco Center Piano Series Opens with Innovations

David Fung, Pianist
Gendron Franco Center, Lewiston
Sept. 22, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

One of the most unusual concerts in many a season opened the 12th annual piano series of the Gendron Franco Center in Lewiston Friday night. Its innovations were matched by the quality of the performances by pianist David Fung and Daniel Moody, countertenor.

The first half of the program was devoted to piano works with unusual (or zero) rhythmic patterns, beginning with the Mozart Sonata No. 5 in G Major, one of the complete Mozart sonata cycle that Fung is compiling for the Steinway “Spiro” high-resolution player piano.

It was followed by “Impressões Seresteiras,” W.374, by Heitor Villa-Lobos, a compilation of “street songs” in 3/4 time, which manages to be avant-garde and nostalgic at the same time.

The “Île de feu, 1” from “Four Studies in Rhythm” by Olivier Messiaen, has no bar lines at all, its rhythm being dictated by the feel of note patterns. Under Fung’s hands,it was a tour de force of technique, complete with one of the composer’s beloved bird calls (I think it was a blackbird).

Fung, who holds a doctorate from the Yale School of Music, and has taught there, prefaced each work with revelatory remarks. In describing his arrangement of Ravel’s “La Valse,” he noted that the work has been compared to Poe’s tale, “The Masque of the Red Death,” and occasioned a challenge to Ravel by choreographer Serge Diaghilev, who had commissioned the work. The duel, apparently, was never fought.

Whatever the work’s history, Fung’s arrangement captures its brooding nature perfectly, in a manner even more virtuosic than the popular two-piano transcription.

After intermission, Fung accompanied countertenor David Moody in works by Dowling, Handel, and contemporary William Bolcom, all which were thoroughly delightful. Countertenors combine the power of the male voice with the vocal range of a mezzo-soprano. They were most popular in heroic roles at the time of Purcell, but they seem to be making a welcome comeback nowadays. Moody is one of the best. He also showed a sense of humor in the very short Bolcom pieces, one of which consists of two lines: “I’ll never forgive you. For my behavior.”

Fung concluded the program with a brilliant interpretation of Schubert’s great “Wanderer” Fantasy in C Major, D. 760. After this grueling effort —Schubert himself and a hard time with it—Fung managed a spritely encore of a Scarlatti Sonata in D Minor.

If I had any quarrel at all with the pianist’s approach, which was technically flawless, it would be with a young man’s typical predilection for speed, and abhorrence of seeming to “drag.” Some passages need a little more time to breathe, even at the expense of metronomic time.

I have written his before, but it bears repeating: the Franco Center’s piano series is the best kept secret, and the foremost value ($10.00 for seniors) of any concert series in Maine. The talent is always of the highest order, the venue is comfortable, with fine acoustics, the ladies serve crepes at intermission, and one can chat with the performers over champagne after the concert. The music starts at 7:00 to accommodate younger students.

The next artist to appear in the series will be French pianist Hélène Papadopoulos, on Friday, Nov. 3.

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

True Virtuosity at the Franco Center

Igor Lovchinsky
Franco Center, Lewiston
Nov. 11, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

A detour caused by a traffic accident on Route 9 made us late getting to Lewiston’s Franco Center for a recital by Russian-American pianist Igor Lovchinsky. I was sorry to have missed his performance of two popular works by Ravel, but if his interpretation of other masters is any indication, the Ravel must have been spectacular.

Lovchinsky has the bravura technique of Horowitz, without the attitude. What other young concert pianist is about to receive his doctorate in physics from Harvard?

He was introduced to the Franco Center’s piano concert series when he joined Matthew Graybil for the New England premiere of Walter Piston’s Concerto for Two Pianos Solis.

Although Lovchinsky can spin cascades of notes with the best of them, his technique is at the service of an innate musicality. This was particularly evident in his rendition of the Prokofiev Sonata No. 4 in C Minor, Op. 29, in which the development of the themes was always audible through the thunder and lightning. Prokofiev’s unique voice, in which he sometimes seems to be mocking the virtuoso tradition, came through loud and clear, with echoes of both “Peter and the Wolf” and his piano suite “Visions Fugitives.”

After intermission, the pianist showed why he has become a noted interpreter of Chopin, winning the National Chopin competition of the Kosciuskko Foundation at the age of 19. His renditions of the Nocturne No. 20 in C-sharp Minor (Op. post.) and the Impromptu in A-flat Major, Op. 29, were intimate, without taking overly Romantic liberties. As Chopin recommended, the left hand always marched, no matter the rubato of the right.

The great Ballade No. 4 in F Minor, Op. 52, demonstrated both overwhelming power and perfectly timed development toward the climactic measures. (Both of them.).

I mentioned Horowitz at the beginning because of Lovchinsky’s programming of two fiendishly difficult works by Mily Balakirev (1837-1910) — “The Skylark,” based on a song by Glinka, and his Oriental Fantasy “Islamey.” They reminded me of similar impossible show pieces (played by Horowitz) by Alkan or Godowsky.

The difficulty of “Islamey,” which has been adopted by many famous pianists, can be gauged by the fact that Scriabin injured his hand practicing it.

It is based on three Circassian themes which sound strangely like Alexander Borodin, but decorated so lavishly that they almost disappear. That they were perceptible among Lovchinsky’s coruscating fountains of notes, is a greater accomplishment than being able to execute the ornaments themselves.

Having been to concerts of this series in the past, I was not surprised by the caliber of the music but by the relatively small size of the audience. Where else in Maine can one experience world-class performances, for a very low ticket price, in a fine concert hall, have delicious crepes at intermission and share a glass of champagne with the artist afterward? Unfortunately, the next event in the series won’t be until January 20, with Maine pianist Christopher Staknys.

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