Tag Archives: Richard Strauss

PSO Shows Versatility in Well-Received Concert

Portland Symphony Orchestra
Merrill Auditorium
Jan. 30, 2018
by Christopher Hyde

The Portland Symphony Orchestra, now in its final season under music director Robert Moody, hit the trifecta Tuesday night at Merrill Auditorium with three winning performances of modern, late Romantic and classical works. Moody even threw in a bonus not on the program, the quartet from Mozart’s “Idomeneo.” with Maine singers.

The program began with “Eating the Flowers” by American composer Hannah Lash (b. 1981), who was in the audience.
The work is an homage to several late 19th and early 20th Century composers. The “flowers” are their particular styles, especially of orchestration, without reference to recognizable melodies. The more long-limbed passages are supported by a driving rhythmical pattern (or “chug or in modern musical parlance), with the harp, of all instruments, front and center. The instrumentation results in beautiful gong-like effects that reminded me of Debussy’s use of gamelan music. It was much better received than most contemporary works, and its composer deserved her applause.

It was followed, after the “Mozart Moment” from “Idomeneo,” by his Piano Concerto in D-minor No. 20, Opus 466, with pianist Henry Kramer. I am not a great fan of the Opus 466, which seems more dramatic than musical, but Kramer made it sound better than it is.
The balance between orchestra and soloist was well-nigh perfect, especially in the dialogs between the piano and woodwinds.

The cadenzas, by Beethoven, were spectacular.

I reviewed Kramer’s version of the “Elvira Madigan” (Mozart Concerto No. 21) a while ago, and found it technically flawless but without much Romantic sensibility. He still has a little way to go in that repertoire, but took the bit in his teeth during the third movement, forcing the orchestra into an ultra-rapid and exciting tempo. The audience loved it, as they did his more relaxed and flexible encore of the Brahms Romanza, Opus 118, No. 5. Both received a standing ovation.

Finally came a colorful reading of Richard Strauss’ “Ein Heldenleben,” an orchestral tour-de-force that the PSO negotiated (almost) perfectly, and with a wide dynamic range.

The brasses are the heroes of this work, but the brightest star was concert master Charles Dimmick’s violin solo depicting the hero’s love interest. The orchestra, and its various sections, received a standing ovation, but Dimmick received cheers as well. HIs performance of this difficult part combined brilliant technique with emotional depth, plus the ability to stand out against Strauss’s massed horns.

Moody’s interpretation was exciting in the sections depicting struggle and victory, but he was also able to turn the hero’s departure from this world into a moving portrait worthy of “Tod und Verklarung.”

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

Operatic Pops Take On New Luster at MIdcoast

Midcoast Symphony
Franco Center, Lewiston
March 18, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

Mark Twain would have loved Saturday night’s concert of the Midcoast Symphony Orchestra at Lewiston’s Franco Center.

Twain famously remarked that the trouble with opera was sitting through interminable periods of non-musical scene-setting to get to the good parts. On Saturday, the orchestra, under the direction of guest conductor Eric Hewitt, played nothing but the good parts.

One striking aspect of the performance was how much the good parts are sort of a Cliff’s Notes of the opera as a whole, epitomizing , if not the plot, then the emotional atmosphere of the work. Could it be that the composer himself merely used the libretto as an excuse for whatever arias he had in mind?

The Intermezzo from Puccini’s “Manon Lescaut,” for example, tells all one needs to know about the principal character and her fate. It was lushly Romantic and tragic at the same time, played with just the right amount of reserved emotion and tragic portent.

The orchestra entered into the spirit of the works, all quite familiar, with much more enthusiasm than is characteristic of professional (by that I mean for-pay) ensembles. Their interpretation of the “Liebestod” from “Tristan und Isolde” should never have been allowed in mixed company. It is the most graphic depiction of intercourse, raised to the level of religion, ever composed. The climactic measures were earth-shattering,  the best I have ever heard, (and I dislike Wagner with equal passion).

Another aspect of these operatic works is the extreme difficulty of the orchestration. Many of them were re-composed as display pieces, poster children for the operas themselves. Richard Strauss’ Waltz Sequence No. 1 from “Der Rosenkavalier,” (Opus 139), which concluded the program, is the orchestral equivalent of a Godowski piano transcription of “The Blue Danube,” by another Strauss, quite impossible to play. The Midcoast did it anyway, and aside from a few minor glitches, managed it admirably, once again creating a perfect impression of the opera as a whole, as well as illustrating Strauss’s excessive love of the French horn.

I could hear Baron Ochs, besieged in a tavern by a flock of his illegitimate offspring, shouting “Papa. papa,” and muttering to his servant: “Leopold, wir gehens.”

The longest work of the evening was BIzet’s “Carmen” Suite, No. 2, in an arrangement by Ernesto Guiraud which includes some of the lesser-known interludes. It was also very well played, with an authentic Spanish-French flavor and virtuoso work by the trumpet and piccolo.

The regular conductor of the Midcoast, Rohan Smith, was playing in the violin section. I don’t know if he will appear at this afternoon’s concert at the Orion Center in Topsham, but it will be well worth attending in any event.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal, He can be reached a 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.