Tag Archives: Schumann

The Best and the Brightest at Bowdoin

Bowdoin International Music Festival
Studzinski Recital Hall
July 31, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

The Ying Brothers’ strategy of presenting some of the world’s finest string quartets (including their own) at the Bowdoin International Music Festival, seems to be paying off. The Monday night concerts, at which most of the groups appear, have been sold out for weeks.

When I was a student, I was advised that string quartets were the highest form of music, enjoyed only by the cognoscenti. Maine seems to have a lot of cognoscenti, since I heard another quartet, at the Sebago-Long Lake Music Festival, play the Schumann Piano Quintet in E-flat Major, Op. 44, which concluded Monday’s program, just a week before.

Last night’s performance, by the Borromeo String Quartet, saw Studzinski Hall so full that ranks of students were seated on both sides of the stage, as at an old Vladimir Horowitz concert.

I did not care for the quartet’s use of glowing lap-top computer scores, but that is merely the personal prejudice of a confirmed Luddite.

The first notes of the Mendelssohn String Quartet No. 2 in A Minor, Op. 13, proclaimed that the audience was in the presence of something special. The harmony of four instruments, each with its own timbre, was so startlingly clear and precise that one could have listened to that chord for the entire evening.

Fortunately, that time warp did not happen, but the familiar score took on new meaning, with an emphasis on polyphony, and other characteristics of the late Beethoven, that influenced the young composer—right down to infuriating false cadences. The quiet ending held the audience spellbound for a moment before the first applause. (Or were they expecting another fake ending?)

My favorite of the evening was the String Quartet No. 1 (“Metamorphoses Nocturnes”) by Györgi Ligeti,  a highly imaginative and resourceful work that requires the utmost virtuosity. Unlike the motifs in much “contemporary music,” the germ that generates all of the metamorphoses is easy to follow. Violinist Nicholas Kitchen referred to it as “slime crawling upwards,” and pointed out that, unlike Waldo, it is everywhere. It is also capable of generating some beautiful patterns, including a Viennese waltz. The work owes a great deal to Bartok’s Nocturnes, and surpasses them in some ways. The tricky polyrhythms and prestissimo passages seem virtually impossible, but the quartet did not miss a beat.

I must confess that I liked the Sebago-Long Lake version of the Schumann Quintet better than the Borromeo’s, which seemed almost too perfect. There were also some balance problems with the Steinway concert grand, played by Pei-Shan Lee, which might have been solved by a lid partially closed.

The last two movements were more exciting. In the third,  Lee seems to have said the hell with it, it’s a piano concerto, and in the fourth the quartet let their hair down and made a real contest of it. The result was the loudest and most prolonged standing ovation I’ve seen at Studzinski Hall.

The final concerts of the Festival, excluding those of the Young Artists series, will be on Wednesday, Aug. 2, at Studzinski Hall, and Friday, Aug. 4, at Crooker Theater. The latter will feature the Beethoven “Emperor” Concerto, with Joseph Kalichstein as pianist and conductor.

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

Asakawa Shines in Contemporary Piano Music

Mari Asakawa, Piano
Bates College
Sept. 28, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

Lewiston is becoming the piano music capital of Maine. The Franco Center’s excellent piano series is gaining a wide following and ever since the residency of the late Frank Glazer, Bates College has been showcasing some of the world’s finest talents at Olin Hall. For music lovers on a limited budget, many of the Bates concerts are free and open to the pubic.

Wednesday night’s recital by Mari Asakawa, a world-renowned specialist in contemporary piano music, was one of the most unusual I have attended, except perhaps for the Gamper Festival of Contemporary Music at Bowdoin.

Asakawa began her program with Contrapuncti I, V and VII from Bach’s “The Art of Fugue,” (BWV1080) remarking from the stage that many of the techniques employed by both serial and avant garde composers were already prominent in Bach’s counterpoint..

Her piano interpretations, the first I have heard since Glenn Gould’s, were remarkable in their sharp delineation of voices. Unlike Gould’s, they were played from memory, while the rest of the works on the program were “read” from a score. Asakawa turns her own pages, since I doubt that many page turners could follow the music well enough to be of any assistance.

The Bach was followed by “Eventide” (2016) written specifically for the concert by Hiroya Miura, who was in the audience. The two movements, “In Blue,” and “In Purple,” were in an impressionistic, stream of consciousness style, somewhat reminiscent of Persichetti. One incorporates a quote from the opening guitar solo of “When Doves Cry,” by Prince, who died suddenly at the time that Miura was writing the work.

My favorite of the evening was “Ciaccona” (1998) by Claudio Ambrosini, perhaps because it was easy to follow on first hearing. The theme, modeled on the ancient slow-dance form, is a descending chromatic scale, with treble embellishments that become more and more virtuosic as the dance progresses, reaching the near impossible by the end.

Perhaps serial (twelve-tone) music will catch on eventually, although I doubt that audiences will go home whistling the tunes, as Schoenberg hoped. That thought was prompted by “Post-Partitions” (1966) of Milton Babbitt, so well and carefully constructed that it stands out like a granite monument among ephemera.

A lengthy work by Eliott Carrter, “Night Fantasies,” (1980) concluded the program. As an attempt to capture the thoughts and dreams that dominate the mind late at night, it was unsuccessful, although beautifully played by an artist strongly associated with Carter. There was too little contrast between moments of calm and the lightning flashes of insight, and the dynamics ranged from mezzo-forte to fortissimo.

Strangely enough, Carter was trying to imitate the “poetic moodiness” of certain works by Schumann; like his model, he wound up with too many notes, as if dreading an instant of silence.

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

Bowdoin Festival’s Piazzolla Doesn’t Bite

Bowdoin International Music Festival
Wednesday Upbeat! concert
Studzinski Hall
July 20, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

Throughout my career as a critic, I have advanced the idea that performance is all when it comes to classical music. Perhaps I should also have pointed out that it is a necessary but not sufficient condition. Arturo Michelangeli can make the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 1 sound good, but even he might fail with a lesser work.

I attended the Wednesday Upbeat! concert at Studzinski Hall primarily to hear Astor Piazzolla’s “L’histoire du Tango,” written around 1980. It portrays the evolution of the tango from the bordellos of Buenos Aires through cafes and night clubs to the concert hall. It does exactly that but is more satisfying in an historical than a musical sense
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The work was originally written for guitar and flute, but on Wednesday was transcribed for violin and marimba, played by Susie Park and Luke Rinderknecht respectively.

Maybe Piazzolla was getting old, or maybe he wanted his history sanitized for music students, but each tango in the set of four lacks the bite of his earlier work. A true Piazzolla tango is full of dark passion with a black hole of nihilism in its center, around which the dance revolves.

The history is, well, pretty, and never catches fire until it is almost over, with tributes to Bartok and Stravinsky.

Park and Rinderknecht played the transcription very well, but the violin cannot imitate the timbre of the flute, and a little bit of marimba goes a long way. The latter iinstrument is incapable of despair, in which the guitar is right at home.

The high point of the concert was its beginning– the Beethoven Sextet in E-flat Major, Opus 81b, which is not a sextet at all, but a concerto for two French horns, in the style of Mozart. It is indeed written for six instruments, but the strings, for the most part, accompany the horns, played with virtuosity by Stewart Rose and his student at the Festival, Jason Friedman. The two made an outstanding pair.

The final work on the program was the Schumann Piano Trio No. 3 in G Minor, Opus 110. also known as “no rests for the weary” or “the forsaken fermata.” The piece is so densely written, in a waterfall of notes, without a single empty space, that it soon became tiring, in spite of the best efforts of Nelson Lee, violin, Rosemary Elliott, cello and Elinor Freer, piano.

The piece is so driven in nature that it appears symptomatic of the mental illness that would soon claim its composer. It has redeeming features, however, such as echoes of the humorous but triumphant march of the Davidsbundler. It received a standing ovation from the near-capacity audience.

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