Tag Archives: Schumann

Bach Virtuosi

Bach Virtuosi Festival
Cathedral Church of St.Luke
June 19, 2018
by Christopher Hyde

Olivier Messiaen, whose “Quartet for the End of Time” will grace the Bowdoin International Music Festival next month, once proclaimed that the birds, whom he thought of as angels, were the consummate musicians of the world. He had not heard flautist Emi Ferguson imitate a Goldfinch in Vivaldi’s work of the same name, (Opus 10, No. 3 in D Major), and then go on to out-do the original.

Ferguson, who played Tuesday night at St. Luke’s Cathedral, is just one of the noted Bach specialists brought to Portland by Lewis Kaplan under the auspices of the Bach Virtuosi Festival, formerly known as the Portland Bach Festival, which burst upon the world in 2016.

This concert, the second of the series (June 17-24), was devoted to composers who influenced Bach, and others who were deeply influenced by him. (I use the word “deeply” because virtually every classical musician has been influenced by J.S. Bach in one way or another.

The program opened with a Trio Sonata (Opus 2, No. 5 in A Major), by Dietrich Buxtehude, whom Bach once walked 100 miles to hear, losing his job in the process. The Trio was as much fun as the Vivaldi, a sparkling delight which could have been written by the master himself in one of his lighter moods.

It was rendered with perfect balance and delineation of parts by Ariadne Daskalakis, violin, Beiliang Zhu, cello and Arthur Haas, harpsichord.

Noted Maine pianist Henry Kramer made his debut at the festival by comparing and contrasting the Bach Prelude and Fugue in E-flat Minor (BWV 853), with one in B-flat Major (No. 21) by Dimitri Shostakovich, who wrote his own set of 24, in imitation of Bach’s “Well-Tempered Clavier.”

I thought that Kramer might have chosen two pair in the same key. Instead he contrasted one of Bach’s foremost exercises in long-limbed Baroque counterpoint, with the most virtuosic of the Shostakovich set. For those who love the Russian, it was a dead heat, with Kramer offering equally fine interpretations of each.

Festival founder Lewis Kaplan appeared in the “Tempo di ciaccone,” from Bela Bartok’s Sonata for Solo Violin, heavily influenced by Bach’s Chaconne from the Partita No. 2 in D Minor (BWV 1004), but much more somber. It is perhaps even more difficult to play than its predecessor, and so densely constructed that it would take several hearings to appreciate fully. We don’t have a Brahms or Busoni to make a valid piano transcription.

A “Meditation über den Bach Choral ‘Vor Deinin Thron Tret’ich hiermit,’” by contemporary Russian composer Sofia Gubaidulina (b. 1931), came as a complete revelation, vividly depicting the appearance of J.S. Bach before the Throne of God. Bach has the last word,  as chords based on his name, played on the harpsichord, end the work. And what a work it is, emerging from a fog of mystery, with strange sounds from violins, cello, bass and harpsichord, to eventually coalesce into a variation on the chorale played (loudly) by the bass, in an amazing performance by Kurt Muroki, and eventually into the full chorale in all its sonority. A true masterpiece, and enthralling throughout.

The program concluded with the reappearance of Kramer, with Renee Jolles and Yibin Li. violin, Karina Schmitz, viola, and Paul Dwyer, cello, in the Schumann Piano Quintet in E-flat Major, Opus 44. The final fugue. revealing the composer’s study of Bach, is, to me, the most interesting part of the quintet, like the similar effort by Schubert in the “Wanderer” Fantasy.

For a quintet that has not played before, the ensemble was exemplary, and better than that, exciting. Its last performance in Portland was pedestrian, leading one to wonder if a group of five musicians, rehearsing this work for the first time, might not do better than a string quartet, set in its ways, with an “outside” pianist. Just a thought, but what can easily become a piano concerto, showed an excellent balance of forces.
The next concert of the Festival will be on Thursday, June 21, an all-Bach program of vocal and instrumental music at Etz Chaim Synagogue.

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

Bach His Way

Bach His Way

by Christopher Hyde

In June of 2016, Lewis Kaplan, co-founder of the Bowdoin International Music Festival, launched a new enterprise in Portland that came as a revelation to many—the Portland Bach Festival, now known as the Bach Virtuosi Festival (June 17-24).

If, as I believe, performance is all, the festival dispelled any notion that J.S. Bach, arguably the finest musician who ever lived, was staid, or God-forbid, as boring as Hector Berlioz thought he was.

All of the performers, and a chamber orchestra, reminded me of Wanda Landowska’s aphorism: “You play Bach your way, and I’ll play him his way.” In many instances, during both the 2016 and 2017 season, it was as if the audience was hearing a familiar work for the first time. The reason, of course, was that Kaplan, a long-term professor of violin at Juilliard and an authority on Bach, was able to draw together some of the world’s foremost Bach interpreters, who also got along famously—in ensemble playing egging each other on until one began to believe that the court of Frederick the Great had come to the Age of Jazz.

This year’s Festival will include most of the original musicians, and expand its scope somewhat, to include composers deeply influenced by Bach, such as Bartok and Shostakovich (“Before Bach and Beyond,” June 19 at St. Luke’s Cathedral) and those who influenced him, such as Vivaldi and Buxtehude.

The final concert, June 24 at St. Luke’s will also include works by another giant, George Frederic Handel, plus another of my favorite Brandenburg Concertos, No. 4

The June 19 program will mark the first appearance of noted Maine pianist Henry Kramer, who will play a prelude and fugue from “The Well Tempered Clavier,” compared to a similar work by Dmitri Shosakovich. He will also appear in the Schumann Piano Quintet in E-flat Major, Opus 44, influenced by the Romanic composer’s study of Bach.

The program at Etz Chaim Synagogue, on June 21, will feature two sonatas, for violin and for flute, with Arthur Haas at the harpsichord, plus two contatas, “Vernugte Ruh, BWV 170, and “Weichet nur, betruebte Schatten, BWV 202. It will be followed by a panel discussion on “Music and Religion between Haas, professor of Harpsichord and Early Music at SUNY Stonybrook, the Rev. Cannon Frank M. Harron II, former Executive Director of Program and Ministry at the National Cathedral, and Gary S. Berenson, Rabbi, Etz Chaim Synagogue.

Two new venues this year will include a free concert at Falmouth Congregational Church on June 23 to support the Falmouth Food Pantry, and an evening celebration of Bach and Bacchus at the Cumberland Club on June 22.

Detailed descriptions of each program are available at www.bachvirtuosofestival.org/proram. Tickets are available through PortTIX.

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

Midcoast Ends Season on a High Note

Midcoast Symphony Orchestra
Franco Center, Lewiston
May 12, 2018
by Christopher Hyde

The young French pianist, Lise de la Salle, impressed audiences of the Midcoast Symphony a while ago with an astonishing performance of the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 3.  Last night at Lewiston’s Franco Center, she showed that she could be equally impressive in a more intimate role, with the Schumann Piano Concerto in A Minor.

One of my first recordings was an LP with the Schumann concerto on one side and the Grieg Piano Concerto in A Minor on the other (could it have been Dinu LIpatti?). I have never lost my affection for either work, the Schumann in particular, which is a strange animal indeed. It makes a real attempt to avoid the heroism of the Romantic concerto, opting instead for its membership in a brotherhood of the culturally elite —the Davidsbundler, whose march is incorporated in the final movement.

There are sections in which the piano not only blends with the orchestra, but actually takes on an accessory role, like a motor that can be heard purring in the background.

The score nevertheless demands a high degree of virtuosity, especially in the exclamatory chords, and rapid passage work, which de la Salle has in abundance. Her playing is both precise—fitting a cascade of notes perfectly into a bar, but emotionally satisfying as well, something I had been concerned about after hearing the Rachmaninoff.

The Midcoast, under Rohan Smith, supported the piano ably, realizing Shumann’s concept of “first among equals.” There was a little tug of war in the beginning between the conductor’s favorite tempo and that of the pianist, but that was soon worked out.

The program began on a less successful note with three dance episodes from Leonard Bernstein’s “On the Town.”  Bernstein’s orchestral arrangements are are difficult in both scoring and rhythm, and one questions whether their performance by an amateur orchestra is worth the effort.

Many of this popular composer’s works have come to seem dated, and this tribute to a Broadway that never was is a case in point.

After the last dance, Smith admonished the large audience not to applaud between movements. In their defense, each of the dances stands on is own, without being part of an un-interruptible whole. And even highly-structured classical works were historically cheered (and sometimes repeated) after each movement.

Smith concluded the program with the best-known symphony that is never heard: Beethoven’s Fifth. It should be programmed more often, so that new generations can understand why it is so famous. It is simply a miracle. Just one of its triumphs is the orchestration, which allowed all sections of the Midcoast their moment in the sun– especially the woodwinds. It was a fitting way to close out the season.

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

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.