Tag Archives: Strauss

Guilty Pleasures

Bowdoin International Music Festival
Studzinski Recital Hall
Aug. 1, 2018
by Christopher Hyde

Composer Paul Schoenfield (b. 1947) wonders if his “Café Music,” (1985) played Wednesday night at Bowdoin’s Studzinski Recital Hall, rises to the level of classical music that might be performed on its own, rather than as background in Murray’s Restaurant.

The answer, according to Janet Sung, violin, Ahrim Kim, cello and Tao Lin, piano, is a resounding yes. In fact, were it to be played at Murray’s, it would harsh everyone’s mellow. and render conversation impossible.

The three-movement work is a pastiche of cocktail lounge standards, pushed to their limits and well beyond. It is art, the way Roy Lichtenstein’s Ben Day paintings are art, deconstructing works everyone knows and re-assembling them with fresh meanings. The result, in Café Music, is pure excitement, and a sense of wonder that the transformations can be played at all. There is even sustained melody, as the strings imitate singers in the “andante.”

A vastly entertaining mix of guilty pleasures, but pleasures nevertheless.

“Café Music,” as is customary in concert programming, was sandwiched between two better-known classics—the opening Debussy Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp, and Richard Strauss’ late “Metamorphosen” as it was originally written for string septet.

The Debussy, played by Julie Nah Kyung Lee, flute, Kirsten Docter, viola, and June Han, harp, made one wish that he had been able to complete the proposed set of six, based on ancient French forms, with various, sometimes unusual, combinations of instruments.

The flute-harp-viola combination seems somehow feminine, harking back to “Sirenes” but with greater delicacy. The harp, under Han’s fingers, was the first among equals, often taking the lead.  She sometimes over-did the muting, when one hoped for a bit more resonance behind the strings.

The “Metamorphosen” works better as a septet (two cellos, violins and violas, one double bass) than the more familiar version for string orchestra. The texture of interwoven voices is so dense that it is hard to follow even with the smaller number of players.

When it is done right, as it was on Wednesday night, the result is a tightly woven tapestry of gold, silver and crimson threads stretching all the way back to some of the composer’s most notable works—and to Beethoven. As if the characteristic sound did not identify the composer beyond a doubt, the help-mate violin from “Ein Heldenleben” also makes a cameo appearance, complementing the deep bass of the introduction and finale.

The highly intense performance drew a prolonged standing ovation from Bowdoin Festival students, faculty and subscribers.

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

A Valentine from the Portland Symphony Orchestra

Portland Symphony Orchestra
Merrill Auditorium
Jan. 26, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

There’s always a spike in the birthrate nine months after the dead of winter, but October 2016 might show more fecundity than usual, due to the Portland Symphony Orchestra’s erotic tribute to Richard Strauss, Jan. 26 at Merrill Auditorium.

The program opened with the Beethoven Symphony No. 8 in F Major, Op. 93, part of the orchestra’s three-year Beethoven cycle. This was great music, well played, except for a bit of distraction at the opening of the Tempo di menuetto, but after intermission it was easy to see where the players’ hearts really lay.

Music director Robert Moody, after requesting no applause between selections, played four works by Strauss as if they were movements of a Romantic symphony, a conceit that worked quite well. The four, which portray various forms of eroticism, built up to a thunderous climax, with a brilliant performance of the final scene of “Salome,” sung passionately by soprano Patricia Racette.

The four were all closely related by Strauss’ unique sound–one of the marks of greatness–and by echoes of other works. The scoring of the final act of “Salome,” for example, recalls another image of despised love, in “Der Rosenkavalier,” but this time without the slightest hint of resignation. It is just Eros vs. Thanatos, and Thanatos wins, or does he? After Salome’s ferocious consummation, there’s nowhere else to go.

(Incidentally, I object to the slur on “Der Rosenkavalier” in the program notes. No, it isn’t Mozart, but something entirely different, and equally a work of genius.)

The first movement was the Prelude to Act. 1 of Strauss’ first opera, “Guntram,” (Op. 25). Influenced by Wagner and the ideal of the Teutonic knight, it has the sensual frisson of “Tristan und Isolde,” but better orchestrated and controlled.

The second, the love scene from “Feursnot,” is probably the world champion musical description of sex. H.L. Mencken would have proclaimed that it should not be played in polite company. It was perfectly (should I say lovingly?) rendered, down to the last high trumpet note.

Returning to the preliminaries was the “Dance of the Seven Veils” from “Salome,” (Op. 74), delightfully seductive, down to the falling whisper of the final garment. This is a work that used to be played more often. It runs counter to the modern predilection for instant gratification.

Racette was seductive, vicious, willful and wistful, clad in brown velvet, as Salome, triumphantly making love to the head of John the Baptist. Her voice, always clear and true, carried over the fortissimos of the orchestra effortlessly, and her portrayal of the various stages of emotion in the doomed heroine was mesmerizing. She and the orchestra received a well-deserved sanding ovation.

As Samuel Pepys used to say: “And now to bed.” Because “Music and woman I cannot but give way to, whatever my business is.”

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