Tag Archives: Stravinsky

Students Shine at Piano Recital

Ginger Hwalek Student Recital
Minsky Recital Hall, UMO
May 20, 2018
by Christopher Hyde

A well-tempered Steinway concert grand must be a powerful incentive to piano students. The recital Sunday afternoon at the University of Maine’s MInsky Recital Hall, by students of Ginger Yang Hwalek, was not only impressive in terms of technical achievement, but also enjoyable musically. The 20-some compositions ranged from Bach to Stravinsky, without a piano-method special in the bunch.

In fact, the technical expertise of the performers led a critic to evaluate them in terms of interpretation or realization of the composer’s intent rather than the ability to play the notes correctly. The first on stage, 10-year-old Jordan Seavey,* emphasized the easy flow of the Sonatina in A Minor by Anton Benda, and achieved a good Stravinsky coloration in that composer’s “Five Finger Toccata.”

Later on in the program, Julia Hammond’s “Golliwog’s Cakewalk “ painted a minstrel in brilliant colors. Her “Doctor Gradus ad Parnassus,” from the same “Children’s Corner “ suite, generated beautiful waves of sound, but I prefer the image of a student plodding through a five-finger exercise, slyly changing key or soaring off in flights of fantasy from the boredom before him. But that’s just an opinion. Debussy, unlike Stravinsky, is always open to alternative readings.

Speaking of waves of sound, some of the works were of a high degree of difficulty, navigated almost perfectly. The Schumann “Aufschwung,” by Ha Do, was one example. Others included Anh Tran’s Fantasie-Impromptu, Op. 66 (Chopin), the Beethoven “Moonlight” Sonata, by Helen Shearer, the Beethoven Sonata in F Minor, Op. 2, No. 1, by Lilja Hanson, and a rousing piano four-hands version of the Mozart Sonata in D Major (KV 381), by Cecilia Doering and her teacher.(The sonata selections were excerpts, which did not make them any the less entertaining.)

While most of the works were by prominent composers, some of the lesser-known were also interesting. Shearer played “The Story of Gaydar” by Russian composer Grigori Frid, a Brahms Ballade written by Grieg. Sofie Rueter sketched two animal portraits by Linda Namath, and Mei Tian played a brilliantly syncopated “Crimson,” from “Sketches in Color” by Robert Starer.

Fine intermediate composers had their place too: an Allegro by William Friedmann Bach and an Etude by Dimiry Kabaalevsky, played by William Xu, were followed by Vetri Vel’s interpretation of the Sonatina in C Major, Op. 55, No. 1 of Friedrich Kuhlau, plus the better-known “Siciliano” of Schumann.

The program ended with some fine pianistic coloration by Emma Shearer of “Two Arabesques” by Debussy. The works on display had one thing in common, as Hwalek pointed out: Each of the students had made them their own.

*Jordan Seavey is the grandson of Christopher Hyde, a writer and musician who lives in Pownal and can be reached at classbeat@netscape.net.

How Do You Know When to Stand Up? A Short History of the National Anthem

“Whoever plays, sings or renders “The Star Spangled Banner” in any public place, theater, motion picture hall, restaurant or cafe, or at any public entertainment other than as a whole and separate composition or number, without embellishment or addition in the way of national or other melodies, or whoever plays sings or renders “The Star Spangled Banner” or any part thereof as dance music, as an exit march, or as part of a medley of any kind shall be punished by a fine of not more than one hundred dollars.”

I came across this gem of Boston law while reading articles on Stravinsky during the centennial of “The Rite of Spring.” It seems appropriate today with the controversy over an athlete sitting out the Star Spangled Banner because of its racist overtones. (The offending verses are usually removed from the text, as they were in my grade school songbook.)

My first thought was eureka! now we’ve got them, all the singers at baseball and football games who like to show off just how much they can “embellish” the song while still retaining a slight vestige of its original melody. It has gotten to the point where anyone who sings the tune straight is regarded as a novelty. It would be different if the pop artists (and even opera stars) were trying to make it more compelling, but they’re not. Maybe it’s just that they’re trying to disguise wrong or unreachable notes in a difficult composition.

Unfortunately, it seems that there has been only one instance of the ordinance’s application–against Igor Stravinsky on Jan. 15, 1944, about the time I belted out the song from the balcony before a performance of “Oklahoma” in New York. (My father told me that it was on opening night, but that would have been in 1943.)

I mention that incident only to illustrate the unreliability of hindsight, which has perpetuated the myth that Stravinsky was actually arrested, complete with a mug shot (taken of a look-alike criminal four years earlier).

In reality, Stravinsky wrote his arrangement of “The Star Spangled Banner” in token of his appreciation of his adopted country. It includes contrapuntal counter-subjects and a modulation into the subdominant by means of a “blue note”–a passing seventh. (The original version has been recorded.)

After the first performance with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, a concerned citizen phoned the police to complain and they attended the second performance, on the 15th, en masse. Stravinsky, however, had been tipped off and played the work straight. The 14 policemen are said not to have remained for the rest of the concert, which included some of Stravinsky’s latest compositions, including the “Circus Polka.”

Stravinsky’s reaction to the peculiarities of his adopted country has not been recorded. It probably took the form of an extra vodka martini.

The composer’s musical taste, in this instance, leaves something to be desired, since he referred to “The Star Spangled Banner” as “a beautiful sacred anthem.” The tune, of course, is that of a risque British drinking song, “Anacreon in Heaven,” which doesn’t even fit slave-holder Francis Scott Key’s verses very well.

It caught on after 1865, when it was played at the restoration of the flag to Fort Sumter (not Ft. McHenry) and later was taken up by John Philip Sousa, who made it popular. It was named the official anthem of the United States by Congress in 1931, just before Sousa’s death.

A phrase from the anthem,”In God is our trust,” inspired Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase to put “In God We Trust” on the dollar bill during the Civil War.

So next time the Patriots play in Gillette Stadium, I expect a phalanx of Boston’s finest to be present, with copies of the original score and a paddywagon.

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

Portland String Quartet Reads “Intimate Letters”

Portland String Quartet
Woodfords Congregational Church
April 23
by Christopher Hyda

It’s a good thing that the form of synesthesia which unites music with visual imagery is rare. Otherwise Leoš Janáček’s great String Quartet No. 2 (“Intimate Letters”) (1928) could not be performed in public, except perhaps with an “adults only” warning.

The work, lovingly rendered by the Portland String Quartet, April 23 at Woodfords Congregational Church, depicts, in four passionate movements, the affair of the aged composer with a woman 38 years his junior. Both were married.

In his always astute program notes, Will Herz suggests that the affair was platonic. If the music itself is any indication, I tend to doubt that (generally accepted) opinion.

The quartet is brimming with wondrous melodies, like Borodin’s but a bit harder to whistle. Most of them are derived from an intricate system of correspondences involving the names of the protagonists, their dates of birth, and numerous other numerical and linguistic sources. (I am indebted to composer Elliott Schwartz’ analysis of these in a lecture he gave in Brunswick a few years ago.)

Another characteristic of the music is the use of speech patterns and inflections to shape its phrases. In some of them one can almost make out the words, such as “the beautiful Madame so-and-so.” The example is in English, but I’m sure that anyone who knows the language(s) of the former Czechoslovakia would recognize many more.

One of my favorite passages in all opera is the speech-song uttered by the young frog at the conclusion of Janáček’s “The Cunning LIttle Vixen.” The pantheism of that opera is also evident in the quartet, in which natural sounds, such as bird song, are employed to express the lovers’ most joyful moments.

All of these beauties and more were brought out by the quartet, in one of its most striking performances of the season. Its new cellist, Patrick Owen, was vital to the amorous depictions.

The program began with Stravinsky’s seven-minute Concertino for String Quartet (1920), generally conceded to be the first work of his “neoclassical” period. It was always an ill fit, and the Concertino is schizophrenic, driving rhythms contrasted with antique dance forms, lyrical passages written in dissonant harmonies, and so on. At the very end, Stravinsky seems actually to be flirting with a tonic resolution until he decides not to go there and ends up in the air.

The afternoon finished with Mendelssohn’s String Quartet in D Major, Opus 44, No. 1, plain vanilla after what had gone before, but a charming and light-hearted chaser for such strong drink. An enduring characteristic of the PSQ has been its faithfulness to the composer’s intentions. In the first movement one could almost see Mendelssohn deciding what to do next with his theme. My note was: ”They show how it works.”

The final Presto con brio (alla tarantella) brought the audience to its feet.

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