Tag Archives: Tchaikovsky

Portland Symphony’s Apotheosis of the Dance

Portland Symphony Orchestra
Merrill Auditorium
May 13, 2018
by Christopher Hyde

Once in a great while there comes a relatively unknown work that is truly worth reviving. The Concerto in A Minor for Violin and Orchestra, Opus 82, by Alexander Glazunov (1865-1936). is a prime example. As played by the Portland Symphony Orchestra under Daniel Meyer, with violinist Chee-Yun, Sunday afternoon at Merrill Auditorium, it brought something new to late Romanticism, with a voice all its own.

The first section of the concerto seemed a little hum-drum, with statements and development of not very memorable tunes. Then came a very long and technically ferocious cadenza, managed superbly by the soloist. It was followed by a peal of thunder and trumpet calls, and it was off to the races.

Glazunov explores just about every instrumental combination in the book at a high rate of speed, somewhere between a quick march and a jig. The violin quizzically answers massed trumpets, plays duets with various sections and imitates the oboe, all of it held together beautifully by the forgotten opening melodies, transformed by the faster tempo.

A tour de force, and something new under the sun to anyone who had not heard the work before. Then Chee-Yun spoiled it with an encore– a piece of prestidigitation (Recitative and Scherzo by Fritz Kreisler) without any redeeming musical value. Any lasting enjoyment of the concerto, replaying its beauties in the mind, was obliterated. Chee-Yun, who has a fine musical sense as well as technique to burn, should have known better, and Meyer, one of three finalists for the post of PSO music director, should have talked her out of it.

As a young romantic, I imagined impossibilities, such as taking the great hornist Dennis Brain on a fox hunt to perform the calls, or getting the Philadelphia Orchestra into the pit for a performance of “Swan Lake” by the Bolshoi Ballet (even though their own orchestra was pretty good). Meyer’s version of a suite from “Swan Lake” fulfilled more than half of the dream, conjuring up elegant images at every bar.

The music is divinely Romantic, without an ounce of the cuteness that sometimes mars “The Nutcracker.” The violin solo by concert master Charles Dimmick was worth the price of admission; when combined with a cello part, played by David Paschke, it was little short of spectacular. Every part of the suite was danceable, although the tempo in Czardas was a trifle fast.

I have always had a problem with Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances, Opus 45. HIs last works, they seem less inspired than autobiographical. It is fun trying to identify all the snippets of previous works, the orchestration is striking, and the emotion obvious, but they fail to move one like the concertos or the earlier instrumental pieces, such as “Isle of the Dead.”  Speaking of which, the dances comes alive in the finale with a ferocious treatment of the Dies Irae. It finishes with a prolonged cymbal clash which may, or may not, portray the soul leaving the body.

I won’t go so far as to say that Meyer made the music sound better than it is, but he and the orchestra gave it the best possible reading.

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

A Symphony Worth Standing For

Portland Symphony Orchestra
Merrill Auditorium
Apr. 12, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

Audiences at Merrill Auditorium are notorious for giving standing ovations to solo performers, deserved or not, but not so much to symphonies. On Tuesday night, the custom was reversed.

Portland Symphony Orchestra principal hornist John Boden’s fine performance of the Hindemith Concerto for Horn and Orchestra received sustained applause, but no cheers. The Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 5 in E Minor (Op. 64) concluded with the most riotous, shouting ovation that I have heard in years.

The difference was guest conductor Stefan Vladar, who plays the orchestra like a giant Bösendorfer, (formerly the world’s largest and most prestigious piano). Vladar brings the passion,elegance and grace under pressure of a concert pianist to the role of conductor. His disciplined energy was evident from the first bars of the Mendelssohn’s “The Hebrides” (Fingal’s Cave), Op.26.

Vladar transformed an atmospheric work that often seems like plain vanilla into an exciting panorama that mirrored the young composer’s fascination with the changing vistas of the rocky Scottish coast. The secret was dynamic contrasts in volume and texture, and from agitato to dolcissimo and back again, over a strong, precise rhythm.

As a veteran of many hard-fought battles between pianist and conductor, he is also very good at supporting a soloist, as shown by the fine balance of the Hindemith concerto. That composer’s unusual orchestration, such as horn against piccolo and the final susurrations and conversation among equals of the finale, were brought out effectively.

Following intermission, one felt a little anxious for Boden who, after a grueling concerto, returned for one of the most exposed horn solos in the repertoire, the opening of the andante cantabile in Tchaikovsky’s Fifth. Like everything else in this stellar performance, it went off without a hitch.

The symphony was a perfect testimonial, if one is needed, to the necessity of live music. From the beginning clarinets which, after the opening measures return as a delicate obligato to the principal theme, to Boden’s horn calls, there emerged a multitude of fine details that could never be heard in a recording. And the final, titanic clash between the evil “X” and the life force, would have blown every speaker in the house, if the volume could ever have been turned up that high.

Somewhat too exciting for a young girl…but worthy of a sustained uproar, every section of a great orchestra performing in an exalted state.

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

Midcoast Symphony Excels at Pops

Midcoast Symphony Orchestra
Orion Performing Arts Center, Topsham
Mar. 20, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

Finally, a real pops concert; popular favorites from the classics, rather than the usual uncomfortable combination of rock band and symphony, in which both sides lose.

It took the Midcoast Symphony Orchestra, under guest conductor Eric Hewitt, to do it right, and judging by the capacity crowd Sunday at the Orion Performing Arts Center, the audience is there for it. There was not a parking place within a half mile of the hall.

The afternoon got off to a shaky start, with some sour notes in the andante opening of Rossini’s “William Tell” Overture, but by the time the Lone Ranger theme came along, the players had caught fire and never looked back. During the finale, Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture,” they sounded like the Vienna Philharmonic, but with more brio.

The theme of the march, deliberately or not, gave the program continuity. The Napoleonic quick march (I forget the name of it), appeared in the Berlioz “March to the Scaffold” from his Symphonie Fantastique, as well as the “1812 Overture,” while more standard military versions were heard in the Radetsky March of Johann Strauss the Elder, and in Gounod’s “Funeral March of a Marionette.” The latter included some fantastic work by the woodwinds.

The obligatory nod to movie music came in the form of Gershwin’s “An American in Paris,” and John Williams’ Overture to “The Cowboys.”

The more I hear the “1812,” (with or without cannons) the more I marvel at how good it is. It transcends the categories of occasional and commissioned work by light years, and is one of the most well composed of Tchaikovsy’s works as well as the most inspired.

Its use of anthems, hymns and folk music to characterize the French and Russian adversaries before Moscow is masterful and can be appreciated as well by a first-time listener as by the most experienced musical professional.

From the warm, intimate cello hymn at the beginning to the frantic pealing of the bells of Moscow in the wind-driven flames, the orchestra was superb. It well deserved a resounding ovation and conductor Hewitt his bouquet from two charming little flower girls.

Let’s do this again soon.

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

A Brilliant Send-Off for Bowdoin Festival

Bowdoin International Music Festival
Festival Friday
Crooker Auditorium of Brunswick High School
Aug. 7

In a review of the Portland String Quartet last month I mentioned liking their variations on the Shaker Hymn “Simple Gifts,” better than Aaron Copland’s in “Appalachian Spring.” I was wrong.

The original version of “Appalachian Spring,” for 13 instruments, as played Friday night at the final Festival Friday concert of the Bowdoin International Music Festival, was a revelation, clear as spring water, perfectly balanced and showing off Copland’s genius in a way that muddy orchestrations never could.

Robert Moody, music director of the Portland Symphony Orchestra, conducted selected virtuosi from the festival in a performance that was simply stunning, from beginning to end. “Appalachian Spring,” still sounds like “Oklahoma,” but there’s nothing wrong with that.

As for the variations on “Simple Gifts,” their inventiveness was remarkable, and the combinations of instrumental timbre far beyond what can be accomplished by a string quartet. Copland has a way of making the grand piano an orchestral instrument that is rare indeed.

As the final work of a successful festival, it was a brilliant send-off indeed.

The Tchaikovsky pieces that preceded it, with violin soloist Jennifer Koh, were also crowd pleasers, but more in the nature of salon music than national icons.

Too many generations of violinists have sawed their way through the “Souvenir d’un Lieu Cher,” Op. 42, and the often paired Serenade Melancolique (Op. 26) and Valse Scherzo (Op. 34) for anything new to be said, but it was good to hear the first three pieces as a set, Tchaikovsky’s original intention.

Jennifer Koh, who has been heard quite often in Maine, is a fine violinist, and made the most of both the romantic and the virtuoso passages, earning a standing ovation. Moody encouraged the Bowdoin Festival Orchestra, which sounds more professional each year.

I had expected more from Kevin Buts’ “Seascapes” (2013) which opened the program. Maybe it’s my literary background, but there are much better written words about the sea than the seven passages he chose to illustrate musically. Perhaps that accounts for the score’s lack of inspiration.

They were given a careful and tender reading by a chamber orchestra of Janet Sung, violin, Caroline Coade, viola, David Requiro, cello, Kurt Muroki, double bass, Tao Lin, piano, Beomjae Kim, flute, and Josh Thompson, horn.
The work came alive quite often, especially in the fourth movement: “Out of the darkness…jets of sparks in fountains of blue come leaping” by D.H. Lawrence, but the excitement couldn’t be sustained. I also liked the sustained chords and bass line of Virginia Woolfe’s “So fine was the morning except for a streak of wind here and there that the sea and sky looked all of one fabric.”

Still, I couldn’t help but think of Vincent Persichetti’s “Poems for Piano,” which attempts the same thing, with considerably more success.