Early Music Festival
Portland Conservatory of Music
Oct. 28, 2018
by Christopher Hyde
The final concert of the 7th Annual Early Music Festival at the Portland Conservatory of Music, Sunday afternoon at the Woodfords Congregational Church, was devoted to Chamber Trios of the 18th and 19th Centuries, performed by Lydia Forbes, violin, Myles Jordan, violoncello piccolo, and Timothy Burris, the festival’s founder, on lute and guitar.
The festival is always a combination of education and entertainment. The revelation in this case was the popularity of small chamber ensembles in the 19th century, centered around the guitar. Everyone is familiar with the piano transcriptions of operas and orchestral music that brought the latest compositions into middle-class parlors, but there was an equally flourishing market for guitar-based works.
A strange example was the Grand Trio Extract de Mozart of Pierre Jean Porro (1750-1831). It consisted of an arrangement of the trio and minuetto from the Mozart Violin Sonata No. 21 in E Minor, K. 304.
The transcription, for guitar, violin and cello, was innovative and charming, but why not just play the original? The answer seems to have been portability. Porro was a military type, retiring with the rank of lieutenant colonel, and it is unlikely that he took a piano with him into the field. Also, pianos were not quite as ubiquitous (and cheap) as they later became, and many households were without one, whereas a guitar could be found almost anywhere. (La plus change…?)
Of course transcriptions were not the only musical forms available to a guitar-based trio, and some delightful examples were offered, by Antonio Vivaldi and Francois de Fossa (1775-1849). The lute part of the Vivaldi Trio in G Minor, (RV85) was particularly striking, with an uncanny ability to imitate even the brass sections of an orchestra. And loud. It made me think of another instrument not usually associated with trumpet calls: “The wedding guest here beat his breast for he heard the loud bassoon.” (“The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner.”)
Burris, on guitar, played a delicate but lively suite from an earlier era: three dances rom “Livre de Pieces Pour la Guittarre dedié au Roy,” by Robert de Visée, (ca 1655-1732.)
The program began and ended with J.S.Bach. Forbes and Jordan opened with four two-part canons from “The Art of the Fugue,” —well-played, profound and, as Jordan pointed out, “not at all flashy.” I sometimes wonder if Bach’s magnum opus, which he was working on until his death in 1750, was intended for public performance at all.
My opinion was bolstered by the final work on the program, the Bach Sonata in G (BWV 1021), which was everything the cannons were not—short, concise, brilliant and obviously written to entertain, something old Johann knew how to do very well.
Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at email@example.com.