Tag Archives: Wagner

Brahms vs Wagner at the Portland Symphony

Portland Symphony Orchestra
Merrill Auditorium
Nov. 15, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

I was looking forward to the battle of the 19th century—Liszt and Wagner (“modern” music), versus Brahms (tradition). From the Portland Symphony Orchestra under Ken-David Masur, candidate for music director, I got the kind of game that makes one want to turn off the TV and go to bed.

It had a few exciting moments but most of it was, shall we say, uninspired. It should be mentioned that the fans loved it, giving standing ovations to the Liszt Concerto No.1 in E-flat Major, brilliantly rendered by pianist Ran Dank, and the glorious final movement of the Brahms Symphony No. 1 in C Minor, Op. 68.

The program began with the overture to “Tannhäuser,” in the slowest version I have ever heard this side of a slipping turntable. The interpretation provided some moments of knightly nobility in the brass, but mostly revealed Wagner’s string-section fillers. .

It was followed by the Liszt concerto, one of my least favorite compositions. Its opening motif, which crops up all over, is said to have proclaimed: “This, you do not understand,” and is as irritating musically as it is philosophically.

The concerto is basically a show-off piece, and Rank managed its extreme difficulties with ease. One place that Liszt shows some imagination is in his brilliant treble passage work (there is surprisingly little bass) and in this Dank excelled. The pianist demanded a slightly brisker tempo than displayed in the Wagner piece, but there is little for the orchestra to do anyway. The famous triangle was there, and some nice duets with the woodwinds, but that was about it, except for blaring the”understand” passage once in a while.

As readers may have noticed, I am a a confirmed Brahmsian, and it was with horror that during the first moment of the First Symphony I began to wonder when it would end. The tempo was so slow that the opening melody was lost in chaos for a few bars. Ditto the summer serenade of the second movement.

Things began to pick up in the allegretto grazioso, which is lighter than air, and finally accelerated to a reasonable tempo in the final movement, one of the great treasures of the world. It worked in spite of a completely inaudible passage that I noted as “invisible pizzicati.”

At the las moment, flocks of angels came to Masur’s rescue, bearing the music up with heavenly horn calls, some of the best I have heard, and leading into the fabulous final melody. Now I began to wish that it wouldn’t stop.

Throughout the concert the musicians gave their all, but they must have been dumbfounded by what the conductor was asking most of the time. Young people like to reinterpret the classics every generation, but there are limits.

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

 

Operatic Pops Take On New Luster at MIdcoast

Midcoast Symphony
Franco Center, Lewiston
March 18, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

Mark Twain would have loved Saturday night’s concert of the Midcoast Symphony Orchestra at Lewiston’s Franco Center.

Twain famously remarked that the trouble with opera was sitting through interminable periods of non-musical scene-setting to get to the good parts. On Saturday, the orchestra, under the direction of guest conductor Eric Hewitt, played nothing but the good parts.

One striking aspect of the performance was how much the good parts are sort of a Cliff’s Notes of the opera as a whole, epitomizing , if not the plot, then the emotional atmosphere of the work. Could it be that the composer himself merely used the libretto as an excuse for whatever arias he had in mind?

The Intermezzo from Puccini’s “Manon Lescaut,” for example, tells all one needs to know about the principal character and her fate. It was lushly Romantic and tragic at the same time, played with just the right amount of reserved emotion and tragic portent.

The orchestra entered into the spirit of the works, all quite familiar, with much more enthusiasm than is characteristic of professional (by that I mean for-pay) ensembles. Their interpretation of the “Liebestod” from “Tristan und Isolde” should never have been allowed in mixed company. It is the most graphic depiction of intercourse, raised to the level of religion, ever composed. The climactic measures were earth-shattering,  the best I have ever heard, (and I dislike Wagner with equal passion).

Another aspect of these operatic works is the extreme difficulty of the orchestration. Many of them were re-composed as display pieces, poster children for the operas themselves. Richard Strauss’ Waltz Sequence No. 1 from “Der Rosenkavalier,” (Opus 139), which concluded the program, is the orchestral equivalent of a Godowski piano transcription of “The Blue Danube,” by another Strauss, quite impossible to play. The Midcoast did it anyway, and aside from a few minor glitches, managed it admirably, once again creating a perfect impression of the opera as a whole, as well as illustrating Strauss’s excessive love of the French horn.

I could hear Baron Ochs, besieged in a tavern by a flock of his illegitimate offspring, shouting “Papa. papa,” and muttering to his servant: “Leopold, wir gehens.”

The longest work of the evening was BIzet’s “Carmen” Suite, No. 2, in an arrangement by Ernesto Guiraud which includes some of the lesser-known interludes. It was also very well played, with an authentic Spanish-French flavor and virtuoso work by the trumpet and piccolo.

The regular conductor of the Midcoast, Rohan Smith, was playing in the violin section. I don’t know if he will appear at this afternoon’s concert at the Orion Center in Topsham, but it will be well worth attending in any event.

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