Monday, March 30, 2015

Boston Symphony raises the rafters with new Gandolfi work and Mahler Sixth

Michael Gandolfi
When scheduling an orchestral program a year or more in advance, it is probably impossible to know how a brand new piece will match up with any other work, but Michael Gandofi’s “Ascending Light,” which received its world premiere last weekend from Boston Symphony, had a lot in common with Gustav Mahler’s Sixth Symphony, the other piece on the program. Both featured a pounding percussion battery that supported loud and massive sonic textures from the orchestra. Usually symphonic programs strive for complimentary pieces that offer some contrast. Still, the audience, which almost filled Symphony Hall on Saturday evening (March 28) relished both pieces, which were conducted by BSO Music Director Andris Nelsons, and perhaps that proved the saying that you can’t get enough of a good thing.

“Ascending Light,” written for organ and orchestra, was commissioned by the Gomidas Organ Fund in honor of its founder, the late Armenian-American organist Berj Zamkochian (1929-2004) and to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide. Zamkocian made several recordings as the organ soloist with the BSO and taught on the faculty of the New England Conservatory, where Michael Gandolfi currently teaches.

According to the program notes, part of “Ascending Light” was inspired by a sacred Armenian choral piece entitle “Aravot Lousabe” which translates as “Ascending Light” and by an Armenian folk song known as the “Lullaby of Tigranakert.” On the whole, Gandolfi’s music did not stray from a harmonic center, opening with slow drum beats and grand chords from the orchestra and the organ, which featured Frenchman Olivier Latry at the keyboard. After the massive tonal collage dwindled away, simple lines ascended from the organ and were joined at the top by silken strings. Interweaving phrases, were exchanged between the orchestra and the organ before the pounding chords of the opening statement returned. The following warm, legato section established a lull that was broken up by an edgy call from the French horns, which kicked the orchestra into a driving, brassy rhythmic passage and another stretch of massive chords. Later, a dramatic cutoff cleared the floor for the organ, and that was when Latry played a theme that sounded distinctly Armenian. Plaintive piccolo, mournful horns and lower strings suggested sadness, but out of that emerged tones from the harp that climbed heavenward. A return to the pounding drums and massive chordal motif sealed the finale.

With the organ console right next to Nelson’s podium, Latry held the spotlight with his agile playing, impeccably playing his solo passages and blending the sound of the organ with the orchestra even when cranking up the volume. His efforts and the orchestra as a whole received enthusiastic applause from the audience.

After intermission, the orchestra and Nelsons returned to the stage to play Mahler’s Sixth Symphony. Shaping the Mahler Sixth into a coherent performance must be one of the most difficult undertakings for any conductor because the 90-minute long piece has so many high peaks and low valleys. Just when the music seemed to reach a climax, it tapered off or segued into soothing passages before it gathered steam once again to climb onto another incredibly loud mountain of sound. The steady tread of drums became and the emotional rollercoaster of the music was relentless –with the exception of the second movement (“Andante moderato”) which was gentle and almost mild in comparison

The French horn section, led by principal James Sommerville, played with panache. Principal tubist Mike Roylance created tonal depth charges of despair and the bass violins (nine!) grumbled with terrific force. Concertmaster Malcom Lowe performed each of his exposed passages impeccably.

Nelsons whipped up the orchestra with a variety of full-body gestures that would have made Mahler proud. Nelsons urged on his colleagues by crouching down to the level of his music stand, leaping, lunging, using hands only, switching the baton to his left hand while guiding with his right, and using his fingers for trills. Once in a while, he appeared to be caught in an awkward moment like a basketball player completing a layup on the wrong foot. But nothing slowed him down or got in the way. The final anguished notes lingered for a while before the audience broke into applause and cheers. It was a triumphant end of a long, wild , and sometimes mind-numbing emotional journey.
PS: I greeted Adam Esbensen, BSO cellist, just after he came back on stage for the second half of the performance. Many readers may recall that Esbensen was member of the Oregon Symphony and was active with other ensembles in and around Portland before he joined the BSO.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

H+H delivers powerful performance of Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion”

The Handel and Haydn Society celebrated its 200th anniversary with an intense and moving performance of Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion” before a full house at Symphony Hall (Boston) on Friday (March 27). H+H’s Music Director Harry Christophers deftly led a period orchestra and 34-voice choir, augmented by two of the organization’s youth choruses, and a sterling group of soloists, whose brightest star was tenor Joshua Ellicott in the role of the Evangelist. The performance created a memorable occasion for H+H, which gave the first complete American performance in 1879.

Ellicott expressed a full range of emotions, which wonderfully narrated the story of Christ’s trial and crucifixion. His voice easily transitioned between a vibrato and a smooth, straight tone. But as the narrative grew increasingly agitated, reflecting the Passion story, his topmost notes rang out and seemed to spur on the chorus and orchestra. He also had an engaging way of leaning into notes, such as when he related how Peter denied Jesus three times and then went out and wept (“weinte”) bitterly.

As Jesus, baritone Roderick Williams sang with a warm and inviting voice that was also noble and intense. He seemed to have almost every note memorized because he often sang directly to the audience without referring to his score.

Soprano Joélle Harvey sang with beautiful phrasing, but her “Blute nur, du liebes Herz!” started a little too softly. Fortunately, she increased her volume, and the aria “Ich will dir mein Herze schenken” became one of the highlights of the evening. Combining power and passion in her singing, mezzo Anna Stéphany created many poignant moments in her reflective arias, such as in “Buss und Reu,” but her diction was not always clear.

Tenor Matthew Long sang with conviction and urgency, employing a focused vibrato and tone that contrasted well with Ellicott’s. Baritone Sumner Thompson distinguished himself with vibrant singing in arias and roles that included Judas and Pontus Pilate.

Conducting without a baton, Christophers drew from a large palette of gestures, including using his shoulders, to elicit dynamics from the chorus and orchestra that marvelously matched the text. The chorus maintained an exceptional blend even when it conveyed an angry mob shouting to crucify Jesus. The double choir formation, mirrored by the orchestra, worked seamlessly, including the tricky sections such as the beginning of Part II when phrases were traded quickly between the ensembles.

The “St. Matthew Passion” is dotted with sections that feature small ensembles, which allowed for exceptional contributions from the woodwinds, continuo, and other parts of the orchestra. Concertmaster Aisslinn Nosky excelled in her solo during “Erbarme dich,” but Associate Concertmaster Christina Day Martinson’s violin seemed to betray her with intonation problems during “Gebt mir meinen Jesum wieder.”

At the end of the performance, applause unfortunately broke out before Christophers could lower his hands, but that reaction also revealed the pent-up enthusiasm of the audience. The loudest cheering erupted when Ellicott came out for a solo bow, but it continued thunderously for the entire assemblage in appreciation for creating a memorable experience.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

News and updates

Heilwig von Königslöw and Aisslinn Nosky
Kudos to Kenji Bunch, who is working on a big piece for orchestra and chorus entitled "Symphony No 3 "Dream Songs." It is a commission from the Grant Park Music Festival and will receive its world premiere by the Grant Park Orchestra under the direction of Carlos Kalmar on June 19th and 20th. Here is a link to the announcement in the Grant Park Music Festival program. (Thanks to Bob Priest for finding this nugget.)

The Chicago Tribune reports that acoustic piano sales are starting to rise again after hitting bottom during the recession.

A week or so ago, the Los Angeles Times reported that Los Angeles Philharmonic's music director Gustav Dudamel and his wife, Eloisa Maturen, are filing for divorce. They have been married for nine years and have a three-year old son.

I have written profiles of the 13 winners of Artist Fellowships from the Oregon Arts Commission. This includes composers David Crumb and Rebecca Oswald. The profiles are short and sweet, and you can find them on the OAC website here. For the OAC, I also wrote an article on the 2015 Fisherpoets event in Astoria, which you can read here.

I am currently in Boston to attend the Handel + Haydn Society's performance of Bach's "St. Matthew Passion" at Symphony Hall tomorrow evening. On Saturday evening, I will hear the Boston Symphony play the world premiere of Michael Gandolfi's"Ascending Light" for organ and orchestra and Mahler's Sixth Symphony. Both pieces will be conducted by Andris Nelsons. The performances and several associated panel discussions are sponsored by ArtsBoston and hosted by the H+H Society and the BSO as part of  writer's institute that features a few members of the Music Critic Association of North America. Tonight I was at a soirée underwritten the H+H where I met its artistic director Harry Christophers and concertmaster Aisslinn Nosky. Christophers is from England and Nosky is from Vancouver, B.C. The photo above shows her and her teacher Heilwig von Königslöw.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Oregon Symphony expands on sonic textures with Ehnes and Märkl

James Ehnes - © Benjamin Ealovega
From small and intimate to extravagant and exposed, the Oregon Symphony traversed a long distance in its most recent concert on Sunday evening (March 22) at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. Starting with the gentle quietude of Toshio Hosokawa’s “Blossoming II,” followed by mercurial yet elegant First Violin Concerto of Sergei Prokofiev, which featured James Ehnes, and concluding with the wild ride of hector Berlioz’s “Symphonie fantastique,” the program had a lot to offer. It also played to the strength of guest conductor Jun Märkl, who elicited a huge spectrum of sound from the orchestra.

In his playing of the Prokofiev, Ehnes combined flawless technique with the superior artistry to create marvelous views of the music’s landscape. Lyrical sweetness, grace yet rapid runs, sleek glissandos, and buzzy tones were part of the sonic journey. Everything seemed to flow effortlessly from Ehnes’ fingers. His transitions from slow to fast and back again and his command of passages in the uppermost range were thrilling. Near the end of the piece, he spun a series of high-wire trills while the orchestra supported with a clocklike tick tock.

Ehnes’ performance could only be topped by a show stopper, so that’s what the orchestra did by uncorking an intensely engaging interpretation of Berlioz’s “Symphonie fantastique.” Led by Märkl’s graceful and almost balletic conducting style, the orchestra was on fire, playing with passionate intensity. Attacks, cutoffs, sforzandos, crescendos, decrescendos, accelerandos, ritardando, and everything in between was outstanding. Highlights of the performance included, the exchange of phrases between the English horn (Kyle Mustain) and oboe in the balcony (Martin Hébert), the enthusiastic pounding the timpani and bass drums, the lilting waltzes of the strings, the jocular march to the scaffold with the woodwinds in the lead, the grumblings of the bass violins, and the rocking out of all of the musicians during the final nightmare of the Witches’ Sabbath. The players seemed to be having a blast and it resonated all over the hall.

In sharp contrast, the opening piece “Blossoming II” (written by Hosokawa in 2011) generated tones that seemed to emerge out of nowhere. A pillowy soft sound would gradually increase in volume and size and then shrink. It was soft of like hearing plants grow during the day and relax at night. Sometimes Alicia Didonato Paulsen’s flute would ruffle things up a bit like the wind. At other times, the strings would create insect-like sounds. Perhaps a number of other instruments were involved in these effects. I think that I heard the contrabassoon (Evan Kuhlmann) dive into the depths before vanishing into a higher realm. Märkl marvelously guided it all with gestures that at times looked like he was swatting at flies.

Overall, this was a terrific program that really stretched the ears and mind. Kudos to the orchestra and its guest artists.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Lauderdale goes into overdrive for Beethoven Choral Fantasy

Popular bandleader and hometown icon Thomas Lauderdale went into overdrive in his performance of Beethoven’s “Choral Fantasy” on Saturday (March 14) at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. It was a bit of a stretch for Lauderdale. His runs up and down the keyboard were not smooth, and he missed some notes on the top end. But he did bring a lot of energy and enthusiasm to the stage and that resonated well with the audience, which responded with boisterous cheers and a standing ovation.

Most serious pianists at the top of their game don’t bring a bottle of water onto the stage with them, but Lauderdale being Lauderdale got away with this. He also got carried away with flinging his arms about after finishing an arduous passage of which there were several. Perhaps if he had done that gesture only at the end of the piece, it wouldn’t have been distracting. He has a charismatic personality that connects extremely well with the audience, and as a cheer-leading member of the orchestra’s board, he has done a lot to promote the orchestra and keep it in the black (the New Year’s concerts, for example, which generate lots of money that goes directly into the orchestra’s coffers is attributed to Lauderdale).

The choral part of the “Choral Fantasy” was performed with distinction by the combined forces of the Portland State Chamber Choir, Man Choir, and Vox Femina, all of which were prepared by Ethan Sperry. The blend was excellent, but the diction (lots of tough German words) needed a little more clarity. Because the soloists and choir were all packed into the balcony behind the orchestra, amplification was effectively used.

In the second half of the concert, Lauderdale played Louis Moreau Gottschalk’s “Grande Tarantelle for Piano and Orchestra.” Lauderdale faired a little better in this piece, which was kind of like a souped-up salon number. But again his runs tended to be ragged in the few exposed sections. Still, the audience loved it, and embraced Lauderdale with loud adoration.

The program began with a sensitive interpretation of Hindemith “Nobilissima vision” (Concert Suite from “St. Francis”). The dirge-like seriousness at the start of the piece featured a marvelously soft collaboration between the strings and the clarinets. Flutist Alecia DiDonato Paulsen created a lovely wandering line that wafted above while others established a sense of someone walking slowly. Zachariah Galatis’ piccolo combined with the percussion section to elicit a military-like march. A throbbing bass passage contrasted strongly with a mellow flute line and lyrical violins. Somewhere along the way, Martin Hébert’s oboe declared a wonderfully simple melody. The ensemble, with the brass weighing in, built up the sound until it became massive and out of that emerged a noble theme – shared by all sections of the orchestra. Overall, conductor Carlos Kalmar and the orchestra evoked the enigmatic nature of this piece and made it very satisfying.

The concert ended with Randall Thompson’s Second Symphony, a lively and optimistic work. From the energetic and vigorous opening to the jaunty theme in the finale, the orchestra played with intensity and made the piece thoroughly engaging. Trumpeter Jeffrey Work and timpanist Jonathan Greeney teamed up for a series of exciting riffs. Highlights included surging sforzandos from the French horns, expressive melodies from the woodwinds, pronounced and dramatic shifts by the entire ensemble, and a brassy reflection from the bass trombone. It was a fun piece to hear, and it made me wonder about the other symphonies that Thompson wrote.

Returning to Lauderdale, his bio in the program started with the statement that he has thought running for the office of the mayor of Portland. I think that he would win such a contest, and that would be a good thing for the orchestra and musical arts, which continue to struggle in the City of Roses. On top of that, which other mayors across the United States can play anything besides chopsticks on the piano?

Monday, March 16, 2015

Super bassoonist Buncke soars above in performance with the Portland Columbia Symphony Orchestra

After hearing Keith Buncke live, I understand how this 21-year-old phenom won the principal bassoonist position with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Buncke, the featured guest artist at the Portland Columbia Symphony concert on Friday (March 13th), played with a level of maturity that is astounding. His impeccable and artistic performances of works by Heitor Villa-Lobos and Carl Maria von Weber marvelously showed off his talents in contrasting ways. The concert was a homecoming of sorts for Buncke, a tall and lanky fellow who seemed to resemble the instrument he plays so well. He grew up in Lake Oswego and was still in his junior year at the Curtis Institute of Music when he won the principal bassoonist post with the Atlanta Symphony.

One of the fun things about the concert was brief introduction given by Betsy Hatton, who is PSCO’s executive director and a violinist in the ensemble. She remembered getting a phone call several years ago from Mark Eubanks, Buncke’s teacher, who asked if there were any age restrictions for someone to become a member of the PCSO. Hatton replied that there were not such restrictions. So Buncke competed in a blind audition for the principal bassoonist position and won it at the age of 15. Hatton then proudly said, “We gave him his first paycheck.”

In “Ciranda das sete notes” (“Dance of the Seven Notes”), Villa-Lobos used seven notes of the C-major scale to fashion a fantasy for the bassoon soloist and orchestral strings. Buncke expressed lyrical tones with a slight vibrato that could be heard over the orchestra. His handling of ascending scales that often bubbled up from the basement of the instrument and ended somewhere in upper story then went back downstairs again. In a later section, while the bass violins established a gently rocking current, Buncke elicited a mellow lament that floated above. The piece ended with Buncke playing an elegant note that he held for a long time before joining the orchestra on a short and much lower one.

Weber’s “Andante and Hungarian Rondo” is considered by many to be the most popular bassoon concerto after Mozart’s. Buncke introduced the languorous theme and deftly launched into its variations, exchanging some of them with the orchestra along the way. Duets between Buncke and his colleagues in the bassoon section were memorable, and the dance-like sections had a good bounce to them. Buncke played with panache, making it all look incredibly easy.

The orchestra, under its still-new music director Steven Byess, gave a polished account of Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Capriccio Espagnol.” The pace was a bit slow but that didn’t stop stellar contributions from Jen Harrison, principal French horn, Liberty Broillet, principal flute, Barbara Johnston, principal cello, and Dawn Carter, concertmaster.

Manuel de Falla’s Suite No. 2 from “The Three Cornered Hat” also received a spirited performance from the orchestra. The French horns, Brad Hochhalter, principal oboe, and Ann van Bever, English horn deserved kudos for their fine playing. George Enescu’s “Romanian Rhapsody No. 1” came off a bit flat and under-rehearsed. It needed a lot more zip in order to get that wild, Hungarian feel.

Postscript: Last June, I got to hear the Chicago Symphony's principal bassoonist David McGill in his final concert with the orchestra. If you want to read about that concert, click here.

Friday, March 13, 2015

“Guys and Dolls” on a roll in Portland

The national tour of “Guys and Dolls” rolled into Portland a few days ago, and the cast did a bang up job in its performance on Wednesday evening (March 11) at the Keller Auditorium. Matthew J. Taylor had that unique combination of suave and debonair and all-American swagger that made the role of Sky Masterson, high-level gambler, a winner. Taylor was well-matched by Kayleen Seidl , who created a no-nonsense, yet ready to cut loose at any moment Sarah Brown, the Salvation Army leader and love-interest of Masterson.

Lauren Weinberg’s Adelaide was wonderfully cheesey with a New York accent that could take the chrome off the bumper of a ’55 Chevy. As local gambling honcho Nathan Detroit, Christopher Swan kept an engaging stream of banter going with all of his gambling cronies while diligently extending his engagement to Adelaide as long as possible.

Todd Berkich, as Nicely-Nicely Johnson, got everyone swaying with his terrific singing of “Sit Down You’re Rockin’ the Boat,” setting off exuberant dancing and singing by the entire ensemble. The razzmatazz neatly paralleled the wild scene in Havana with Brown and Masterson.

Cliff Blake wielded a gruff Jimmy Durante-esque voice as Harry the Horse while John Galas as Big Julie intimidated everyone with his fire-hydrant stance. John Ryan’s avuncular Arvide Abernathy provided reassurance that at least one person wasn’t worried about winning souls or a game of craps. Michael C. Thatcher’s serious-minded Lieutenant Brannigan and Jesse Graham’s stolid General Cartwright were excellent counterweights to the collection of con-men and saucy women.

The scenery, designed by Randel Wright, efficiently set the locations with a minimum of fuss. The costumes were a combination of zoot suit riot, spats, and pinstripes for the men, burgundy outfits for the Salvation Army-folks, and skimpy, sexy numbers for the ladies of the night and the hot box girls. The orchestra, conducted by Peter Nilsen, consisted of just nine musicians, but their playing was spot on, making the most of Frank Loesser's music. Stage director Jeffrey B. Moss and choreographer Bob Richard set a brisk pace that was engaging from the get go.

The biggest challenge for this show was the amplification. For some strange reason, everyone was over-amplified, which made it difficult to understand what was said or sung. After intermission, I moved to a side section that was not directly in the line of the huge speakers, and I found that I could understand all of the words much better. Amplification in the Keller seems to be the biggest bugaboo for touring shows. Getting that show that gets the right amount of amplification is a crap shot.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Grosvenor's Portland Piano International recital one of the best ever

Pianist Benjamin Grosvenor unleashed the subtlest of dynamics and blessed them with just the right tempi during his performance on Monday evening (March 9) at Lincoln Hall at part of Portland Piano International's recital series. His meticulous artistry brought out the essence of each piece on the program in an intimate way that made listening to the music a life-enhancing experience.

Playing works by Chopin, Ravel, Granados, and Scriabin, plus an arrangement by Adolf Schulz-Evler of Johann Strauss’s “Blue Danube,” Grosvenor, a 22-year-old phenomenon from England, constantly probed each phrase of each piece yet kept everything within the arc of the piece. He found sounds that shifted from soft to softer to softest with all sorts of gradations in between. His mezzo-fortes to double fortes were also impressive in their variety.

Coupling artistry with flawless technique, Grosvenor’s playing of Chopin’s Ballade No. 1 and Ballade No. 3 exposed new tonal colors – even to those of us who have heard those pieces countless times. The same could be said for his interpretation of two Mazurkas (F minor, Op. 63, No. 2 and C-sharp minor, Op. 30, No. 4) and of the Barcarolle in F-sharp Major, Op. 60 as well as the “Andante Spianato et Grande Polonaise Brillante.”

In his performance of Ravel’s “Valses nobles et sentimentales,” Grosvenor explored all sorts of nuances, including excursions that were articulate yet playful and others that featured lovely soft suspensions. Grosvenor created a series of natural transitions from serious to lighthearted in Granados’ “Valses poeticos,” and left an indelible impression with an immaculate blitz of notes at the end of the piece. His playing of Scriabin’s “Valse” was wonderfully explosive and flamboyant. Taking it up a notch, he concluded his program with Evler’s arrangement, the “Blue Danube,” which left effervescent sounds swirling towards the ceiling of Lincoln Hall.

The audience erupted with its second standing ovation (the first one happened before intermission), cheers and bravos, which brought Grosvenor back to the piano for two encores. The first was a soothingly light piece, “The Fountain and the Clock” by the Spanish composer Fredrico Mompou. The second was all virtuosic fireworks, a Concert Etude by Ernst von Dohnanyi. Both were marvelously played by Grosvenor.

For those of you who missed the opportunity to hear Grosvenor, don’t despair. He will be back next season to play a concerto with the Oregon Symphony. That should be an exceptional concert.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Virtuosic playing by Maia Hoffman in Walton’s Viola Concerto highlights PYP concert

Violist Maia Hoffman
Maia Hoffman gave an astonishingly beautiful performance of William Walton’s Viola Concerto on Saturday evening (March 7) in the Portland Youth Philharmonic’s Winter Concert at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. Considering that Hoffman is just a senior at Wilson High School, “astonishingly beautiful” might be an understatement. “Dazzling” and “superb” are two other superlatives that come to mind, yet fall short of describing Hoffman’s performance.

One of the great things about Hoffman’s playing was that she created a compelling storyline for the concerto. It could’ve been just a flashy piece with a lot of technical jujitsu for the soloist, but Hoffman took the audience on a musical journey that travelled from a an unhurried and smooth state past episodic ones that altered between frenetic and meandering passages before concluding with a feeling that was meditative and restful. Along the way, Hoffman delved into a sweeping palate of sounds that ranged from warm and lyrical to brusque and marcato. Her impeccable playing included a myriad of double stops and quick-silver runs that looked devilishly treacherous. Hoffman’s deft fingerwork made it all look completely natural, including an impressive zing on the fast moving notes at the end of the second movement.

The orchestra, under musical director David Hattner, supported Hoffman with expert attention to dynamics, making sure not to drown out the soloist especially during the louder passages. The snappy articulation from the entire ensemble at the beginning of the second movement was particularly impressive. The principal flutist and principal bassoonist contributed brief solos with distinction. Overall, Hoffman, Hattner, and the orchestra collaborated with panache to turn this relatively unknown work into a winner and a standing ovation.

The concert began with a marvelous account of the Symphony No. 3 of Johannes Brahms. After the strong opening statement, the orchestra negotiated its way through the thick stew of Brahms’ music. The woodwinds were a bit brittle at the beginning of the first movement, but they produced a relaxed, warm tone after the recapitulation of the main themes. Excellent interplay and blend between the woodwinds, horns, and lower strings along with a resonant yet soft brass choir highlighted the second movement. The cellos and violins wonderfully brought out the elegiac melody at the start of the third movement and the principal horn aced his exposed passage. The entire ensemble generated organic crescendos and decrescendos in the fourth movement and, skillfully guided by Hattner, brought the piece to a gentle finale.

The concert closed with a spirited performance of Igor Stravinsky’s “Firebird Suite” in the 1919 version. The lower strings established a sense of utter darkness and as the orchestral forces gradually joined in to evoke the palace of the evil ogre Kastchei. Wonderful contributions by the woodwinds (with kudos to the principals) created the mercurial firebird and the lovely princesses who played in Kastchei’s garden. The “Infernal Dance of King Kashchei” moved along well, but it would have been even better if it could have been wilder and looser. The lush strings and the restful sounds of the principal oboe and English horn added sweetness to the “Lullaby.” The principal French horn and principal flute summoned the orchestra to swell into a bravura finish that generated cheers a echoing bravos from the audience. Indeed, the young and talented members of the Portland Youth Philharmonic deserved high marks for their performance of this difficult piece, and Hattner was brought back to the stage a couple of times in appreciation for what he and the orchestra accomplished.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Hideki Yamaya talks in depth about the Romantic guitar and Musica Maestrale's third season

Hideki Yamaya
On February 18th I sat down to chat with Musica Maestrale's artistic director Hideki Yamaya about some of the unique and exciting programming still to come in the third season of the ensemble. As always, it was an informative and interesting conversation.

LW: I'm talking with Hideki Yamaya, artistic director, lutenist and jack-of-all-[plucked]-stringed instruments for the early music collective Musica Maestrale. We're talking about season 3! First though, how did last season go?

HY: That was such a long time ago I don't remember! (Laughing). No, I think it went really well. I think our third season is off to a good start--we've had two concerts, and the third one is coming up. And that's what I'd like to talk about.

LW: That's right...we're already on to the third concert. So tell us a little about concert three of season three.

HY: For this concert we are inviting back John Schneiderman, who is my former guitar and lute teacher and my current duet partner. We had him for our first season to do baroque lute and baroque mandolin duets, and this time we are doing 19th-century music. Guitar duets from Germany and Austria, on period instruments. [First Christian Church, Saturday March 7 @ 730 pm. Tickets available at the door or at ]

LW: Excellent--I remember his performance well. He's a truly great guitarist. So who are we going to hear?

HY: We will have duets by Johann Kaspar Mertz, who was born in Bratislava, which makes him a Slovak composer, but his career was in Vienna.  He's not a household name, but guitarists would know him, as he's probably one of the better known guitar composers from the Romantic period. And then we will do a duet by Beethoven, of all people, because you need that big name to put on your marquee. It's an arrangement for two guitars of one of his piano sonatas. It was arranged by a contemporary of Beethoven; he was actually born in the same year (1770.) Ferdinando Carulli was his name. It's a really masterful arrangement that works extremely well on guitar.

LW. Excellent. It's funny; this sort of goes back to the conversation you and I were just having about who was doing what with the guitar, and when. So how does--I guess for a broader kind of question--how does the evolution of what was being done with classical guitar music fit in with the evolution of European art music into the Romantic period generally? Was it kind of it's own animal?

HY: Well the guitar is an instrument--it was maybe not the best vehicle for the Romantic movement. It was not--compared to, say, the piano--it was not really suited to these big gestures and extremes of dynamics. The guitar favors certain keys, it has limitations in volume. But it had its own path, and it wasn't independent of all these things that were happening to music in the period. The guitar was very much a salon instrument as opposed to a piano, which was suitable for the salon and the concert hall. That's not to say that the guitar didn't have it's place in the concert hall, but it was certainly geared more towards the salon, and the repertoire reflects that.

LW: Who would you say--for those who might not be as familiar with guitar composers--who would you say Mertz might remind us of?

HY: He's often compared to Chopin, and what Chopin did for the piano, Mertz--he certainly did a lot to expand the harmonic language that was available to the guitar, and he also wrote pieces that went to remote keys that weren't that common for the guitar.

LW: So it seems he was pushing the boundaries to some degree or other.

HY: He certainly was.

LW: And then we have good old Herr Beethoven.

HY: Yes.  Ferdinando Carulli was an Italian guitarist/composer who was working in Paris as that time. An exact contemporary [of Beethoven] he's really remembered more for his method and for his pedagogical works. So a lot of guitar students go through a lot of Carulli, get tired of him, and never play him again. And that's a big mistake, because he left these great concert works. This piece that we're playing is one of those. [Ed. Note: Piano Sonata #12 in Ab Maj, Op 26.]

LW: So that's interesting. This transcription wasn't something that was done a century-and-a-half after the fact. This was Beethoven's contemporary, who wanted to play Beethoven on his [Carulli's] own instrument.

HY: Exactly. Which is a testament to Beethoven's fame during his lifetime, to how great musicians of his era recognized his genius, and how beautiful his music was. We are also doing duets by Adam Darr, who John and I--we were taken by his duets.

LW: You recorded some of these, correct?

HY: We recorded a bunch of these's a double CD. I think I gave you a copy.

LW: Yes; it's a wonderful CD. I think you gave it to my for my birthday. A great present!

HY:  Adam Darr is a complete unknown. Most guitarists wouldn't even recognize his name. He left quite a hefty amount of music, and we particularly liked his duets. So we recorded a double CD of his duets. We released it through Profil, a German label, and we're trying to revive him as a guitar composer.*

LW: Well this is interesting because people who follow MM think of early music, so this is an interesting expansion.

HY: Yes.  My excuse is that we're still doing it all on period of the instruments that John's going to play is a terz guitar. That is basically a guitar that's tuned up a minor's in G. There are a lot of duets for terz and regular guitar.  And that's not a common thing nowadays. It's an instrument that I wouldn't say died out, but you dont see it very often.  And I will be playing a ten-string guitar for this concert. It's ten single-strung strings--six strings on the fingerboard like a regular guitar, and four floating bass strings, like a theorbo.  [The concert] is all played on period instruments. And this time around--no replicas. They are all from the 19th century.

LW: So how do you go about procuring a 150 or 120 year old instrument?

HY:  I go on eBay....

LW: Which is exactly what they did in the late 19th century.

HY: (Laughing) Exactly right. But I've done this a few times. I find instruments that are totally worthless as instruments in themselves. I see a lot of guitars with a neck that came off, or they are in pieces. But if it looks promising--if the quality of the wood looks good, or I look at the marquetry work--if it looks like it's good quality, then it's probably a good instrument that got left in the attic and it fell apart.

LW: So a good candidate for restoration is what you're looking for.

HY: Right. So then I'll buy that for...a hundred bucks. And then spend 1500 bucks getting it restored. It's a gamble...but it's worked out for me. I have a couple of instruments like that and they're very fine instruments.

LW: So now...the rest of the season?

Brandon Labadie
HY: The rest of the season.  So after the guitar duet program, in April we have a French baroque program. For that we're going to have oboe, violin, harpsichord and viola da gamba. On oboe is Brandon Labadie, violin Vicky Pich, viola da gamba Max Fuller, and for harpsichord we are bringing in Jonathan Oddie from Seattle. The music is going all be from the court of Louis XIV.

LW: Ah, the Sun King. Roi du Soleil.

HY: Yes. So that's going to be a fun program.

LW: So am I correct in guessing there might be some Lully?

HY: There might be. There's definitely going to be Couperin...the music selection process just started for that one so...stay tuned. And then in May we're going to do an American baroque program.  So Brandon discovered this book of music that was left by a club that got together and played every week to entertain  themselves. [Ed. Note: A group from colonial Annapolis, MD.] Amateur musicians who wrote down the music that they played. They were amateurs, so it's of varying quality.

LW: But it's authentic! It's the garage music of the day!

HY: Right! It's just people jamming, and leaving this music, and it's just...super fascinating. Brandon is taking the helm on that one...I'm not even going to play in that program. That's his baby.  But I'm still excited for that. It should be a fun program.

LW: I remember talking with him about that last fall... he was very excited. As was I.  Looking ahead to season there anything you know so far, or any tidbits you can share?

HY: I have a few ideas that I'm throwing around in my head...laughing. We still want to do staged works...

LW: I know that's been a goal of yours for some time now.

HY: Right. And that is really contingent upon how much money we can raise. When we get into that, it starts costing real money. Aside from that, we've got a few ideas...but they're just ideas. I can't reveal them yet laughing.

LW: Not suitable for publication. Ruminations.

HY: Season Four...we're starting to get a pretty solid audience base.

LW: I've noticed that. There's been a subtle but increasing but...what do I want to say...sustaining. It's always hard for a new matter the quality, which, just listing the names of the performers you've played with this year in addition to yourself...people know that these people know their early music, and can play their early music. So it's nice to see the base growing.

HY: Yes it really is. Thanks so much!

*ED Note: CDs mentioned in this interview, as well as others and more information, can be found at

Sunday, March 1, 2015

EAR TRUMPET - Portland's new music calendar - March edition

Here is the listing of concerts for March in the Portland metro area that feature new music, as compiled by Bob Priest, composer, impresario, and Mr.MMM .


6 - Fri - 7:30 pm
"Sacred Concert II"
Duke Ellington
St. Anne's Chapel

7 - Sat - 7:30 pm
"Made in Italy"
Berio, Dallapiccola, Nono & Sciarrino
Portland Art Museum

11 - Wed - Noon
"Modern Impressionism"
Lisa Ann Marsh - piano
The Old Church

<<< ET PICK >>>
13 - Fri - 8 pm
"Mr. Oong-Kah @ 75"
Louis Andriessen
Alberta Rose Theatre

14 - Sat - 8 pm
Videos & Discussion
Yale Union

15 - Sun - 7 pm
Britten, Messiaen,Takemitsu & Woody
L.O. United Methodist Church

18 - Wed - 8 pm
Catherine Lee - oboe
Matt Hannafin - percussion
Turn! Turn! Turn!

21/22 - Sat/Sun - 7:30 pm
Toshio Hosokawa
Arlene Schnitzer Hall

27 - Fri - 8 pm
Roseland Theatre

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7/14/21/28 - Saturday: 8-10
All-Classical @ 89.9 FM

2/9/16/23 - Monday: 8-10
KBOO @ 90.7 FM

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ET Recording of the Month:

"A Kagel-Schubert Project"
FARAO classics

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ET West Coast Concert of the Month:

14 - Sat - 8
Haas & Radulescu
Orpheum Annex (Vancouver, BC)

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