The last Christmas concert has come and gone, giving time to reflect on the year 2010 in music. Although it didn’t provide any transcendental experiences (well, maybe one), it came close several times, which is a pretty good record for a sparsely populated state like Maine.
A couple of events jumped out before I even had a chance to look at last year’s reviews. The first was a performance I didn’t review at all, the Portland Ballet’s delightful staging of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” With choreography by Nell Shipman and a near-perfect for dancing score by Kirt Mosier, it seems destined to become a holiday classic.
Two other concerts were memorable for raising spirits to the sky and then dashing them onto the rocks. Ray Chen gave a fantastic performance of the Brahms Violin Concerto in D Major at the Bowdoin International Music Festival, and Yuja Wang an equally brilliant rendition of the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 2 with the Portland Symphony Orchestra.
Both threw cold water on the exaltation produced by these masterpieces by playing encores. Besides spoiling the mood, this practice, which is becoming more prevalent, calls into question the musicality and respect for the art of any virtuoso who does it.
The PSO concert was redeemed by a lush performance of Howard Hanson’s “Romantic” Symphony, but on the drive home from Bowdoin I had to put on Martha Argerich’s recording of the Prokofiev Concerto No. 3 to soothe my disappointment. Martha doesn’t do encores, even after 15 curtain calls.
The closest to an epiphany was a concert of the Salt Bay Chamberfest in Damariscotta that included George Crumb’s description of Hell, “Black Angels” (1969), and Olivier Messiaen’s preview of Heaven, the “Quartet for the End of Time,” for clarinet, cello, violin and piano. Both the performances were remarkable, almost definitive, but the contrast took everything to a higher plane.
Right up there among the stars was the Ravel Introduction and Allegro for Harp, Flute, Clarinet and String Quartet at the Portland Chamber Music Festival. It almost made one agree with Ned Rorem, that Ravel composed the most beautiful music ever written.
Another great Ravel of the year was the DaPonte String Quartet’s glorious reading of the Quartet in F Major at the Walpole Meeting House in September.
We all have to thank Robert Russell, the Choral Art Society and faculty of the University of Southern Maine School of Music for presenting, in all its sublime length, “the greatest musical work of all ages and peoples,” the Bach Mass in B Minor. It did have its moments.
Other moments that I recall with pleasure, and desired to record surreptitiously, included the Prokofiev Violin Sonata No. 2 at Bowdoin’s Monday Sonata series; “Frog Like” by bass fiddle virtuoso Edgar Meyer; the PSO’s reading of the Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 4 at the same concert; its Mahler Symphony No.2; a little-known work by Rebecca Clarke, Prelude, Allegro and Pastorale for Clarinet and Viola, at a concert by the Portland String Quartet; and the 2010 prize winner of the Portland Chamber Music Festival composition contest, Andrew List’s Six Bagatelles for String Trio.
For best performance by an amateur orchestra, the Midcoast Symphony’s performance of Respighi’s “The Pines of Rome” wins hands down.
And for pure enjoyment, no one could top the ragtime concert of the Portland String Quartet at the Shaker Meeting House in New Gloucester, with pianist Virginia Eskine. Like 2010, it had something for everyone.
Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at: