June 28, 2013

Review: Festival airs Native American sounds


The Maine Festival of American Music (June 26-29), presented by the United Society of Shakers and the Portland String Quartet, got off to an authentic start Wednesday night at the Shaker Meeting House at Sabbathday Lake, with examples of Native American influence on classical music.

The program began with "Two Sketches Based on Indian Themes"' by American composer Charles Tomlinson Griffes (1884-1920). These little-heard works for string quartet show the influence of Dvorak, but are entirely original and attempt much more than the creation of an "Indian" atmosphere.

Griffes employs what appear to be authentic Native American themes and rhythms in the two works -- "Lento e mesto" and "Allegro giocoso" -- and develops them in classic style, including a four-part canon. At the same time, he uses more innovative techniques, such as sul ponte beats and cello pizzicatti for complex rhythmical and tonal effects.

The lento, as played by the Portland String Quartet, reveals Griffes as a consummate musical impressionist with a deep feeling for his material.

The lento has a melancholy atmosphere, ending in a muted and high-pitched passage that conveys the spiritual nature of sacred music. The allegro giacoso begins on a cheerful note, but also tends eventually toward a minor key, concluding on an accelerando that might have been influenced by Griffes' friend Igor Stravinsky.

"Two Sketches" is a late work, that was not performed until two years after the composer's death from influenza. It is a shame that his discovery of Native American music never had the chance to develop as much as his early ventures into Orientalism. He could have created a real fusion of musical worlds.

The surprise of the evening was Mic Mac storyteller David Lonebear Sanipass. HIs tales of a bear hunt, and the origin of the Native American cedar-wood flute, held the audience spellbound. But it was his playing of the flute itself that was a revelation.

I have many recordings by Native American master Carlos Nakai, but they pale in comparison to this live performance, which was as pure as birdsong, and as individual.

The lento from Dvorak's Quartet in F Major, Op. 96 ("American") played at the beginning of the second half of the program, took a different approach from that of Griffes. While one of the most beautiful pieces Dvorak ever wrote, it relies on a concept of Native American music popular at the time, with themes of the composer's own invention.

Friday will be devoted to string quartet workshops and Saturday the festival will conclude with works by Mozart, Bach, Tchaikovsky and the world premiere of "A Room with a Chair," by Maine violinist and composer Patrick Doane.

Christopher Hyde's Classical Beat column appears in the Maine Sunday Telegram. He can be reached at:

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