November 26, 2013

Review: Portland Symphony delivers uneven start to Christmas season

Some performances soar while others fall flat in ‘Magic of Christmas’

By Christopher Hyde

The Portland Symphony Orchestra, under guest conductor Hugh Floyd, staged a “Magic of Christmas” for adults Sunday afternoon at Merrill Auditorium. It included ancient airs and dances, a novelty piece, a Christmas concerto and a Bach cantata, with the Choral Art Camerata, predicting the advent.

Floyd is known as a choral director, and did not seem quite at home in the instrumental works, all of which were pleasant, if not memorable.

The program began with the Suite No. 1 of “Ancient Airs and Dances,” by Ottorino Respighi, a piece that was also played last week by the USM Youth Ensembles. The dances are delightful, in spite of modern orchestrations that would have been inconceivable to their 16th century composers. The stately Villanella, with its oboe solo, sounded surprisingly like Sibelius.

It was followed by a strange and wonderful “Battalia” by Heinrich von Biber (1644-1704), which presaged Charles Ives in a section that included eight different tunes in eight different keys, plus an extended moment of silence, a la Cage’s “4,33.”

Battle scenes in music remained popular for another 200 years, with some pianos equipped to render war-like sound effects. Biber includes stamping, musket shots and a bass with paper under the strings to sound like snare drum.

It was followed by Arcangelo Corelli’s Concerto Grosso, Op. 6, No. 8 in G minor, nicknamed the Christmas Concerto for the season of its premiere, rather than for any specific program. As usual, one could hear things in a live performance that are hidden in most recordings. One example was the appearance of the contemporary Pachelbel Cannon, or something very close to it, in the adagio of the second movement.

The separation of the concertino – two violins, cello and continuo – from the orchestra was particularly good, although someone should start a subscription to buy the PSO a louder harpsichord.

The major work on the program, following intermission, was the Bach Cantata No. 140, “Sleepers Wake,” with the Choral Art Camerata and soloists Dana Whiteside, bass, Kendra Colton, soprano and Camerata member Stuart Bailey, tenor.

The performance was uneven, with some passages, notably with the chorus divided on each side of the stage, where the voice part was drowned out by the orchestra. Others were well balanced, and the Duet, VI, with oboe solo, was excellent.

The translation from the German on the supertitles was the worst I have ever read, with some passages completely meaningless. It was all made up for by the glorious hymn-tune of the final chorus, which led to a standing ovation for all.

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

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