February 7, 2013

Beethoven, Bartok and 'Butterfly' well worth the doubled parking fee


In spite of the doubling of the parking fee for Merrill Auditorium (from $5 to $10 for events) the lots began filling up about 6 p.m. for the Portland Symphony Orchestra's performance of Beethoven's Fifth Tuesday night.

The capacity audience was not disappointed -- the well-known masterpiece earned an instant standing ovation -- but Bartok's Suite from "The Miraculous Mandarin," which opened the program, was more interesting.

I was a little taken aback by the supertitles for the suite and for the "Butterfly Lovers Concerto" which followed, feeling that they distracted from the musical imagery, which is different for every listener.

Still, the suite is from a ballet, and I suppose the audience deserves to know what is going on, if the dancers are not there to illustrate the plot.

Both "The Miraculous Mandarin" and the concerto are stories of the redemptive power of nature in the face of the man-made -- the soulless city in the Bartok and the Confucian respect for elders in the "The Butterfly Lovers."

Bartok's suite would be a good introduction to those who don't know his work, since the music is readily accessible, and even at its most raucous illustrates and propels the action.

The difficult score was beautifully performed; the clarinet solos of the girl's provocative dances built in intensity while portraying her shifting emotions.

The percussion glissandos were worth the price of admission, and there were surprising echoes of "The Rite of Spring."

The "Butterfly Lovers Concerto" is like ramen: pleasant, easy to digest, with a hint of oriental flavor.

Written by two composition students in 1958-59 to combine Western classical music with a Chinese fairy-tale, it is hard to imagine that it would have earned the composers severe punishment for decadence and subversion.

A heady mixture of musical cliches and pentatonic scales, it has been loved by audiences since its introduction to the West in the 1970s.

The piece also has some nice touches of orchestration, such as a delightful flute and harp solo, effective use of woodblocks and a charming duet between violin and cello.

One authentically oriental thing about it is the muted voice of the violin soloist, exemplifying the subservience of the heroine to her father's wishes.

Violinist Andrea Segar made the part seem magical at times; at others she was barely audible, certainly by design, since she combines purity of tone with considerable power when needed.

What is there to say about Beethoven's Fifth Symphony?

It remains moving after the 100th hearing, and brand-new to every generation.

The orchestra under Robert Moody rendered it in fine, traditional fashion, although the melodic line became a little blurry at times in the first movement.

At the final chord, the audience leaped to its feet.

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

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