Out & About: Haydn masterpiece, Louis Armstrong tribute are this week's top choices
Franz Joseph Haydn's "The Creation" is a massive choral and orchestral work that's seldom performed in smaller cities such as Portland, mostly because of the size and cost of the project. So it's especially notable that the University of Southern Maine School of Music is presenting Haydn's masterpiece in Merrill Auditorium this Friday. It's a production organized and conducted by professor Rob Lehmann, one of the school's rising stars.
Louis "Satchmo" Armstrong, a dominant figure during America's big-band era, died more than three decades ago, but his memory lives on in his distinctive musical style and many recordings. This Saturday and Sunday you can experience a "live" Louis Armstrong performance thanks to trumpeter Byron Stripling and the Port City's biggest band, the Portland Symphony Orchestra.
First there was chaos. And then there was light. Add a firmament of stars, plus the earth and oceans. Throw in some insects, beasts, birds, fish and great whales. And what have you got?
This whimsical paraphrase of the celebrated opening verses of the Bible's Book of Genesis also summarizes the libretto for one of the most celebrated classical oratorios since the dawn of music.
Franz Joseph Haydn's "The Creation" is a massive musical masterpiece that has awed audiences since it was first performed in 1798. Unfortunately "The Creation" is not performed very often in smaller metropolitan areas such as southern Maine, primarily due to the size and cost of the musical forces required by its vast scope.
So when you get a chance to hear it, don't dally.
This month the University of Southern Maine School of Music is planning several performances in this state, Massachusetts and New Hampshire. The Portland performance is this Friday.
It's organized and conducted by one of the brightest stars in Maine's musical firmament: Rob Lehmann, a violinist, conductor and professor of strings at USM. His name pops up quite often on this page in many musical contexts, including his very notable production of all six of Johann Sebastian Bach's Brandenburg Concertos in one afternoon.
Among his many accomplishments outside the school, Lehmann directs a community orchestra in the Bay State and a Bach festival in the Granite State.
Lehmann has assembled the requisite forces, drawn mostly from USM resources: a full orchestra plus 100-voice chorus and three soloists.
"With this production, the USM School of Music showcases the talents of its students, faculty and community partners with this exceptional work written at the height of Haydn's powers," Lehmann says.
In the mid-1790s, Haydn was enjoying his retirement after a long career as Europe's best (and best-paid) composer, Lehmann notes: "After one of the most illustrious careers in music, Haydn, well into his 60s, stunned the world by coming out of retirement with an oratorio based on the story of Genesis, that combined solo, choral and instrumental forces with his trademark cheerful humor, gift of melody and masterful technique."
Lehmann comments that musicologists believe that the excerpts of text used as the libretto were compiled for George Frideric Handel, of "Messiah" fame. But when Handel passed on the opportunity, Haydn seized it.
"The text is heightened through musical settings that paint vivid images of the scenes," says Lehmann. These include a shockingly unconventional musical depiction of Chaos in the overture.
"The overture must have seemed daring, sinister, and unpredictable to his audiences," comments program scholar Linda Russell.
Referring to the famous lines in the text, "and there was light," Russell adds, "The sudden fortissimo of chorus and orchestra on the word ‘light' has made a powerful effect on every audience since the premiere, as Haydn knew it would."
Haydn continued to more sublime passages that represent the creation of the moon and stars, and finally he segued to a rather whimsical depiction of some of the earth's living creatures, including insects and worms.
Three archangels – Raphael, Uriel and Gabriel – are represented by a trio of soloists who are associated with USM. They include faculty member Malcolm Smith of Cape Elizabeth, a bass who has sung at The Met in New York and other opera houses around the world; tenor John Coons of Corinna, a current graduate student, studying with Smith, and soprano Molly Harmon of Portland, a senior music education major studying with Judith James.
The USM School of Music presents "The Creation" at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 13 at Merrill Auditorium at Portland City Hall. Seating is unreserved. Call the USM Music Box Office at 780-5555 for more information.
Portland Symphony Orchestra
New Orleans-born jazz trumpeter, big-band leader and singer Louis "Satchmo" Armstrong was one of America's most original and influential musicians of the 20th century. Born in poverty in 1901, Armstrong became enthralled by the Big Easy's jazz scene and dedicated his life to music, becoming first a star cornetist and trumpeter, then bandleader and (occasional) singer. He also served as an ambassador of American popular culture.
Armstrong won several Grammy Awards, including one for Lifetime Achievement, and another for his 1964 recording of "Hello Dolly" – which had the distinction of knocking the Beatles out of the No. 1 position on Billboard's top pop chart.
Although he died in 1971, Armstrong's music lives on via recordings and his long-lasting influence on big-band styles.
This weekend, his memory lives on in person, through the tribute performance by Byron Stripling, a conservatory-trained trumpeter who specializes in on-stage depictions of Armstrong. Stripling will appear in two concerts this Saturday and Sunday with the Portland Symphony Orchestra under the baton of guest artist Matthew Fritz, a conducting student of PSO maestro Robert Moody.
Stripling is the artistic director and conductor of the Columbus (Ohio) Jazz Orchestra, has soloed with the Boston Pops and played the lead role in the Broadway production of "Satchmo."
He pays homage by performing pieces made famous by Armstrong such as "Honeysuckle Rose," "Ain't Misbehavin'," "Sweet Georgia Brown" and "Do You Know What It Means to be Miss New Orleans?" In addition to special tribute arrangements for trumpet and symphony orchestra, Stripling sings with the same gravelly voice as Armstrong, dresses the way he would have back in the 1930s and plays his instrument in the artist's distinctive style.
Although he's just starting a career as maestro, Fritz has already conducted the Southern Arizona Symphony, Quincy and Cape Ann symphonies (in Massachusetts), the Phoenix Symphony Guild Youth Orchestra and the PSO's 2008 Summer Serenade concerts.
Two performances are slated for Merrill Auditorium at Portland City Hall: 7:30 p.m. Nov. 14 and 2:30 p.m. Nov. 15. Call PortTix at 842-0800.