Marc-André Hamelin feeds the hungry, plus classical music gangsters

Pianist Hamelin plays his own work, and Maria Choban and company seduce classical music virgins

Marc-Andre Hamelin performed at Portland's Newmark Theater

Marc-Andre Hamelin performed at Portland’s Newmark Theater.


I had come to Marc-André Hamelin‘s March 3 performance at Newmark Theatre with great anticipation of Alban Berg’s sonata: How many times had I blasted Hamelin’s recorded Berg through my monitor headphones and felt the whole world shake? In contrast, Hamelin’s live performance in Portland Piano International’s recital series began surreptitiously, and his specific, high-resolution textures focused the listener’s attention on Berg’s intense questioning instead of his bombastic angst.

Nor did Hamelin perform Gabriel’s Fauré’s Impromptu no. 2, op. 31 and Barcarolle no. 3, op.42 in the usual perfunctory manner. While Hamelin did not neglect the humorous jig in Fauré’s Impromptu no. 2, op. 31, these pieces were obviously not meant to be fluffy palate-cleansers; nothing was ever overstated for the sake of a joke. His performance of the Barcarolle created the heartache of constantly searching for home without knowing if home actually exists.

These short pieces served to connect the listener’s ear to Ravel’s weightier “Gaspard of the Night.” For all the splashy temptations of “Ondine,” Hamelin’s humanizing portrayal of the poet lingered well beyond the showy disappearance of the water nymph; consequently, Hamelin startled me with the sudden tolling bells in “The Gallows.” In this movement, sound moves beyond a philosopher’s probing, beyond a female’s sensuous temptations, and becomes the last horrid attendant to a hanged body. Hamelin did not soften these blows; the music tries to escape, but with chilling insistence the bells nail every flourish firmly back to mortal earth. In the end you wonder if you’ll be able to breathe again. But a flash of a mischievous eye signaled Hamelin’s readiness to introduce us to “Scarbo.” His goblin hopped seditiously through the air until whipping out of sight at the last second.

If the audience’s response to Hamelin’s own composition that opened the concert’s second half is any indicator, Portland is ravenous for new music. The atmosphere of thoughtful introversion that pervaded Newmark Theatre in the concert’s first half completely changed into one of thrilling new possibilities. Through this piece Hamelin comments on the old classics’ demise into aural wallpaper, pokes fun at our fears of modern sounds, and presents an engaging musical language that celebrates the universal love of sound and Hamelin’s own individual ability to create these sounds.

Not only is Hamelin’s “Variations on a Theme by Paginini” completely witty, it’s fresh. “I think my piece is one of the more accessible pieces on the program,” he told ArtsWatch. “It’s not a clear, cut-and-dry set of variations, but at least it’s easy to follow. I’ve had people laugh at it, which is a great response. There’s the eleventh variation where the music keeps being interrupted as if you’re flipping through radio stations. As I was composing it I thought, ‘I can’t do that! They’re gonna kill me!’ I just thought it was so far off in left field that people wouldn’t accept it. Either they would think it was in bad taste or that the concept wouldn’t come off well. So I put a footnote in that variation saying that if one needs to make a cut, it could be omitted. It turns out that this eleventh variation is the one people like the most. So I put some white out over that footnote.”

In Portland, too, the audience roared its approval and returned to astute attention for the ending foray into Rachmaninov. After hearing a breathing composer perform his own composition, the music of Rachmaninov sounded more real, his thoughts as a composer within a particular culture more tangible. In his encore, Hamelin inducted us into the upper echelon he dubbed the “true-blue pianophiles” by performing Paul de Schlözer’s Etude op.1, no. 2, which in the end might have been Moritz Moszkowski’s own work but for an unlucky card game. The fact that he saved the hardest piece for an encore just proves he is the maddest March hare of them all.

Maria Choban performed as MC Hammered Klavier at Portland's Community Music Center. Photo: Ann Campbell

Maria Choban performed as MC Hammered Klavier at Portland’s Community Music Center. Photo: Ann Campbell

Gangster of Classical Music

A very different piano-oriented performance took place in Portland a couple weeks earlier on February 16 at the Community Music Center. In place of the lone artist on stage, the gangster-pianist Maria Choban  collaborated with multiple artists-at-arms, all appropriating their Ondine-esque powers to seduce “classical music virgins,” as Choban affectionately calls them.

The beauty of this hour-long concert was not just that every piece was skillfully performed, but also that the musicians smashed down the barrier separating performer from audience. The flutist Dawn Weiss threw off her scarf and shoes before throwing our ears into delightful acrobatic tumbles in Paul Schoenfield’s “Ufaratsa” for flute and piano. After performing the first movement of Paul Dukas’ tumultuous Piano Sonata in E-flat Minor, Choban applauded right back at the audience, clearly thrilled that the audience wanted more.

The Mousai Trio, consisting of Choban, Janet Bebb on flute and Ann van Bever on oboe, winsomely performed, Miguel del Aguila’s “Seduction Dance,”and “Mebasi” by Kenneth H. Gray. Inspired by a children’s musical game played by the Bibayak tribe of Gabon in Africa, “Mebasi” was by far the cheekiest piece of them all as the instruments cut in and out of the ‘game’ in playful counterpoint. The piano needed some “gentle” preparation by the placing of bean bags over the keys to create the sounds of a thumb piano. More, please!!

Finally, Kenneth Beare, the able tenor who earlier sung us through an endearing Greek wedding courtesy of Maurice Ravel’s intoxicating “Five Greek Songs,” led everyone in a group encore: Choban’s slapstick choice of “Where, Oh Where Are You Tonight?” from the  old variety show “Hee Haw.” The audience sang lustily, and clearly wanted to stay and talk about this community experience. With an ear towards her audience and an eye towards the Portland culture at large, Choban sent her converted audience back into the world, calling out “Now go have a Saturday!!” You can catch her live at the Piano Fort on March 9 with The Late Now as part of March Music Moderne, and with the Mousai (including a reprise of “Mebasi”) on March 10 in the Celebration Works series at downtown Portland’s First Presbyterian Church.

The new music that spiced both piano programs offered a foretaste of Portland’s upcoming contemporary classical options. Classical Revolution PDX is running a composer’s symposium, March Music Moderne runs through March 23, Cascadia Composers  are presenting their new works in “Mad as a March Hare” on March 17, Contemporary Portland Orchestra Project  is performing new works on March 22, and FearNoMusic’s Young Composer’s Project is gearing up for its next concert. And that’s just a sampling of the new sounds onstage in Portland this month.


Jana Hanchett has studied classical and collaborative piano and is exploring classical music in her new hometown of Portland.

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