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From the gut

  • Jul 2, 2009
[caption id="attachment_2869" align="alignright" width="217" caption="Monica Huggett and Adam LaMotte"][/caption]Monica Huggett realized early in her career that something was definitely lacking when she played Baroque music on a 20th century violin. She began to notice the problem when she was a music student in the 1960s. Partly, it was the style of performance she was taught, and partly it was the instrument itself. “I felt uncomfortable playing a lot of music on modern violins,” she said in a telephone interview last week. “When I was a student it just didn’t feel … it didn’t feel good. “The way one was expected to play the modern violin much of the time offended my sensibility. It didn’t feel personal enough. I like to use more nuance.” Nuance, though, wasn’t what her music teachers were looking for. “There was a very prescribed way of playing if you were going to have a career,” she said. “It was what I would call the glitzy, New York kind of playing — the big sound, big vibrato. It felt wrong for an awful lot of music.” Perhaps playing well is the best revenge. Huggett, who is now 56, is one of the world authorities on a style of playing that goes by the awkward name “historically informed performance,” sometimes coolly abbreviated “HIP.” In September, she starts as artistic director of the Juilliard School’s new Historical Performance Program. Huggett is also the artistic director of the Portland Baroque Orchestra, which is performing once again at this year’s Oregon Bach Festival. The orchestra will be playing a concert of music involving William Shakespeare on Friday night at the Hult Center, Seventh Avenue and Willamette Street, as this year’s festival continues into its second week in Eugene. The group played two concerts of Bach’s complete “Brandenburg” concertos in Eugene and in Portland as this year’s festival began.

Closer to jazz than classical

But back to historically informed performance. “We used to just call it early music, but that’s a bit misleading,” Huggett said. “It’s a stylistic awareness really when it comes down to it. “Historical performance is really what it’s all about, trying to put music into his context in terms of the instruments you play and also in terms of social and political contexts. Trying to learn as much as you can about music to help you interpret it.” HIP means a performance style that’s closer to contemporary jazz than classical, with much more opportunity for improvisation. Baroque music scores are not heavily notated with musical dynamics, Huggett points out. That may be why, three centuries after the music was first performed, a lot of classically trained musicians tend to play it almost mechanically. Not Huggett. “I take more liberties with the tempo,” she said. “And I put a lot more dynamics into it. Baroque music doesn’t have a lot of dynamic indications. They are very, very basic. “There used to be this school of thought that said that was the way you played it. But of course that’s absolutely not true. The musicians who played the music were absolutely in tune with that style of music and knew how to listen to it and how to phrase it. “If you play that music all the time you find you know what to do. And generally the composer of the music was playing with you and might say, ‘Come down a little bit more here.’ ” One of the first “aha” moments for Huggett came when she picked up a violin with gut strings instead of the steel-wound strings common on contemporary violins. “It was an eye-opener to me,” she said. “As soon as I started playing a gut-strung violin, I was much happier. I loved the sound of the strings right away. There is more color to the sound. “As soon as you put a lot of metal in an instrument, whether it’s a violin or a clarinet or piano, the metal resonates in a particular way and it’s a very overwhelming color.”

Baroque and the Bard

Huggett is English, born in London, but has had connections on America’s West Coast for decades. Huggett has been artistic director of PBO for 15 years; she is also cofounder, with Tom Koopman, of the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra, for which she was concertmaster from 1980 until 1987. She’s toured with flutist James Galway and has made hundreds of recordings. She is also artistic director of the Irish Baroque Orchestra and guest director of the Seville Baroque Orchestra. Friday night’s program mixes together a number of songs by different composers written for Shakespeare’s plays. “In the 17th century the English used to perform plays with songs in them,” she said. “That was normal. Right from the start, there would have been songs in Shakespeare plays. “And then, of course, Purcell took ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ and made it into a masque (a 16th century form of entertainment similar to a contemporary musical), which was called ‘The Fairy Queen.’” Huggett is enthusiastic about accompanying literature from William Shakespeare and Henry Purcell. “It’s one of the programs I can absolutely imagine coming to listen to because I think the music is of such high quality,” she said. “And, I suppose, being English, it’s lovely to hear Shakespeare’s words said by all these different composers.”