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Backing the bard, Monica Huggett's Portland Baroque Orchestra plays up a storm

  • Jul 6, 2009
Shakespeare inspires music. Like the air surrounding Prospero’s island in “The Tempest,” Shakespeare’s plays are suffused with music, and for four centuries composers have responded with incidental music, operas and new versions of the songs that dot his plays. On Friday evening, the Portland Baroque Orchestra Chamber Ensemble, along with soprano Robin Johannsen and tenor James Taylor, offered a wealth of such music by British composers who lived during and shortly after Shakespeare’s life. The concert was a delicious treat of rarely heard music. The program consisted of three parts: music most likely used for original performances, such as Desdemona’s “Willow Song”; music that accompanied performances of “The Tempest” in 1667 and 1674; and the elaborate 1692 musical additions to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” by the best-known British baroque composer, Henry Purcell. The program gave us a wonderful glimpse of English baroque musical gems. Performing at Beall Hall, the ensemble of seven superb musicians on authentic baroque instruments also taught us what 17th-century music might have sounded like in a small venue. The inimitable Monica Huggett led the vigorous ensemble. Her marvelous playing of a gut-stringed violin is only part of the energy she gives to a concert. Her enthusiasm and involvement in the music, even when she is not playing, distinguishes her. When, for example, a singer is expressing the woes of jealousy and inconstancy, Huggett may be beating time at one moment and at another wryly smiling at the audience. The ensemble played many of these short pieces on its own. Matthew Locke’s instrumental compositions for the 1674 revival of “The Tempest” supplied some of the most enjoyable music of the evening. Locke, who is known as the father of English opera, composed in a style which to my ears sounded like French baroque music, a style dominated by dotted rhythms and dance music. Huggett, however, assured the audience that this animated music, especially his complicated canon, was English to the core. The ensemble’s authentic style and instruments, however, conflicted with the full-voiced singing of Johannsen and Taylor. Both are admirable vocalists, but baroque music demands a lighter touch. In the first portion of the evening, Johannsen restrained her vibrato and Taylor sang in his usual light, sweet tenor. Still, the highlight of the evening was Purcell’s “The Fairy Queen.” As a piece of Shakespearean music, it is an odd work. This “semi-opera” consists of a series of masques or short, self- contained dramas designed to be interpolated into the play at various points. Although the choice of excerpts gave the audience no sense of the whole, both the instrumentalists and the singers superbly interpreted the varied palettes of this composition. Johannsen rendered “Ye gentle spirits of the air” beautifully, and Taylor’s vocal depictions of summer, autumn and night were dynamic. The enthusiastic response of the audience indicates a strong desire for future Bach Festival programs of such rarely heard music.