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The compleat and accurate Brandenburgs

  • Jul 2, 2009
[caption id="attachment_2908" align="alignright" width="220" caption="Monica Huggett"][/caption]Click here to read the story in The Register-Guard. It had been a decade since local audiences have had the chance to hear all six of the "Brandenburg" Concertos of Johann Sebastian Bach within a single Oregon Bach Festival. On Tuesday, Hult Center listeners not only got the opportunity to hear the whole set, but they were privileged to hear them more or less as they might have been presented in Bach's time. The Portland Baroque Orchestra is an ensemble-in-residence at this year's festival. Founded about a quarter-century ago, the chamber orchestra employs "period instruments," reviving performance practices used during the 18th century. The group is led by English violinist Monica Huggett, known for her Grammy-winning recordings as a soloist and for her work with the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra during the 1980s. It had been a decade since local audiences have had the chance to hear all six of the “Brandenburg” Concertos of Johann Sebastian Bach within a single Oregon Bach Festival. On Tuesday, Hult Center listeners not only got the opportunity to hear the whole set, but they were privileged to hear them more or less as they might have been presented in Bach’s time. The Portland Baroque Orchestra is an ensemble-in-residence at this year’s festival. Founded about a quarter-century ago, the chamber orchestra employs “period instruments,” reviving performance practices used during the 18th century. The group is led by English violinist Monica Huggett, known for her Grammy-winning recordings as a soloist and for her work with the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra during the 1980s. “Brandenburg” Concerto No. 1 in F Major, which opened the concert, is the only one that Huggett did not actually lead. Carla Moore, playing the violino piccolo, presided during this concerto, which also featured the outstanding solo work of oboist Debra Nagy, as well as R.J. Kelley and Paul Avril playing masterfully on natural horns. The use of natural horns is just one of the many differences between a baroque and a modern orchestra. The instrument specifications are different (gut strings, few keys on the woodwinds), the playing techniques are different (different bow hold, less use of vibrato) and the forces are typically fewer in number. But the fundamental objective, as in all earnest music-making, is to produce a performance that is fresh and communicative. In this, the ensemble succeeded wonderfully. Portland Baroque is made of some truly exceptional musicians. That was evident in the slow movements, where artful shaping of melodies and the musicians’ acute sensitivity to one another made for very expressive playing. Huggett was joined by flutist Janet See and harpsichordist Boris Kleiner (a guest performer in the orchestra) in delivering an exquisite middle movement to the Fifth Concerto in D. The violinist, along with violist Vicki Gun Pich and cellist Tanya Tomkins, brought nuance and shape to the solo parts in the Sixth Concerto in B-flat. Huggett delivered the solo lines with artistry in the Third Concerto in G, interpolating a section of the Violin Sonata in G, BWV 1021, between the two allegros that make up the G Major work (Bach wrote no slow movement for the Third Concerto). And the violinist was joined by oboist Stephen Bard and the stunningly talented recorder player Kathryn Montoya in delivering a nicely wrought middle movement to the Second Concerto in F. The fast movements were played masterfully as well. In all cases, the allegros exhibited unflagging drive and showcased the ensemble’s synergy. Tempos were sometimes on the fast side — the Third Concerto’s finale, played at a speed appropriate for the Autobahn, made me want to tighten my nonexistent seat belt — but the musical lines remained crystal clear. In the outer movements of the Second Concerto, trumpeter Guy Few (another orchestra guest) joined the violin, recorder and oboe soloists. Performing on a natural trumpet, the Canadian musician produced a warm, round sound, but played with less technical accuracy that I would have expected. The program closed with a first-class reading of the Fourth Concerto in F, which featured, along with Huggett and Montoya, Nagy on second recorder. A small cavil: Earlier in the evening, I found certain instruments a bit hard to hear at times, and this concerto, the recorders (being softer than the modern flute) didn’t project well over the modest ensemble of 12 strings plus harpsichord. I suspect that the balance and projection problems I encountered in the 2,500-seat Silva Hall would not have been as significant at First United Methodist Church in Portland, where the orchestra played the same program the previous evening. Just the same, the music was glorious. The long, sustained applause was well deserved. Terry McQuilkin, an adjunct instructor of composition at the University of Oregon, reviews classical music for The Register-Guard.