Bach Fest: an ace in the mule

A pair of historically informed concerts from the Big Names of the Concert Hall display the stubborn pleasures of keeping things elemental

EUGENE – I once spent a day at the mule races. They were a lot like the horse races, except more … eccentric. A mule race, I discovered to my delight, is a singularly unforgettable experience, unpredictable and unrepeatable in its essence: like snowflakes, no two mule races can ever be alike. The animals seem comical, but in a serious way, with a strength and power and sheer cussedness all their own. A nobility, too: a mule is a mule, and not an imitation horse, and it’s here to make sure you know it. A mule is happy to go where you want to go, as long as where you want to go is where it wants to go, too, and that makes the task of jockeying one of these sturdy contrarians seem like an attempt to tame an intransigent force with a flexible straw. It can be a major accomplishment simply to get the mule pointed in the right direction and focused on actually crossing the finish line. When you manage it with speed and style as well, it’s a triumph.

The memory came galloping back on Sunday afternoon as I was watching and listening to Andrew Clark’s mastery of his own particular mule at the Oregon Bach Festival in Eugene. Clark, an Englishman who is now principal horn with the Vancouver Island Symphony in British Columbia, was straddling a cantankerous coil of brass in a program of Beethoven and Mozart, including Beethoven’s 1800 Sonata in F Major for Horn and Piano, Op. 17. Even the modern horn is a touchy beast, fully capable of untoward surprises. Clark was playing a valveless period instrument, the kind that Mozart and Beethoven would have been familiar with, where embouchure is everything and you change keys by adding or subtracting a section of tubing. The sound is soft and burnished and impetuous, a wayward gambol through the woods on the back of a beast that is insistent on making its independence known, and if it sometimes nods its head toward the side of the path, Clark’s quiet and mellifluous command of it constituted both an adventure and a triumph.

Pianoforte virtuoso Robert Levin and Berwick Academy director Rachel Podger. Photos courtesy Oregon Bach Festival

Pianoforte virtuoso Robert Levin and Berwick Academy director Rachel Podger. Photos courtesy Oregon Bach Festival

The program, in the comfortably classical and resonant Beall Concert Hall on the University of Oregon campus, was called Viennese Masters III: Quintets for Piano and Winds, and it featured in addition to Clark some fellow masters of period instruments: Debra Nagy on oboe, Eric Hoeprich on clarinet, bassoonist Marc Vallon, and fortepianist Robert Levin. The sound they produced was winsome, balanced, light, and quick, with the fluid deliberation of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Throughout the performance, too, was the visual evidence of the sheer amount of labor it takes to keep these antique-style sound vessels going: Clark tapping his horn and disengaging sections for the occasional shakedown of spittle; Hoeprich elegantly running a cloth through the length of his clarinet to clean it out. Occasional pauses between movements made it possible to perform these instrumental ablutions with a minimum of disruption. We’re so used to the larger sound of the late Romantic and modern eras (let alone the plugged-in decibels of contemporary popular music) that the woodier, breathier, more organic, intimate and delicately balanced sound of period instruments can surprise us and shift our expectations in fascinating ways even decades after the period performance movement began.

The two quintets, both in E-flat major, were Beethoven’s Op. 16, from 1796, and Mozart’s K. 452, from 1784, and although the pieces have distinctly different structures and sounds, they also indicate how close together the late classicist Mozart and the early Romantic Beethoven were: when Beethoven was born, Mozart was a mere 14 years old. Surely, in this case, the period instrumentation – and the beguiling combination of these particular non-string instruments – had something to do with the quintets’ seeming to come from the same family tree. In both works, Levin’s fortepiano was at the center of the action (if in different ways), setting the pace with its lighter hammering, shorter range, and more variable sound than the modern grand; and with Levin’s easy quickness of his keyboard, tumbling runs and arpeggios like little Champagne ripples across a shallow brook. The two quintets are separated by Hoeprich and Vallon’s altogether charming and classically balanced performance of Beethoven’s third Duo for Clarinet and Bassoon in B-flat Major ­– a piece so uncharacteristic for its supposed composer that, as Elizabeth Schwartz comments in her program notes, the attribution might actually be spurious: it wasn’t uncommon for lesser-known composers to piggyback their own pieces on the reputations of their more famous counterparts. Anonymous is a prolific composer, and if he or she was the author of this light and lively duet, more power.

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Period instrumentation, though long established in contemporary performance practice, is a relative newcomer to the Oregon Bach Festival. The superb German conductor Helmuth Rilling, who co-founded the festival and led it for more than 40 years, didn’t like the period movement: he much preferred the richer, bigger sound of modern instruments. When Rilling retired and the British conductor Matthew Halls took over as artistic director in 2014, things began to change: Halls opened this season with a historically informed performance of Bach’s large-scale Mass in B-minor. That represented a major shift, and one that for some festival followers is still mildly controversial, partly because it was performed in the large and less sonically agile Silva Concert Hall.

One of the festival’s most intriguing professional programs is the Berwick Academy, a short-term, highly focused program designed to pair leading festival participants with musicians ages 21 to 35 who are specializing in performing on period instruments. The Academy participants will perform a concert at Beall on Wednesday, July 6, conducted by Rachel Podger, the Welsh director and violinist who has led this year’s Berwick Academy.

The Berwick musicians were also key to last Friday night’s Viennese Masters II concert at Beall, along with pianoforte player Levin, who conducted alternately from the podium and the keyboard, and Podger, who was a very active concertmaster. (Viennese Masters II and III both were also performed in Portland at Chamber Music Northwest; I saw both at Beall, a hall that seems intimately suited to the music. Viennese Masters I, which I didn’t see, was a program of string trios by Haydn, Beethoven and Mozart performed by three leading Chamber Music Northwest regulars: violinist Ida Kavafian, violist Steven Tanenbom, and cellist Peter Wiley.)

Viennese Masters II was a big-name romp, beginning with Beethoven’s Prometheus Overture and following with Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 24 in C Minor, K. 491 and Haydn’s Symphony No. 103 in E-flat Major. Levin was in his element, warm and almost hammy, conducting from the keyboard with brisk nods of the head and from the podium with sharp downward thrusts of his fists, and easily articulating the quick-fingered pleasures of the pianoforte.

What struck me most in the performance – and what might get to the heart of what makes period performance so alluring – was the struggle to create order out of chaos. This music was composed during a vastly more pastoral time, when even in the cities people were much more attuned to the realities of the natural world, and the relative softness of the sound reflects that. What’s thrilling about this approach is its patent lack of perfection – not just the controlled perfection of artificially enhanced studio recordings, which iron out all wrinkles, but also the more sophisticated big-engine purr of Romantic and Modern large orchestras. In these pieces an exhilarating struggle is going on, an effort to control the vagaries of the old-style instruments but also a willingness to give lease to their individual quirks and crotchets and let them be part of the music.

The sound is far from the antique quaintness, the soft-focus preciousness, that casual observers might expect. It’s more organic, more feral, less easily balanced, closer to the natural tenuousnous of life on the planet: a wobble, a quaver, a slightly unmatched tuning that together urge the ear to listen more intently to the unfolding process of the thing. In a word, more mulish. It’s elemental, somehow: the thrill of the old. Modern approaches to classic music have great advantages, too. But in a festival devoted to Bach and the banquet of music he set forth, it’s good to see – and hear – a growing place at the table for the raw freshness of newly stated old on old.

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The Oregon Bach Festival continues at various venues in Eugene through July 10. The complete schedule is here.

 

 

 

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