It didn’t take long for this new Oregon classical music season to produce the first truly great performance I’ve heard this fall. Friday night’s concert featuring the superb Portland choir Cappella Romana and Portland Baroque Orchestra contained one of the most thrilling classical music performances in recent memory.
Surprisingly, it didn’t happen in the opening work, the first chorus from J.S. Bach’s sublime “St. John Passion. ” Oh, it was a characteristically gorgeous rendition, but we’d heard it before, when PBO and Cappella performed (and then recorded) the entire work so memorably in 2010 — still one of the most moving concerts of the past few years. The combined forces of two of the Northwest’s finest ensembles similarly excelled in a Bach funeral motet and Antonio Vivaldi’s ever-popular “Gloria” in D major, with lovely solos by soprano Melanie Downie Robinson and alto Hannah Penn, and an alluring duet featuring Robinson and the Lilliputian singer with the Brobdingnagian soprano, Catherine van der Salm.
All of which would have made an excellent concert, but it was the first half closer, an incendiary version of Handel’s “Dixit Dominus”, that vaulted this concert to unforgettable. I worried that following profound Bach with (potentially) callow young Handel might prove anticlimactic, but, conducting passionately with both hands (instead of leading the orchestra from the violin, as she did in the Gloria), Huggett spurred PBO and Cappella to a riveting, edge of the seat rendition of the work that made its composer’s reputation. Handel spent his career seeking (and often sparring with) star sopranos for his operas, but it’s hard to imagine any of them bettering van der Salm in the aria “Tecum principium in die Virtutis,” and she and Robinson turned in another fine duet a little later. Bass soloist Aaron Cain delivered a similarly potent solo. High-flying ensemble passages that can sound screechy or whiny in lesser mouths emerged pure and precise thanks to the all-star corps of singers that comprise the Northwest’s finest vocal ensemble, but really every choral passage displayed both near-perfect blend and fiery urgency. PBO’s instrumentalists similarly shone, with cellist Joanna Blendulf, organist Susan Jensen, oboist Stephen Bard and Baroque trumpeter Kris Kwapis excelling in their solo spotlights.
Sometimes punching the air like a boxer to deliver cues, sometimes leaning way down to signal quiet, always physically indicating accents, Huggett masterfully manipulated tension and release, navigated nuanced dynamic and tempo shifts, and pushed both groups to a breathtaking performance that earned a rousing, and much deserved series of ovations.
Baroque music — this time from 17th century Italy — also filled the program in Musica Maestrale’s October 6 concert at Portland’s Community Music Center. I was able to catch only the second half of the concert (see below for the reason) featuring Portland based theorbo (a large lute like instrument) master Hideki Yamaya and two young Bay Area early music specialists, violinist Noah Strick and cellist Adaiha MacAdam-Somer, who played some of the earliest works for the cello and other sonatas. Except for a few tuning issues, the young soloists played some lovely music competently and sometimes with real aplomb, but overall the performance lacked the drama and urgency — and Huggett’s characteristic rhythmic charge — that so animated PBO’s show a week later.
From Persia with Music
I missed the first half of Musica Maestrale’s performance because I was attending a performance by Hamnazvan Ensemble at Reed’s Eliot Chapel. All the Iranian musicians in this all star band were clearly superior musicians, but concert ultimately proved disappointing. Too many of the numbers sounded the same, sharing tempos and even key signatures. The piano, though tuned to match the traditional Persian instruments (barbat lute, kamancheh fiddle, drum) still sounded out of place texturally, an intruder from another planet. The amplification — unnecessary in such an intimate space — drowned out depth and subtlety, especially in divo Salar Aghili’s operatic vocals. I’d love to hear these virtuosi in a different setting — and sans piano.
Iranian music was also on the bill at the Portland State University Symphony concert Saturday at Lincoln Recital Hall, in the 1958 Concertino by Hossein Dehlavi and Faramarz Payvar. The orchestral accompaniment, except for the second movement’s sweeping neo romantic strings, really provide little more than a setting for the santoor soloist, and multi-talented PSU student Monica Parisa Rabii (who later played violin) accordingly delivered a sterling performance on the shimmering Persian hammered dulcimer. The fascinating program included Finnish composer Magnus Lindberg (recently the New York Philharmonic’s composer in residence) evocative film ballet score “Counter Phrases”, in which two pianos, percussion, flute and trombone breathe over strings; and careful performances of the overture to Gabriel Faure’s “Pelleas and Melisande” and excerpts from Ravel’s glittering “Mother Goose” music. Everything on the program shared a kind of magical quality that the students frequently caught.
In another doubleheader, after the hour-long concert, I rushed from Lincoln Hall a few blocks down Park Avenue to downtown Portland’s First Congregational Church to hear most of the latest concert from the Indian music presenting organization Kalakendra, which regularly brings some of the world’s finest musicians — of any genre — to Oregon. Not enough Portlanders realize just what a hidden treasure we have in Kalakendra, and this concert, featuring a first rate ensemble led by bamboo flutist Shashank and the amazing singer Anwar Khan Manganiyar, showed why. The unusual hybrid program embraced several major styles —South Indian Carnatic, Hindustani, and Muslim Rajasthani folk — seldom seen on the same stage and wove it together seamlessly. Most of the show consisted of series of duets between Manganiyar and Feroz Khan Manganiyar (who plays the rarely heard hereabouts dholak drum) alternating with duets featuring Shashank (the astonishing flutter-tonguing, circular-breathing flutist who was serenaded with “happy birthday” halfway through the show) or sitar virtuoso Purbayan Chatterjee and Mriddangan drum master Satish Kumar. But eventually all the musicians simultaneously plunged into dazzling rapid fire interactions that left the audience simultaneously exhausted and clamoring for more.
New and Old Chamber Music
Back at Lincoln Hall, we saw the past and future of chamber music last night and last week. “This is classical music,” said composer (and former PSU prof) Joseph Waters from the stage October 5, holding up a thick binder of scores for his quartet Swarmius’s upcoming tour. His exuberant music, featuring superb musicians Crotalius Redfoot (a/k/a PSU prof and FearNoMusic percussionist Joel Bluestone), Saximus (Tood Rewoldt) and alto sax, and Fiddlus el Gato (Felix Oschofka) on violin along with Jozefius V. Rattus himself on laptop), is exactly what classical music needs. Though it’s not jazz, Waters’ rich original vision affords virtuoso musicians the chance to really wail and swing, combining the best features of electronic and acoustic music, plus sounds and rhythms from various world cultures in a listener-friendly way that never sounds forced or contrived. “We’re like a rock band,” Waters said, “except everyone has a doctorate.” His fully realized, personal sound persuasively embraces so many contemporary influences — belly dance, surf, house music, Brazilian jazz, video game music, Gershwin, Charlie Parker, Lady Gaga, Lucian Berio Japanese pop and many other such influences made audible appearances — that it makes you wonder why so many of today’s composers (not to mention listeners), who inhabit a world of such possibilities from across the oceans and centuries, limit themselves to narrow 19th century Western European aesthetics.
Even Swarmius’s music could sometimes use more variety of tempo, texture and dynamics; Waters employs with so many provocative musical ideas that several pieces achieve a density that eventually creates a sonic sameness, for all its diverse influences. When you have musicians who can play anything, it’s easy to understand the temptation. So it was encouraging to hear the last two recent compositions (“Dragon” and “Amphibeous Dub”) sounding more focused, concise and a little airier, maybe revealing a composer willing to develop fewer ideas further rather than piling them up. It’s also a treat to see an electronic musician so visibly engaged in the music, his face and body reflecting his music’s rhythmic propulsiveness and sheer joy. Waters has to be one of our most interesting composers, and Swarmius makes some of the most fun and fascinating music around.
You could see as well as hear the joy in a very different sort of chamber music at Lincoln Hall’s upstairs concert hall last night, when the visiting Pacifica Quartet (now based in Bloomington Indiana after long residencies in Illinois and New York) showed just why Portland audiences so adore them through their many visits here courtesy of Friends of Chamber Music. Violinist Simin Ganatra’s rapturous expression, her husband cellist Brandon Vamos’s fierce focus, and all fourm embers’ physical and facial engagement with the emotions the music conveys are as fun to watch as to hear. But plenty of classical musicians have learned to play flamboyantly while still lacking convincing expressivity. When you close your eyes at a Pacifica concert, you still hear the passion, as well as the precision and power. Their strings sang beautifully in Dvorak’s Cypresses and 20th century Polish composer Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s sixth quartet, a work I was happy to hear they were recording, as I know of only one other CD of this sprawling, intriguing and hitherto little known work by a Shostakovich-influenced composer whose career was chilled by the Cold War.
The performance’s pinnacle came in Beethoven’s Op. 130 quartet with its original, famous Great Fugue ending. When I heard the Emerson Quartet play it last spring, the first five movements, through brilliantly played, lacked any warmth and much character. In the Pacifica’s able hands, each movement seemed to glow with the emotion the score suggested — playful in the first, jocular in the fourth, melancholy in the fifth and so on. Their thoughtful phrasing made each movement a song, and though their Great Fugue lacked some of the sheer explosiveness of the Emersons (when that group finally caught fire), it felt much more at home with the rest of the piece, a sort of catalog of feelings summed up by its magnificent final movement.
The Pacifica Quartet returns to Lincoln Hall again tonight, Tuesday, October 16, to play an earlier Beethoven quartet and works by Prokofiev (his great second quartet) and Smetana (the popular “From My Life”).