Portland Baroque Orchestra, Oregon Symphony reviews: Gifted guests

Guest conductors and musicians ably lead local orchestras in familiar music

by TERRY ROSS

The Portland Baroque Orchestra had set themselves a difficult task in presenting all four of J.S. Bach’s orchestral suites in one concert. Alongside the Brandenburg Concertos and a number of concertos for various instruments, these suites represent the most expansive of Bach’s purely instrumental music. They also represent a hell of a lot of notes, especially for the wind instruments. Another challenge — or opportunity — lies in choosing how many instruments to use, for the scores are not specific about this.

For the first of three concerts, on February 17, the PBO marshaled its largest ensemble: 22 players, including conductor and harpsichordist John Butt, familiar to Portland audiences for the vibrant Messiah he directed with the orchestra a few years ago. It was a distinct pleasure to hear these classics treated as orchestral pieces rather than chamber music, with one player per part, as is the practice on more than one contemporary recording.

Portland Baroque Orchestra played JS Bach’s four orchestral suites.

After the customary Ouverture, a first movement modeled on a French style, a 16-piece ensemble sailed into the additional ten movements, all named for baroque dance forms (courante, gavotte, forlane, menuet, bourrée, passedpied) of Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 1. Their playing in the two bourrées was especially noteworthy. The first, the eighth movement of the piece, was very effective with the violins moving constantly under the meter in three; the second, the ninth movement, was superb in its lavish sighing motifs in the strings.

John Butt led PBO.

Mr. Butt then played a seven-minute piece, the Ricercar a 3, from Bach’s Musical Offering. This exercise in contrapuntal writing seemed rather sterile after the orchestral glories of the the Suite No. 1. But the band returned to form in the Suite No. 4. After a difficult Ouverture, in which the abrupt two-note figures sounded a little rough (no doubt, they would improve in the next two concerts), the entire band, minus the flute player, seemed to enjoy themselves very much, especially in the seventh and closing movement, the Réjouissance (rejoicing), which was taken at a ferociously fast clip. Bassoonist Nate Helgeson, a local treasure, demonstrated his astonishing ability in the first Bourée movement, immediately after the Ouverture. (Mr. Helgeson will be featured in PBO’s Spotlight on Bassoon concert on April 29.)

In the concert’s second half, the orchestra went from strength to strength. In Bach’s Suite No. 2, flutist Janet See (who has earned international acclaim and made many highly regarded recordings) stole the show, executing the piece’s fast passages with ease, playing a lovely duet with cellist Joanna Blendulf in the sixth-movement Polonaise, giving us lovely sighing (appoggiutara) noises in the Menuet, and pulling out all the stops in a resplendent and appropriately fast final-movement Badinerie, for all of which she earned a raucous standing ovation.

Bach’s Ricercar a 6, one of the most astonishing bits of contrapuntal writing in music, was then played by no fewer than seven musicians, with bassist Curtis Daily doubling cellist Blendulf. Heard in this relatively large-scale configuration, this exercise in pure counterpoint took on a timbral life of its own, with each instrument adding its own color to the mix.

A 19-piece band then essayed the last offering of the evening, Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 3. After the first-movement Ouverture, in which the band experienced the same difficulties as in the first piece on the program, the ensemble navigated the remaining five movements with suave skill. The second-movement Air was particularly effective. This piece, called in its later arrangement Air on the G String, is one of the most potent arguments for Bach as a melodist. Here it was played as a string quartet plus keyboard rather than in the usual orchestral arrangement. Magic!

Portland Baroque Orchestra’s next concerts this weekend feature music from Shakespeare’s plays by Henry Purcell and other English composers. Information online.

Enigmatic Encounter

Although another guest keyboardist and conductor took the spotlight at another orchestra concert the following weekend, the title of the February 25-27 Oregon Symphony concerts told it all: Elgar’s Enigma Variations. Not “Jeffrey Kahane, familiar to Portland audiences, plays Robert Schumann’s only piano concerto.”

Jeffrey Kahane.

But in the listening, the concert really was Jeffrey Kahane’s, appearing here only as piano soloist, though he’s also had a distinguished conducting career with the Colorado Orchestra and Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. Not that the orchestra mishandled Elgar’s signature piece, the one that made him (finally) famous in England and elsewhere at the advanced age (for a composer) of 42. Led by another guest artist, conductor Christoph König, on loan from European bands, the orchestra played extremely well and lovingly brought out Elgar’s smallest details as well as his broader strokes.

It’s just that, well, we’ve heard Elgar’s curious variations on his original theme, which, beautiful as though some of them may be, really have no meaning to an audience not intimately familiar with Elgar’s group of friends and family, on whom the 13 variations (not counting the last, inspired by Elgar himself) are based. For my money, I’ll always take the Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1, composed a few years later. Its theme, adopted by the English as their ur-hymn “Land of Hope and Glory,” is elegance and nobility combined, in a way the English have shown themselves especially capable of doing. That it bores us in the USA, who see it only as a graduation march, is something to be resisted.

The Oregon Symphony began their program with a spirited and note-filled rendition of the American composer John Adams’s Slonimsky’s Earbox, a 13-minute piece co-commissioned by the orchestra in 1996, when Adams was very much in the forefront of the so-called minimalist movement, although he used more (and different) notes than his minimalist compatriots Philip Glass and Terry Riley. It’s a noisy piece, and when the percussion players take a rest, a lot of it sounds like the kind of string arpeggios that Stravinsky used in The Firebird, except that Stravinsky’s doodlings led somewhere.  Adams’s don’t. They just occur, punctuated by percussion accents, then they mount to a false climax and conclude. Noisily. An utterly pointless, forgettable piece.

Jeffrey Kahane earned a standing O in an earlier appearance with the OSO.

Robert Schumann’s wife Clara, one of the most renowned pianists of their time, gave the premiere of the unfortunate composer’s Piano Concerto in a private concert in 1845 and then Felix Mendelssohn conducted a second performance in 1846. Because its third-movement finale, an Allegro vivace, is such a robust thing, the concerto is ofiten approached as some sort of “macho” composition, but in fact the overwhelming majority of its minutes are absorbed in beautiful, soulful, quiet music.  And here Jeffrey Kahane excelled. He was not afraid to play delicately in the first-movement Allegro affetuoso, and his candenza in that movement was heartfelt and moving. Similarly he treated us to quiet playing in the second movement Intermezzo: Andantino grazioso, before moving quickly into the third-movement Allegro vivace, which contains the concerto’s most famous theme.

Mr. Kahane’s performance was greeted by a triple curtain call, after which he played a delicious encore that was the highlight of the evening: a lovely, quiet, and slow version of “America, the Beautiful,” which should have been designated our nation’s national anthem, except that Herbert Hoover chose “The Star-Spangled Banner”:  the worst mistake he made. This little encore, which apparently was very moving to the pianist, became the “odd” center of the evening’s performance.

A very strange confluence of politics and musical taste.

Recommended recordings

Bach suites
• Academy of Ancient Music, Richard Egarr conducting (AAM Records AAM003), 2014.
• La Petite Bande, Sigiswalk Kuijken conducting (Accent ACC24279), 2013.

Bach Suite No. 2
J.S. Bach: Orchestral Suites for a Young Prince, oboist Gonzalo Ruiz & Ensemble Sonnerie, Monica Huggett conducting (Avie ), 2014.

Bach Musical Offering
• Musica Antiqua Köln, Reinhard Goebel conducting (Archiv 469 680-2), 1979.
• Le Concert de Nations, Jordi Savall conducting (Alia Vox AV9817), 2005.

Adams Slonimsky’s Earbox
• The Hallé Orchestra, Kent Nagano conducting (Nonesuch 79607), 1997.

Schumann Piano Concerto
• Stephen Hough, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (Hyperion 68099), 2016.

Elgar Enigma Variations
• London Symphony Orchestra, Adrian Boult conducting (EMI Warner Classics 539768), 1970.

Terry Ross is a Portland freelance journalist and the director of The Classical Club, through which he offers classical music appreciation sessions. He can be reached at classicalclub@comcast.net.

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