by ANGELA ALLEN
Imagine a balmy June afternoon in Riberac, one of southwest France’s charming hilly villages. There you are – there I was with my Dutch-born husband – in a sun-filled church renovated for performances rather than worship. In strides Dutch world-renowned baroque conductor and keyboardist Ton Koopman wearing a bright red tie (and black suit) and his signature irrepressible bring-it-on smile.
Koopman, an artistic adviser of Portland Baroque Orchestra during the mid-1980s and early ‘90s, will be back in Portland for a duo harpsichord concert with his wife, Tini Mathot, 7:30 p.m. Monday, March 7, at First Baptist Church.
At the Riberac concert, Koopman directed the Junior Choir of Dordogne, sometimes called the Children’s Choir, sometimes the Girls Choir (though many members are young women). The “girls” and three grown-up male singers performed Bach and Mozart, accompanied by members of Koopman’s Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra.
Koopman led in his typically ebullient, energetic style. He played harpsichord, too, which brought the full-church audience to its feet – as unruly as well-behaved French audiences are willing to go.
For 14 summers, Koopman has made the journey to southwestern France’s medieval villages like Riberac and Brantome to play the music of such baroque and early-music luminaries as Vivaldi, Bach, Haydn, Handel and Mozart. He says he “draws the line at Mozart’s death” in 1791 and doesn’t perform music composed after that.
He directed PBO off and on between worldwide dates. He often played with Mathot, who triples as wife, record producer and fellow keyboardist. Violinist Monica Huggett, Koopman’s protégée took over PBO as artistic director in 1995 and continues to conduct lively historically informed music with period instruments.
When Koopman conducted in Portland, says former PBO violinist Laura Cunningham, his “great sense of humor” brought on surprises.
“Once he directed a work where we were to imitate animal sounds on our instruments and he started barking like a dog,” Cunningham recalls. “We responded with meows and hisses and it turned in to a cat and dog fight on stage!”
Huggett directs from the violin, not the harpsichord, and “usually takes things a bit more seriously (than Ton), but sometimes she can also be a ham on stage and I can’t help but think that she picked it up from her early years working with Ton,” says Cunningham, who originally invited Koopman to direct a PBO concert in 1986 after meeting him at a workshop in Vancouver, BC.
The exuberance and playfulness Koopman brought to PBO exemplifies his contribution to the historically informed performance movement, helping restore the sense of dance and passion sometimes obscured by the scholarly austerity of some of his predecessors. “He discovered so many new ways of making the harpsichord expressive,” Huggett told All Classical FM’s Northwest Previews about her mentor. “He was a revolutionary.”
A giant among early-music performers, conductors, recording artists and educators, he was knighted in 2003 in the Netherlands, and directs the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and Choir (which he founded in 1979, with help from Huggett, and combined in 1992). In his spare time, he works as an early-music professor at the Royal Conservatory in The Hague, as does Mathot.
Koopman and Mathot will be playing one piece with Huggett: J.S. Bach’s Sonata No. 5 in F Minor for violin and harpsichord. Stick around for that piece (one of eight on the program) and following will be J.S. Bach’s Five Contrapuncti from The Art of the Fugue for two harpsichords, BWV 1080. In PBO’s program notes, writer James McQuillen describes this piece, not specifically a work for the keyboard, as “abstract, intense, cerebrally gripping, a Mount Everest for keyboardists, a profound demonstration of the possibilities inherent in a simple subject.”
Aside from the Bach pieces, the harpsichord-centric program includes pieces by Pablo Bruna, W.A. Mozart, Jean Henri d’Angelbert and Antonio Soler.
Portland Baroque Orchestra brings Ton Koopman and Tini Mathot to Portland’s First Baptist Church Monday, March 7. Tickets are available at 503-222-6000 or online. A reception at Portland’s University Club follows if you buy the more expensive ticket.
Angela Allen lives in Portland and writes about the arts. She pursues poetry and photography and teaches creative writing in the Portland schools.