Weekend MusicWatch: Alfresco delights

BodyVox opened the Washington
Park Summer Festival

With warm summer temperatures at last arriving in Oregon, a bumper crop of free outdoor shows provide a splendid way to combine two of the state’s greatest assets: verdant summers and vibrant music. On Saturday, the esteemed conductor Keith Clark leads a concert version of Johann Strauss’s popular comic opera The Bat (Die Fledermaus) at Washington Park Amphitheater this Saturday and at Concordia college next Saturday. The great locally based Metropolitan Opera baritone Richard Zeller headlines the cast in this tenth anniversary production of Portland SummerFest opera in the park.

This Saturday’s performance is part of the family-friendly annual Washington Park Summer Festival, which on Sunday hosts the Portland Festival Symphony’s annual free concert (which happens in other parks in and around Portland all month), led by the venerable conductor Lajos Balogh for the past 32 years. They’ll be playing music by Haydn, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky (boom!), and more.

The Washington Park series opened Thursday night with a performance by Portland’s popular BodyVox dance group, who kicked it off with a precisely timed, characteristically merry performance by a coverall-clad quartet (with feet tied together by orange tape), set to the Bobs’ characteristically jolly version of Talking Heads’ early hit “Psycho Killer.” Reverie, a `lovely version of the famous flower duet from Leo Delibes’ opera Lakme, featuring lovely costumes designed by Portland’s celebrated Michael Curry reminded me a bit of Imago Theater’s nature-oriented moves. Another slapsticky quartet, Usual Suspects, opened with klezmer style music by the inimitable Portland ensemble 3 Leg Torso and butt-to-butt bumpiness, then followed with a Chopin nocturne. Given the distant seats and profusion of kids, subtle moves would have been lost, so the group wisely relied on expertly executed sight gags, sometimes obscured from certain angles because of huge speakers mounted at the front of the stage; the sound was plenty loud, so it might have been better to place them at the back of the stage instead.

The second half featured a Bollywood number with a couple of intruders in Western outfits disrupting an Indian film production dance and several dances familiar from earlier BodyVox performances involving landing a really impressive and uncooperative fish, herding equally uncooperative sheep, rounding up an uncooperative orange bunny, and more. “Bottom of the World” paired a Tom Waits song with one of BV’s most endearing qualities: the inventive use of simple props — in this case, a long plank. Sometimes they don’t even need that, as Anna Marra and Josh Murry proved in their prop-less duet to the vocal harmonies of the Hi-Los, or magenta-frocked co-founder Jamey Hampton’s reprise of his dazzling solo to a Paganini showpiece, this time to a recording of the fiddle original rather than last week’s live marimba solo in BodyVox’s Chamber Music Northwest show. Its lighthearted creativity and broad audience appeal make BodyVox an Oregon treasure.

Michala Petri (left) joined Chamber Music
Northwest colleagues at Reed College. Photo: Jim Leisy.

Speaking of Chamber Music Northwest, in two concerts last weekend at Reed College’s Kaul Auditiorium, the annual summer series closed on a high note, courtesy of Danish guest artist Michala Petri’s sopranino recorder, which she deployed along with others in a variety of Baroque masterpieces and obscurities with an ensemble of veteran CMNW regulars and young Protege Project players. We expected virtuosity from the world’s greatest recorder player, but found more in superb performances by several CMNW regulars.

Performing Baroque music on modern instruments and in compromised equal temperament tunings certainly deprives the music of much of its nuance and beauty, which is why many venues these days leave it to historically informed ensembles like Oregon’s own Portland Baroque Orchestra. And in fact, the two closing CMNW Baroque performances lacked the expressivity, punch, textural and intonational richness that the music summons when played in the manner it was originally intended.

Yet until we have more versatile, switch-hitting musicians like Portland’s own Adam LaMotte and Gregory Ewer who are adept in both Baroque and post-Baroque approaches, performances like CMNW’s still offer many virtues. The players did compensate for almost anachronism they could by avoiding Romantic excess (like the first period-instrument orchestras did) although they failed to provide the expressive phrasing and other authentic devices that the contemporary truly historically hip ensembles have studied and mastered, striving to balance their forces, crisply articulating phrases, setting brisk tempos and standing (except for the cellist) rather than sitting, except in a performance of a Mozart flute quartet (with Petri again on recorder), whose original players would have sat) and so on. The result: engaging, sometimes elegant performances that lacked the emotional power of PBO and other specialty groups but still provided an enjoyable afternoon and evening’s entertainment.

Michala Petri. Photo: Jim Leisy.

Of course, having the world’s finest recorder player, the crimson-clad Petri (who played most of the concerts sans score and sometimes switched instruments mid-piece), veteran Oregon Bach Festival oboist Allan Vogel, and keyboard player Shai Wosner (revealing an unexpected gift for harpsichord performance after several enchanting piano performances here over the years) onstage helped immensely. Petri’s astonishing virtuosity (on full display in a J.S. Bach flute sonata arranged for alto recorder) drew cheers at both concerts, although I have to confess that I’ve occasionally heard more expressive (if less precise) performances from the younger generation of players. And in concerts by authentic ensembles like, say, Red Priest (who also boast an amazing recorder virtuoso), I’ve heard livelier Vivaldi than the two concerti performed on Friday.

The issue of how to perform old music in modern times also arose at last week’s art song recital by singer Stephen Beaudoin and pianist Michael Kleinschmidt at Portland’s Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, where Kleinschmidt serves as music director. Actually, I avoid that pretentious term; “What’s the difference between an art song and a regular song?” a friend asked me recently. People actually show up to hear regular songs, I replied. After several generations of amazing 20th century American popular music, from Tin Pan Alley in the 1920s through Memphis in the ‘50s and beyond, the earnest “classical” songs of 19th-century European composers can sound off-puttingly melodramatic, even corny in our irony-laden age.

Michael Kleinschmidt and Stephen Marc Beaudoin
performed at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral.

Perhaps trying to avoid this heaviness, while nodding to authenticity by brandishing a small book of poetry as Romantic singers would have done in olden times, Beaudoin used a relatively light, agile vocal style and avoided vocal heaviness and melodramatic excess in Robert Schumann’s Eichendorff Songs. While this  approach probably sounded more “natural” to listeners more accustomed to less consciously artsy contemporary pop singing styles, it also deprived those songs of some of the raw emotional power and depth the lyrics demand. (It also meant his voice was occasionally covered by the piano.) In the wheelhouse of his upper range, Beaudoin’s exceptionally clear tenor radiates presence, and he’s a natural onstage. The style worked better in three songs by the great 20th century American composer Samuel Barber (including a James Joyce rarity I’d never before encountered), and even better in show tunes by Stephen Sondheim and Jason Robert Brown, where Beaudoin really caught the humor and poignance in character pieces. I’m still not sure how anyone can perform 19th century art song today in a way that really works for 21st century audiences, but I’d love to hear Beaudoin apply his engaging instrument and stage presence to more musical theater.

Back at Chamber Music Northwest, Saturday’s closing show proved still more compelling, in part because, instead of welcome relative rarities by second rate composers like Jacques-Christophe Naudot and Giuseppe Sammartini (which did offer the virtue of unfamiliarity), we heard stronger music by the unquestioned masters of the high Baroque. Opening with a Telemann concerto played by only the four violin soloists (sans accompaniment), the concert seemed to pulse with higher energy throughout. Bassoonist Julie Feves almost matched Petri’s skill in a surprisingly lithe performance of a Telemann concerto  that featured the two wind players. Vogel and violinist Theodore Arm took center stage in one of the greatest works by J.S. Bach or anyone else: the dramatic Concerto for Oboe and Violin that was reconstructed from a later two- harpsichord arrangement and has since become one of Baroque music’s greatest hits — and deservedly so. Both veteran soloists furiously played their tightly interlocked parts full out and at a snappy tempo, fully capturing the driving power of Bach’s masterpiece. The amazing Vogel brought his usual rich, singing tone and maintained it despite the snappy tempos. Hearing these two old masters play so vibrantly and skillfully was one of the highlights of the festival and the classical music season.

The tempo slowed for a Telemann horn concerto, in part no doubt to accommodate the difficult horn part. Soloist William Purvis turned in an excellent performance using a modern horn that made me wonder how in the world those old Baroque hornists did it with valveless instruments controlled solely by nuanced movements of  lips, lungs and a hand in the bell. Petri returned with her little recorder and proceeded to unleash a big sound that somehow entirely avoided shrillness. I spotted many audience members shaking their heads in wonder at her sheer speed and precision. They also erupted in cheers — after the first movement no less! —  after still another astonishing star turn, this one provided by Wosner in the huge, celebrated harpsichord solo that forms the centerpiece of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto #5. I’ve heard it played by keyboard soloists from PBO and other period instrument orchestras, but Wosner’s bravura performance fully matched those, and his tasteful accompaniment throughout the concert, like Vogel’s superb solos, demonstrated that modern instrument players can indeed make sweet Baroque music.

The closing concert made a rousing conclusion to another enjoyable CMNW season. The institution is slowly remaking itself with younger players and broader repertoire, racing to build new audiences before the old one disappears (underscored by the appearance of an ambulance at one concert), but I hope that even as Chamber Music Northwest continues and even accelerates its desperately needed modernization, it will continue the easygoing summer atmosphere (shorts, picnics on the Reed lawn, easy rapport among players and audiences) that makes it one of Oregon’s most appealing classical music institutions.

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