Weekend MusicWatch: Portland Baroque and lots more

Monica Huggett leads Portland Baroque Orchestra Saturday and Sunday

Halloween hasn’t arrived, but so far, we have nothing to fear from Portland’s classical music scene. The past week has been especially busy, culminating last night with Portland Baroque Orchestra’s exemplary Vivaldi concert. We’ll take a look at that one in a moment and let you know what’s going on the rest of the weekend, but first a little catching up from the week.

FearNoMusic’s Piano Riot last Sunday featured four of the city’s finest pianists performing the new music ensemble’s original arrangement of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. Unlike the two piano arrangement of the composer’s Petrouchka performed at last summer’s Portland International Piano Festival, which, though brilliantly played, just kept reminding me how rich the original’s orchestral textures were, this one impressed me with how it revealed aspects of the ever-thrilling original that are inevitably obscured amid the 100-piece orchestra. The secret weapon: scarlet-shod percussionist Joel Bluestone, whose timpani snagged some of the starring roles in the Stravinsky, and who played a half-dozen or more instruments in a colorful piece for electronics and solo percussionist by former Portlander and fellow PSU faculty member Joseph Waters.

All four pianists (including Portland Piano International honcho and former Florestan Trio pianist Harold Gray and Denise VanLeuven)  shone throughout, but the concert reminded me how lucky we are to have FNM pianist and co-founder Jeff Payne, whose effortless, low key virtuosity has energized so many concerts over the years, and Susan Smith, whose regular gig with Third Angle New Music Ensemble hasn’t kept her from participating in this show, Northwest New Music’s concert earlier this month, and, soon, a recital at Lewis & Clark College, where she teaches.

Payne and VanLeuven kicked the show off with a blistering rendition of Witold Lutoslawski’s Variations on a Theme by Paganini, and the concert also continued the group’s productive relationship with LA-based, South Africa-born composer Shaun Naidoo, whose Diamond Morning offered some gripping moments even if it sometimes felt more like a blueprint for a piece than a fully realized one. What a treat to hear so much contemporary and 20th century music played by such stellar musicians.

Thursday night brought Oregon back to Portland’s Aladdin Theater, which the band opened after its conversion from a porn palace in the early 1990s. Even though only bassist extraordinaire Glen Moore lives in the state, enough old friends were around to make it feel like a homecoming. The band clearly knew a lot of the audience and vice versa, and displayed the kind of relaxed amiability you only feel at a good old friend’s house.

The quartet, celebrating its 40th anniversary, hasn’t lost a step. Their signature combination of classical, jazz and world music helped inspire a whole movement (New Age) that offered some notable moments, but more often lacked Oregon’s improvisatory inclinations and jazz chops, while much of the jazz that originally inspired native Oregonians Ralph Towner and Moore at the University of Oregon in the early 1960s wound up locked in old formulae. The result is that no one else sounds like Oregon, which at its best commandingly combines jazz’s rhythmic versatility, classical music’s careful construction, and various world music elements — and as this concert showed, they still sound great.

Moore’s virtuosic, constantly surprising bass lines, Paul McCandless’s confident reeds  and youngish drummer Mark Walker’s steady beat framed Towner’s flamenco-influenced guitar colors, as unpredictable and enchanting as ever. Towner, who wrote most of the music, alternated between astonishing guitar and piano. The standard group improv piece floated gently this time instead cascading as happened in their last appearance here, and produced moments of ineffable, never to be repeated beauty as lovely as anything I’ve heard all year. The state should be proud to have a band that’s produced so much sustainable musical bounty named after it.

Another venerable Oregon institution, Portland Baroque Orchestra, opened its new season last night sounding equally fresh and confident, in some ways better than ever. The 15-member (this time) ensemble’s characteristically rich, sometimes plush sound felt even brighter this time; I learned after the show from PBO’s Mark Powell that a carpet that used to cover the wooden floor on First Baptist Church’s stage had been removed, which explains the welcome  change in sonority. The strings occasionally had to whisper to avoid eclipsing Scottish soprano Susan Hamilton in motets by Antonio Vivaldi, whose vocal works (except for the famous Gloria) remain overshadowed by his instrumental pieces like the inescapable  Four Seasons violin concerti. Vivaldi’s virtuosic vocal parts resembled violin passages, in fact, and sometimes duplicated them, and Hamilton nailed them, to the astonishment of the audience.

The self-effacing Hamilton — anything but a stereotypical diva — expertly deployed the kind of nimble, light voice that’s been preferred in Baroque music for a couple generations now, but although it’s small compared to a bel canto soprano (and occasionally hard to hear up in the balcony off to her side when she aimed it elsewhere), her conversational style proved deceptively powerful — a LaMichael James of Baroque music (if you’ll forgive the Duck football reference) — for its size. Hamilton usually swathed her vocal passages in a subtle setting of cello, portative organ, archlute and Baroque guitar (sweetly strummed by John Lenti) and occasional obbligatos by violinist and PBO music director Monica Huggett, and PBO’s instrumentalists played with such sensitivity that she didn’t need amplification — a practice I wish other performers would adopt when possible.

By the end of the evening’s final Vivaldi motet, Hamilton’s voice had opened up so much (or we had adjusted our ears) that the audience demanded an encore of her stirring, closing “Alleluia.”

The singing and playing throughout the concert radiated a warm, nuanced precision, smooth dynamic transition (at appropriately brisk tempos) and Huggett’s characteristically vital rhythmic articulation. The doubled parts, and sometimes the entire band, sounded like a single instrument. Huggett was magnificent in virtuosa passages in vibrant works by Pietro Locatelli and Giuseppe Tartini, without ever sentimentalizing the tender slow movements. This was Baroque music as it was meant to be played. The audience erupted in unrestrained whoops and cheers at least three different times.

PBO has long been a favorite of mine, in part because I love Baroque music, in part because they play in the natural tunings intended by the composers (instead of the terribly compromised but now standard equal temperament that has contaminated so much classical music for the past century or so), in part because their concerts at First Baptist Church exude a kind of intimacy that makes listeners feel as though they’re in the middle of the mix.

But the superior musicianship on display throughout this concert transcends genre, tuning and venue. The genially exacting Huggett has honed PBO (which admittedly is a sort of all-star ensemble of West Coast early music specialists who play in other ensembles) into a precise, potent musical force that, musician for musician, is without parallel on Portland stages. Their world-class performance of J.S. Bach’s St. John Passion (soon to be released on CD) was my favorite of the dozens of concerts I heard last year, and this show often attained that level of artistry.

This state is blessed with some terrific classical performers, from the ascendant Oregon Symphony on down, but if you’re not attending Portland Baroque Orchestra concerts, you’re missing some of the finest classical music being made in Oregon, or anywhere else.

You have two more opportunities to hear PBO’s Italian concert this weekend — Saturday at First Baptist again, and Sunday at Reed College’s Kaul Auditorium. Don’t miss.

In other recommended weekend concerts, Portland Columbia Symphony Orchestra offers a Romantic program of Mahler, Elgar (with the excellent Oregon Symphony cellist Nancy Ives as soloist in his famous cello concerto) and Sibelius at Gresham’s Mt. Hood Community College Theater Sunday. On Saturday at downtown Portland’s Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, the Oregon Symphony and Portland Symphonic Choir undertake one of the 20th century’s greatest orchestral statements, Igor Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms, plus Beethoven’s unusual but compelling Choral Fantasy.  (That makes three most welcome Stravinsky masterpieces, including the live orchestra performance of Petrouchka at Oregon Ballet Theater’s concerts, on Portland stages in one week, plus a three-hour documentary about the composer at last week’s Reel Music Festival). The orchestra plays a kids concert with Pacific Youth Choir there on Sunday, but the strong program (Prokofiev, Copland, Ravel and more) will keep those restless adults from squirming, too.

Oregon Repertory Singers welcome new music director Ethan Sperry in concerts at Portland State University’s Lincoln Recital hall Saturday and First United Methodist Church Sunday. The inventive San Francisco performance artist and composer Pamela Z performs with other electronic musicians in Electrogals’ 2011 Gals Gone Wired Festival at Portland’s Disjecta art center Saturday. And on Sunday at Lincoln Hall, PSU’s Symphony Orchestra plays two of Mozart’s most graceful concerti, (for bassoon and flute and harp, respectively), plus music of French Baroque composer Jean-Philippe Rameau.

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