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If it’s Baroque: Portland Baroque Orchestra’s Festival of Candidates

It's a bout of bouts as PBO’s quest for its next artistic leader goes to the bell.

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Illustration courtesy of PBO.

In this corner of the ring stands Peter Whelan; in the next corner, Aisslinn Nosky; in another, Julian Perkins. The three have their gloves on, and they are ready to deliver a knockout punch to become the next artistic director of the Portland Baroque Orchestra, one of the best period-instrument ensembles in the U.S.

In 2020, PBO’s longtime leader Monica Huggett–a heavy-weight champion in the Baroque music world–announced she would retire in 2021 from the position, after 27 years at the helm (read Bob Hicks’ story here). PBO has billed the audition process, in which each contestant leads a concert program, as a Festival of Candidates.

Whelan, Nosky, and Perkins have many strengths. Which one will prevail in this artistic bout? Will there be a knockout (KO) or will a technical knockout (TKO) do the trick? We’ll see. In the meantime, here are my reviews of each concert.

Dublin’s Messiah

First up to take a swing was Peter Whelan, a tall fellow from Ireland where he is the artistic director of the Irish Baroque Orchestra. Whelan, who led the PBO in a concert series five years ago, maintains a busy schedule conducting orchestras and operas, and is an acclaimed bassoonist to boot.

Peter Whelan. Photo by Jen Owens.
Peter Whelan. Photo by Jen Owens.

Whelan offered an entertaining and informative program (October 29 at First Baptist Church) that explored the backstory in Dublin leading up to the first performance of Handel’s Messiah in 1742. After it was premiered, Handel wrote to his librettist Charles Jennens that musicians were first-rate. That must have quelched any talk about Ireland being a cultural backwater.

In his program notes, Whelan pointed out that Dubliners (just like Londoners) were enamored of Italian-styled music, and that one of Dublin’s resident artists, the virtuoso violinist and composer Matthew Dubourg (concertmaster of the first performance of the Messiah), must have played the Concerto for Two Violins in A Major from Antonio Vivaldi’s L’Estro Armonico. Ergo, the PBO concert began with this spectacular number, featuring Carla Moore and Rob Diggins. The duo delivered an immaculate and lively performance, which included fleet fingerwork in the first movement.

Next came Handel’s Concerto Grosso in G Minor, Opus 6, No. 6, which had a number of Messiah-like phrases in almost each of its five movements. Whelan and his forces (including John Lenti’s resonating theorbo) fashioned terrific dynamics and tempos that made the Concerto Grosso a real gem. 

Two pieces by Dubourg showed his interest in Irish folk music. The first, Dubourg’s Maggott, for an ensemble of six, had an exuberant, frothiness, exemplified by Lenti’s vigorous strumming on the guitar. The second was a melancholic number for bassoon (Nate Helgeson) and theorbo (Lenti) based on the ballad, “Eileen Aroon.”

Pietro Castrucci, an acclaimed violinist in Handel’s London orchestra, moved to Dublin but died impoverished. PBO’s full ensemble played his Concerto Grosso in D Major, Opus 3, No 12. Whelan and the orchestra enhanced the piece with terrific dynamic contrasts. Highlights included a splendid violoncello solo (Joanna Blendulf) and an echoing trio of violins in the final movement. 

Niccolo Pasquali’s Overture for the Gran Festino was played with gusto, and the delicate guitar passage (played by Lenti) in the second movement had a lovely lute-like quality. The enchanting melody was taken over by the violins in a way that gracefully enlarged it. Yet, from the research I have found, Pasquali didn’t travel to Dublin until 1748. So, I am not sure how he could be part of the backstory that led to the first Messiah performance in 1742. 

Francesco Geminiani was considered the greatest violinist of his time, and concertized in Dublin many times. His Concerto Grosso in E Major, Opus 5, No 11 was an arrangement of Arcangelo Corelli’s work, which, as Whelan mentioned, made it better. The exchange of phrases between Moore, Diggins, Blendulf, and Lenti (on guitar) and the dance-like ending made the piece especially colorful.

Handel’s Concerto Grosso in D Major, Opus 6, No. 5 received a sterling performance. Its majestic opening, fugue-like section, and good-humored character sparkled. It was followed by Vivaldi’s Concerto for Four Violins in B Minor from L’Estro Armonico. The quartet of violins (Toma Iliev, Jolianne Einem, Adam LaMotte, and Janet Strauss) excelled with some tricky passages. Iliev, in particular, handled the most difficult ones with panache. 

Whelan led the music-making from the harpsichord, using his upper torso and a few gestures with a free hand whenever possible to inspire his colleagues. He corralled a free-range microphone that briefly rolled around the stage and humorously quipped about it, which connected well with the audience. Overall, Whelan landed a one-two punch in round one of the Festival of Candidates bout.

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Peter Whelan. Photo by Jen Owens.
Peter Whelan. Photo by Jen Owens.

Nods to Bachs

The next candidate to step into the ring was violinist Aisslinn Nosky. The Canadian virtuoso (originally from Nanaimo, B. C.) is a veritable sensation on the Baroque violin and has received accolades as concertmaster of the Handel and Haydn Society of Boston and for her concertizing with many other ensembles.

Last year she led the PBO in vibrant performances of works by Corelli, Handel, and Vivaldi; earlier this year, Nosky and conductor Gary Thor Wedow presented a program examining Mendelssohn’s role in reviving interest in the music of Bach (read my review of that concert here). This time around (November 13 at Kaul Auditorium), Nosky and company played a program built around works by J. S. Bach, his family and friends. 

The highlight of the concert was Telemann’s Burlesque de Quixotte, which expressed several episodes from Cervantes’ famous novel. Nosky’s animated playing accentuated the picaresque nature of the music, especially with exaggerated bowing and glissandi that depicted Sancho Panza being tossed into the air and caught with a blanket only to be tossed again and again for non-payment after staying at an inn. Jaunty little glissandi and a lopsided gait delightfully portrayed Quixote’s horse, Rocinante, while the braying of the cellos and basses captured Sancho Panza’s mule, Dapple.

The ensemble displayed an outstanding sonic balance in J. S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3, which opened the concert. Guided by Nosky, the music set out in a lively tempo that was quick but not blitzing. That allowed the musicians to pick up the pace later and still impeccably exchange various phrases from one string section to another, including one that impressively traveled across the stage.

The complexity of Bach’s piece contrasted well with the Symphony in B-flat Major by his son, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach. Urged on by Nosky, C.P.E. Bach’s Symphony bloomed from the outset with a delightful spunky character. The second movement purred with an elegant legato, and the third vigorously tied it all together with occasional interjections of brief, forceful statements.

Aisslinn Nosky. Photo courtesy of the artist.
Aisslinn Nosky. Photo courtesy of the artist.

The concert also featured the Ouverture in G Minor by Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, another son of J. S. Bach. For many years, the Ouverture was attributed mistakenly to Bach père, but musicologists have figured out that Wilhelm Friedemann was the composer–the musical form was not one that his dad used. 

Imbued with a refined yet unfussy style, the five-movement Ouverture offered a number of arresting moments, such as echoing phrases, quicksilver passages, and a charming segment that was delivered expertly by Nosky, Diggins, and Blendulf. Yet it seemed that the final movement would have benefited from more dynamic variety.

The concert ended with Nosky taking center stage in J. S. Bach’s Violin Concerto No. 1 in A Minor. She played it all splendidly, and the second movement, with the repetitive ostinato bass underneath Nosky’s violin solo, created a wonderfully soothing and plaintive mood. In the third movement, there were spots where the orchestra got a bit too loud while Nosky was caressing some of her phrases. But she and the orchestra brought the piece to a satisfying conclusion. 

Nosky’s program and execution was excellent but would have benefited from some more shaping of the dynamics. Still she landed some fine jabs and uppercuts to make her excellent choice for the next artistic leader of the PBO. With her virtuosic talent with the violin, Nosky can continue the legacy of Monica Huggett and strengthen ties to Baroque companies in Canada. That counts for some extra points in PBO’s festival bout.

Aisslinn Nosky. Photo courtesy of the artist.
Aisslinn Nosky. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Go! Fight! Win!

The final contestant to prance into the ring was Julian Perkins. Like his opponents, Perkins sports a terrific resume. He is the artistic director of the Cambridge Handel Opera Company and the Sounds Baroque period instrument ensemble, and is a wizard with the harpsichord. His concert with PBO (November 20 at First Baptist Church) focused on works by lesser-known Baroque composers and J. S. Bach.

Perkins created an exciting program right out of the gate, starting with English composer Matthew Locke’s Curtain Tune. Like slow moving taffy, Locke’s short piece had a hypnotic style that transitioned to a quicker dance-like theme. All of it was shaped extremely well by Perkins, who conducted from the harpsichord. 

Equally engaging was the Sonata II from Georg Muffat’s Armonica Tributo, a collection of five sonatas. It alternated between slow and fast movements using Italian and French styles that were inspired by Corelli but, as Perkins’ program notes explained, also foreshadowed Bach. Expertly contoured by Perkins, the Muffat piece sparkled with terrific dynamic contrasts that added an element of surprise, especially with the punchy, emphatic ending.

Johann Heinrich Schmelzer’s Fechtschule (The Fencing School) opened with stately arias and dances before getting to the skirmish in which the solo violinist parried against the orchestra. Concertmaster Carla Moore excelled in that role, and the piece subsided gently at the end, conveying some much-needed wound licking after the fencing lesson.

Continuing in the martial vein, the ensemble executed a stirring rendition of Heinrich Biber’s Battalia, a programmatic piece that depicts a group of soldiers going into battle. It started with a happy-go-lucky presto that included the stomping of feet by the musicians. A humorous depiction of drunken soldiers ensued with a chaotic cacophony of tones sliding all over the place. Next came Moore as the God of War (Mars) summoning the troops – with raspy, snare-drum-like support from Joanna Blendulf (violoncello), Todd Larson (contrabass), and John Lenti (guitar). After a peaceful, cantabile aria, came the battle with loud pizzicatos ringing out, and finally a brief movement that expressed lament. 

Before intermission, the ensemble gave the U.S. premiere of Perkin’s arrangement of the Tarantella Napoletana. It began quietly with the guitar, and after a dramatic pause sped up with vim and vigor to help dancers drive out the poison of the spider’s bite – as required by folk legends.

Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 received a stellar performance with flutist Janet See, Moore, and Perkins as the featured soloists. See’s beautiful tone, Moore’s lovely playing, and Perkins’s brilliant keyboard artistry (fleet and immaculate fingerwork) contributed mightily expressive power of the concerto. It had plenty of verve and superb dynamics, and it sounded as fresh as ever.

Julian Perkins. Photo by Luke Koch de Gooreynd.
Julian Perkins. Photo by Luke Koch de Gooreynd.

Inspired by the myth of princess Arianne’s loss of her lover Theseus, Pietro Locatelli composed Il Pianto d’Arianna Concerto grosso (The Weeping of Arianna). Perkins guided the Portland Baroque Orchestra with terrific emotional clarity, and Moore once again played with elegance and great sensitivity. Lenti added just the right amount of gravity with his theorbo. Rather than leaving Arianna/Adrianne to sink into outright lethargy, the piece ended with a life-affirming resolve. 

Ref Bash calls it

Each candidate showed their best in these concerts. Each landed more than one punch. But I think that Perkins’ superb keyboard artistry and deft conducting made for an exceptional one-two combination (leading with a jab and following with a right hook) that gave him a TKO in this festival of candidates.

Does PBO have one of those huge belt buckles for the winner?

Julian Perkins. Photo by Benjamin Harte.
Julian Perkins. Photo by Benjamin Harte.
James Bash enjoys writing for The Oregonian, The Columbian, Classical Voice North America, Opera, and many other publications. He has also written articles for the Oregon Arts Commission and the Grove Dictionary of American Music, 2nd edition. He received a fellowship to the 2008 NEA Journalism Institute for Classical Music and Opera, and is a member of the Music Critics Association of North America.
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