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It’s all in the family library: Aisslinn Nosky with Portland Baroque Orchestra

Themed PBO concert reveals musical connections between Bach and the Mendelssohns.

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The Mendelssohn family must have had one heck of a library! That was my conclusion after hearing an awe-inspiring concert by the Portland Baroque Orchestra, February 12 at Reed College’s Kaul Auditorium. It delved into the rich musical legacy that contributed to the works of Felix Mendelssohn and his sister Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel, creating a fascinating journey. 

With conductor Gary Thor Wedow and violinist Aisslinn Nosky collaborating as co-artistic advisors, the program neatly blended history and artistry. Wedow, acting as head librarian and tour guide, introduced each piece with insightful tidbits laced with dollops of humor. Starting with J. S. Bach, he clarified how Bach’s family and students were linked with the Mendelssohn family. The web of connections made complete sense, and highlighted Mendelssohn’s role in reviving Bach’s music to the public.

Canadian virtuoso Nosky opened the program with the “Preludio” from Bach’s Violin Partita No. 3 in E Major. She delivered that treacherously difficult piece with verve, eliciting a gorgeously rich sound from her 1746 Salvator Bofill, made in Barcelona, Spain.

One of Bach’s sons, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, wrote music that moved away from his father’s style to a less complex manner. The orchestra–with Nosky as concertmaster/conductor, plus harpsichordist Jonathan Oddie–galloped into C.P.E. Bach’s rollicking String Symphony No. 3 in C Major with gusto. They crisply executed a tricky series of quick pauses before relaxing into a mellow movement containing the B-A-C-H motif. The final movement featured an echoing exchange between the strings.

Johann Philip Kirnberger, a student and ardent promoter of J. S. Bach’s music, knew Moses Mendelssohn, the grandfather of Fanny and Felix Mendelssohn. The Mendelssohn library most likely had some of Kirnberger’s theoretical writings about music, which were influenced heavily by Bach.

The orchestra, with Oddie as the soloist, gave an incisive performance of Kirnberger’s Harpsichord Concerto in C Minor. Oddie excelled at the keyboard, and his cadenzas rounded out the piece with an elegant flourish. The blend of the ensemble–split in two groups–with the harpsichord was exceptional, adding dynamic contrasts that made the piece a real delight.

Another bridge to Bach was Carl Friedrich Zelter, who taught Fanny and Felix composition. Zelter studied under C. F. C. Fasch, who worked under C. P. E. Bach as harpsichordist to Frederick II of Prussia. Zelter also loved to write art songs. He was a friend of Goethe and set 70 of Goethe’s poems to music. 

Mezzo-soprano Hannah Penn gave terrific performances of three lieder by Zelter (arranged by Peter Jones) with the orchestra conducted by Wedow. The first tune, “Rundgesang beim Rheinwein” (Drinking Round for Rhein Wine), had text by Johann Heinrich Voss, who coined the phrase “wine, women, and song.” With a twinkle in her eye and occasional Sprechstimme, Penn deftly conveyed the happy, go-lucky piece, which ended with a cheer to freedom in America.

Hannah Penn performs Carl Friedrich Zelter lieder with Portland Baroque Orchestra at Kaul Auditorium, Feb 12 2022. Photo by James Bash.
Hannah Penn performed Carl Friedrich Zelter lieder with Portland Baroque Orchestra at Kaul Auditorium, Feb 12 2022. Photo by James Bash.

Penn and her colleagues marvelously captured the somber and reflective sentiment of “Sehnsucht” (Longing), which framed Goethe’s poetry about love and frustration. Even more operatic was “Margarethe,” in which Penn impressively created the turmoil of emotions that swirled inside the heroine from Goethe’s Faust

Fanny Mendelssohn was a superb composer whose works are becoming rediscovered and played more frequently. A string quartet (violinists Nosky, Rob Diggins, violist Victoria Gunn, and violoncellist Michael Unterman) gave an enchanting interpretation of the first movement from Mendelssohn’s String Quartet in E-flat Major. The emotive playing of Nosky and Unterman, in particular, was just sensational. If they could only have played the rest of the piece!

The concert closed with Felix Mendelssohn’s Concerto for Violin and String Orchestra in D Minor. He uncorked this piece when he was only thirteen years old. Right out of the gate, it took off with Nosky’s espresso-schnell fingers flying above an accompaniment that was itself really swift. There were punchy accents, lovely melodic phrases and furious music-making with the utmost conviction that caused the audience to break out in applause. The second movement was duskier, with the lower strings at one point rumbling around in the basement while Nosky played beautifully in the penthouse. The third picked up the pace considerably with a wild edge and humorous interaction between Nosky and company. She had lot of fun with the piece, which resulted in loud acclamation from the audience.

Conductor Gary Thor Wedow and violinist Aisslinn Nosky with Portland Baroque Orchestra at Kaul Auditorium, Feb 12 2022. Photo by James Bash.
Conductor Gary Thor Wedow and violinist Aisslinn Nosky with Portland Baroque Orchestra at Kaul Auditorium, Feb 12 2022. Photo by James Bash.

The only downer of this concert was the sparse attendance. There may have been just over a hundred listeners in the hall. Kudos to the performers who maintained the highest levels of artistry in spite of the small crowd. Hopefully, the Sunday performance, which was recorded for livestreaming, attracted a larger audience of music-loving bookworms.

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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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