Portland Baroque Orchestra: thoroughly unmodern Mozart

Vivacious historically informed performance reveals aspects of the composer’s mastery modern instruments can’t match

By JEFF WINSLOW

Photos by Jonathan Ley

No one considers Mozart a Baroque composer, but as Portland Baroque Orchestra Artistic Director Monica Huggett pointed out just before their all-Mozart concert at Reed College’s Kaul Auditorium, a week ago last Sunday, it’s perfectly reasonable for the PBO to play his music. Mozart was born as the Industrial Revolution was just getting started, but it only arrived in his Austrian homeland decades after he died, so the sound of PBO’s pre-industrial design instruments would likely have pleased him more than a modern orchestra.

 PBO hornists Sadie Glass and Andrew Clark

Like any adventurous composer, Mozart was often dissatisfied with the instrumental limitations of his time, but he was also among the most practical of composers. He carefully deployed the available musical forces, and to the degree instruments have changed since then, playing his music on anachronistic modern ones risks losing his intended sound.

Take the first piece on PBO’s program, the E-flat major Serenade for winds, K. 375. Mozart’s smooth, expert blending of bassoons, horns, and oboes (two each), contrasting with the two clarinets’ distinctive tone, is evident even on modern instruments.  I’m not quite sure how he did this, but in the performance by the PBO wind players, the blend was so intimate that they often sounded like one instrument – maybe a small organ or harmonium. (A particular challenge of writing for modern wind quintet is blending all the different characteristic sounds into one unified soundscape.) Just as with modern instruments, the two clarinets stood out as if they were soloists.

PBO clarinetists Bryan Conger and Ed Matthew

The serenade also displays Mozart’s signature ability to weave any number of connoisseur-pleasing details into instantly appealing compositions. Excursions to distant keys, bits of intricate counterpoint, surprising melodic reminiscences – such as the poignant one by oboe in its own solo guise near the end of the Adagio movement – sailed by on a river of the brilliant tunes, runs, and fanfares typical of serenades of the time, all played with verve by the eight musicians.

The verve continued into the C minor Piano Concerto, K. 491, one of only two of the composer’s 27 piano concertos written in a minor key. At the group’s brisk tempo, the portentous mood the first movement often projects with modern instruments was mostly absent, but there was no lack of drama. Versatile pianist Eric Zivian – better known to contemporary music audiences as a mainstay of the Left Coast Chamber Ensemble – gave an intense performance on the PBO’s fortepiano, an instrument modeled in the late 20th century on instruments Mozart often used.  

In solo or small ensemble performances in smaller spaces, it could indeed sing, but it struggled to establish its voice at Kaul Auditorium, a far larger performance space than was typical of Mozart’s time. Being forward on the stage, it didn’t get the same benefit of nearby sound-reflective surfaces that most of the orchestra did, particularly winds and brass. Fortepiano notes also decay much more quickly than a modern piano’s, so its sound more quickly submerges beneath the constant sound production of most orchestral instruments. (As good a reason as any to keep tempos brisk.)

Eric Zivian played fortepiano with PBO in Mozart’s Piano Concerto # 24.

In addition to the balance problem, a few tinny pitches, probably the result of their dual strings drifting out of tune with each other due to the mechanical and thermal stress of moving from PBO’s normal downtown venue, which can persist even after a tuning, made me regret that I didn’t hear this work there.

In contrast, PBO’s performance of Mozart’s masterly last symphony (known as “the Jupiter”) was pure joy, a consummately brilliant finale to its season. From the electrifying snap of the opening flourishes all the way through the transparency of the final movement’s complex counterpoint, the orchestra made every moment irresistible. Oh, a string section may have slipped slightly out of tune here and there, and the sudden accents interrupting the singing melody of the slow movement seemed surprisingly aggressive, but these were easily passed over. 

PBO cellists Tanya Tomkins, Adaiha MacAdam-Somer

A particular pleasure was the interaction of winds and strings, for example, in the expressive litany of dissonant harmonies that pours forth at times in the slow movement. These had an aching sweetness I don’t think I’ve ever heard when performed on modern instruments. In the finale’s famed contrapuntal sections, including one where the composer blends together five distinct melodic fragments across the entire orchestra, the clarity and beauty of the harmonies passing by even moved me to tears. Soon afterwards, the group brought the work to a crackling conclusion, and I couldn’t resist shouting out an exuberant “Woohoo!” in the burst of wild applause that followed. 

As an unrepentant fan of modern instruments and tuning, including the piano, I’m generally happy to confine my Baroque listening to J.S. Bach. Even so, I was thrilled to experience this particular PBO event. It’s not hard to imagine that if Mozart had been there, as bewildered as he might be by some developments – what are these “electronic devices” that need to be “turned off,” and why doesn’t the PBO’s presumably history-savvy following applaud after every movement? – for a half-hour of musical time, he would have felt right at home.

Jeff Winslow is a pianist and composer who serves on the board of Cascadia Composers.

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