Eric Zivian

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.

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Benvenue Trio preview: Viennese action

Historically informed trio debuts an important addition to Oregon's classical music scene

by ALICE HARDESTY

April marks the debut of the Portland Baroque Orchestra’s newest member: the Ruth Rolt fortepiano. Its player is Eric Zivian of the Benvenue Trio, whose other members are violinist Monica Huggett (also PBO’s artistic director) and PBO cellist Tanya Tomkins.

The fortepiano brings an important addition to Oregon’s music scene. It’s a rarer — and to many ears, more precious — keyboard instrument than its modern successor. “If I had my way, they wouldn’t have extended the development of the piano past 1850!” Monica Huggett told Vancouver Classical Music. “A fortepiano or a period piano (such as an Érard or Broadwood) balances so well and allows all the primary colors of the music to surface.” And Zivian says the fortepiano has more character than the modern piano.

Benvenue Fortepiano Trio performs Friday in Portland. Photo: Sisto Flores.

The Ruth Rolt fortepiano allows PBO to bring repertoire that Oregon has rarely heard before. For example, PBO will include in its next season one of Mozart’s last piano concertos played by Zivian on the Rolt fortepiano. This Friday, April 6, the Trio plus its new member will perform works by Mozart, Haydn, Hummel, and the Hungarian composer Józef Koschovitz at Portland’s First Baptist Church.

William Rolt and Portland poet Judith Barrington donated the Ruth Rolt fortepiano to the Portland Baroque Orchestra, in memory of his mother and her sister, respectively. Poet, memoirist, writer, and teacher Barrington, who could be considered the fortepiano’s aunt, is well known to the Oregon literary community, but not many Oregonians know about her late sister the concert pianist. You could say that love brought this precious instrument to Oregon — a pianist’s love for early classical music, for this instrument’s special qualities, and for Oregon.

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