Julianne Baird

‘Jane Austen’s Songbook’ review: Unpersuasive

Singer Julianne Baird and pianist Marcia Hadjimarkos can’t redeem justifiably forgotten songs from the novelist’s world

by ALICE HARDESTY

Combine the rarefied world of the English Regency with a celebrated contemporary soprano and a talented fortepianist and you get “Jane Austen’s Songbook,” presented on October 18 in Hudson Concert Hall at Willamette University. The great diva/Baroque musicologist Julianne Baird partnered with Portland native Marcia Hadjimarkos. In between musical numbers, students Eliza Buchanan and Max Sherman read music-related passages from Pride and Prejudice, Emma, Sense and Sensibility, and Persuasion. Jane Austen, a pianist herself, had hand-copied many of her favorites into her own songbook.

Although the program included selections from composers well known to us, like Handel, Haydn, and Gluck, most of the pieces were known mainly to Jane Austen and her friends — songs about country life and love, drinking songs, and laments about war. The narrators provided a literary backdrop to each set of pieces, exposing the affectations of the day and Austen’s wit.

Hadjimarkos and Baird take their bows at Willamette in 2012.

While these selections provided good examples of the period’s taste, they were not a particularly good showcase for Ms. Baird’s glorious Baroque voice. She has issued over 130 solo CDs and is famous for her interpretations of Bach, Handel, and other Baroque composers as well as some modern Americans. She’s also a renowned musicologist with a Ph.D. in music history from Stanford. Perhaps that explains her enthusiasm for these little known 18th Century works.

Unfortunately, the pieces in this program, while amusing, turned out to be pretty bland fare. The first, “Chastity,” from Handel’s Susanna, is a sweet though relatively tame song, and not the best vehicle for Ms. Baird’s flexible and inspiring voice. In later numbers by William Reve and Samuel Webbe, she was better able to show off her runs, trills, and other embellishments, especially in the higher registers.

There was no need for lyrics printed in the program notes since Baird’s diction was flawless. But throughout her performance I missed the glorious Baroque voice I had heard in recordings. While her high notes rang out clearly, she seemed to lack energy in the mid-range and below.

The performance was not helped by the room acoustics. One of the adjustable fabric shades was broken, so all the shades had to be in the closed position, maximizing the room’s absorption and producing a muffled sound. This kind of intimate performance would have been much better suited to a smaller venue rather than such a large, impersonal, and sparsely populated hall — there were only about 50-60 attendees in a hall that seats 440.

Playing on a honey-colored fortepiano, Marcia Hadijmarkos provided artful and sensitive accompaniment  throughout. In addition, she played a pair of solos: a charming Haydn Sonata in C major, Hob XVI:35 and quite a vigorous (to the extent possible on the dainty fortepiano) rendition of the “Battle of Prague” by Frantisek Kotzwara. During the latter number, Ms. Baird barked out commentary in the form of single words and phrases, like trumpet, cannons, horses galloping, cries of the wounded, and victory!  The audience was a bit mystified at first, but at the end of the piece, everyone laughed and applauded.

The final number was “The Soldier Tir’d” by Thomas Arne, a favorite of divas like Beverly Sills and Joan Sutherland. In it, Ms. Baird let loose her virtuosic coloratura and dazzled us all until she was interrupted by a plant in the audience playing the part of Pride and Prejudice’s Mr. Bennett, saying, “You have delighted us long enough.” And that was the end!

I left feeling amused but not exactly satisfied. Back home, I put on my Julianne Baird CDs so I could wallow in the sublime Baroque sound that I had hoped for. And I felt a pang of regret that I had given away all my Jane Austen books the last time I’d moved. Maybe I’ll check the library for Sense and Sensibility.

Alice Hardesty is a Portland poet, writer, and music enthusiast. Her book An Uncommon Cancer Journey is published by Bacho Press http://bachopress.com

Want to read more about Oregon music? Support Oregon ArtsWatch!

MusicWatch Weekly: autumn bounty

This week's Oregon music highlights

In one of the peak weeks in the fall season of Oregon music, terling sopranos sing old and new songs, and other highlights include contemporary electronica, jazz, choral music, and sounds from Argentina, Mali, Japan, Europe, and beyond — including Oregon composers. Please add your recommendations in the comments section below.

BallakŽe Sissoko and Vincent Segal perform Tuesday at Portland’s Old Church concert hall. Photo: Claude Gassian.

Julianne Baird and Marcia Hadjimarkos
The superb early music soprano and the acclaimed Portland-born pianist, long based in Europe, perform music from Jane Austen’s world. The immortal writer was also a musician who practiced pop tunes of her time on fortepiano (which Hadjimarkos will, appropriately, play here) daily before breakfast, and filled her room with sheet music and her books and letters with references to public and private music events. Along with music by Haydn, Handel, Gluck, and more, including female songwriters, the show features songs about country life, drinking, and love, plus Turkish and Moorish motifs, female character pieces, and songs about naval victories and the French Revolution. A pair of narrators interpolate readings from Pride and Prejudice, Persuasion, Emma, Sense and Sensibility, and more.
Wednesday, Hudson Hall, Willamette University, Salem.

Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith performs Thursday in Portland.

Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith
The Orcas Island native, now based in LA, has moved from the contemporary classical niche to broader acclaim and audiences in electronic music, including opening for Animal Collective and collaborating Suzanne Ciani. The synth-savvy sound sculptor is releasing three albums this year to go with five earlier releases, numerous film scores, and more.
Thursday, Doug Fir Lounge. Portland.

Eugene Symphony
When the rising young pianist Conrad Tao appeared at the University of Oregon’s Beall Hall in 2011, he was a 17-year-old prodigy who could seemingly almost play masterpieces with one hand tied behind his back. Having grown both a beard and a reputation as a solid performer and composer, he’ll almost get the chance in Maurice Ravel’s dramatic 1931 piano concerto written for the great Austrian virtuoso Paul Wittgenstein, who’d lost his right arm to a Russian bullet in World War I. He’ll also solo in Liszt’s wild, colorful 1838 Dance of Death (Totentanz), and the orchestra will play a Mozart symphony about which its composer wrote, “I hope that even these idiots will find something in it to like.” He was talking about Parisians, not Oregonians, who’ll find plenty to enjoy in Mozart’s so-nicknamed Paris Symphony.
Thursday, Hult Center, Eugene.

Marquis Hill’s Blacktet plays two shows in Portland.

Marquis Hill Blacktet
The 2014 Thelonious Monk competition winner earned further notice with his gig in Joe Lovano’s band, and the sweet toned trumpeter has become a fine bandleader himself with this group that integrates bop, hip hop and R&B. Two shows.
Thursday, Fremont Theater, Portland.

Third Angle New Music & Tony Arnold
The Portland new music string quartet and New York new music soprano team up in music by the fine California composer Gabriela Lena Frank, colorful Australian composer Brett Dean, Greek-French composer Georges Aperghis, and midcentury Italian modernist Luciano Berio. Read Gary Ferrington’s ArtsWatch preview of the same team’s Creative Academy of Music concert Saturday.
Thursday and Friday, Studio 2 @ N.E.W. Portland.

Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble
The plucky organization dedicated to cultivating 21st century music by Portland composers and improvisers celebrates its tenth anniversary with a a TED-style talk from Executive Director Douglas Detrick, silent auction with some really enticing offers, and three pieces of music that tell the PJCE story—by PJCE founding Executive Director Andrew Oliver, former Grasshoppers (the young composers mentored by established Portland jazz musicians via PJCE’s admirable program) mentee Andres Moreno, and the world premiere of a new piece by one of Portland’s busiest and most inventive musicians, drummer/composer/improviser Barra Brown.
Friday, Fremont Theater, Portland.

Sound of Late
The exciting Portland/Seattle ensemble gives the West Coast premieres of music by youngish British composer Anna Clyne (former composer in residence with the Chicago Symphony and other orchestras) and Sarah Kirkland Snider, plus works by by Japanese composer Somei Satoh, Italian modernist Giacinto Scelsi, and the world premiere of a new piece by young Seattle composer Noel Kennon. The show is enhanced by video art by Seattle artist Stefan Gonzales.
Saturday, N.E.W. Expressive Works, Portland.

Continues…