Robert Levin

Bach Fest: an ace in the mule

A pair of historically informed concerts from the Big Names of the Concert Hall display the stubborn pleasures of keeping things elemental

EUGENE – I once spent a day at the mule races. They were a lot like the horse races, except more … eccentric. A mule race, I discovered to my delight, is a singularly unforgettable experience, unpredictable and unrepeatable in its essence: like snowflakes, no two mule races can ever be alike. The animals seem comical, but in a serious way, with a strength and power and sheer cussedness all their own. A nobility, too: a mule is a mule, and not an imitation horse, and it’s here to make sure you know it. A mule is happy to go where you want to go, as long as where you want to go is where it wants to go, too, and that makes the task of jockeying one of these sturdy contrarians seem like an attempt to tame an intransigent force with a flexible straw. It can be a major accomplishment simply to get the mule pointed in the right direction and focused on actually crossing the finish line. When you manage it with speed and style as well, it’s a triumph.

The memory came galloping back on Sunday afternoon as I was watching and listening to Andrew Clark’s mastery of his own particular mule at the Oregon Bach Festival in Eugene. Clark, an Englishman who is now principal horn with the Vancouver Island Symphony in British Columbia, was straddling a cantankerous coil of brass in a program of Beethoven and Mozart, including Beethoven’s 1800 Sonata in F Major for Horn and Piano, Op. 17. Even the modern horn is a touchy beast, fully capable of untoward surprises. Clark was playing a valveless period instrument, the kind that Mozart and Beethoven would have been familiar with, where embouchure is everything and you change keys by adding or subtracting a section of tubing. The sound is soft and burnished and impetuous, a wayward gambol through the woods on the back of a beast that is insistent on making its independence known, and if it sometimes nods its head toward the side of the path, Clark’s quiet and mellifluous command of it constituted both an adventure and a triumph.

Pianoforte virtuoso Robert Levin and Berwick Academy director Rachel Podger. Photos courtesy Oregon Bach Festival

Pianoforte virtuoso Robert Levin and Berwick Academy director Rachel Podger. Photos courtesy Oregon Bach Festival

The program, in the comfortably classical and resonant Beall Concert Hall on the University of Oregon campus, was called Viennese Masters III: Quintets for Piano and Winds, and it featured in addition to Clark some fellow masters of period instruments: Debra Nagy on oboe, Eric Hoeprich on clarinet, bassoonist Marc Vallon, and fortepianist Robert Levin. The sound they produced was winsome, balanced, light, and quick, with the fluid deliberation of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Throughout the performance, too, was the visual evidence of the sheer amount of labor it takes to keep these antique-style sound vessels going: Clark tapping his horn and disengaging sections for the occasional shakedown of spittle; Hoeprich elegantly running a cloth through the length of his clarinet to clean it out. Occasional pauses between movements made it possible to perform these instrumental ablutions with a minimum of disruption. We’re so used to the larger sound of the late Romantic and modern eras (let alone the plugged-in decibels of contemporary popular music) that the woodier, breathier, more organic, intimate and delicately balanced sound of period instruments can surprise us and shift our expectations in fascinating ways even decades after the period performance movement began.

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