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The beginning of a beautiful friendship: Portland Baroque at The Reser

Guest conductor/bass-baritone Jonathan Woody leads PBO through a concert of Bach and relations.

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Relationships grow over time. Some last a lifetime, some exist only within a brief time of life. We say they develop. Familial, working, intimate, platonic, blissful, painful or all of the above, all relationships have one thing in common – a moment of first encounter.

And folks who gathered for the recent Portland Baroque Orchestra concert in The Patricia Reser Center for the Arts were witness to such a moment, and to some inspired music by J. S. Bach and his relations.

The PBO concert in Beaverton’s new arts venue on Monday, March 21 was a programming delight. Jonathan Woody, artistic advisor for this concert, presided over six works from the German Baroque, bookended by two early cantatas of the baroque master himself. Included were works of four German composers whose lifetimes spanned 1637 to 1750:

  • Dieterich Buxtehude (1637-1707)
  • Johann Christoph Bach (1642-1703)
  • Johann Pachelbel (1653-1706)
  • Nicolaus Bruhns (1665-1697)
  • J. S. Bach (1685-1750)

…and Johann Sebastian had some kind of relationship to them all – cousin, mentor, influencer. They represent over 100 years of Baroque brilliance which flourished after the end of the Thirty Years War when the ”northern and central regions of Germany were newly free to embrace Lutheranism”–thus opening church music positions (Woody program notes). In each piece could be heard the construction, the techniques and the style that J. S. Bach employed in his early compositions.

But to counter the potential sameness Woody shuffled pieces for content – joy, lament, wrath – and shifted the artistic forces so every piece offered a different configuration of instrument and voice. The flow of the approximately 90 minutes of music was excellent.

Conductor/bass-baritone Jonathon Woody. Photo courtesy of PBO.
Conductor/bass-baritone Jonathan Woody. Photo courtesy of PBO.

In the two Bach cantatas, Woody positioned the eight vocalists straight across the front of the stage: TTSS to audience left, BBAA to the right. Instruments formed a crescent around the portative organ. This worked beautifully for choral moments in which like voices sang in pairs. How did that distance work for the vocal artists in their solo roles? Wonderfully for the audience. The voices soared straight into the hall. And, guiding it all, Woody, also bass-baritone soloist, was standing near center front, cueing entrances and shaping phrases for dramatic interest.

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The opening work, J. S. Bach’s cantata BWV 150, Nach dir, Herr, ver verlanget mich (Lord, I long for you) is structurally choral heavy; four out of seven movements utilized the eight-voice choir. After an introductory sinfonia–an instrumental form used in about 10 percent of Bach’s cantatas–the choir sang the psalmic title prayer. Soprano Sherezade Panthaki then established the overall message of this sacred work: through all manner of horrors, remain content through faith. Painting the text, Panthaki imparted strength with a rich yet uncomplicated resonance. After another brief choral psalm was the glorious trio.

Woody, countertenor Reginald Mobley, and tenor Jacob Perry stood as cedars against the unrelenting instrumental trio of “howling winds”–Joanna Blendulf on viola da gamba, Nate Helgeson on bassoon and Joshua Stauffer on theorbo. The reduced forces allowed the full beauty of the latter instrument to be heard. The three vocalists then howled (a compositional not vocal observation!) before settling into the elongated final word. Text painting 101. Full chorus formed for another psalm text, but of great interest was a playful moment where violinists Carla Moore and Rob Diggins played pass-the-duplet. No obvious text painting here; perhaps just a bit of the youthful Bach in gleeful experimentation.

The four vocalists mentioned thus far would continue as solo leads throughout the concert. But the second SATB quartet–Maya Kherani, Sarah Beaty, John K. Cox and Elijah Blaisdell, respectively–filled out the ensemble beautifully. Kherani, Cox and Blaisdell each delivered a few strong solo lines in the final movement of this cantata, and in later works. Beaty did not have a solo moment but her presence on stage speaks to her musicianship, her rising reputation in Portland and her grit.

Chance encounters

At half past noon on Saturday, March 20, new-to-Portland Beaty was out walking her dog and chose to let an unknown caller drop into voice mail. A few minutes later she felt compelled to listen to the message and heard a calm, pleasant voice asking if she would like to sub in for local artist Hannah Penn in a PBO concert. Kaul Auditorium, that night, rehearsal at 2. Beaty made rehearsal by 2:30, was handed music she had never sung, and met her music partners for the next two evenings. “Reginald – everyone really – made it so easy” she commented in a phone conversation after Monday’s performance. Beaty appeared as comfortable and confident as her colleagues. Brava. Hey, sometimes great relationships begin in chance encounters.

Sarah Beaty with LA Phil in 2020. Photo courtesy of the artist.
Sarah Beaty with LA Phil in 2020. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Mobley’s concert triumph was in the second work, by Johann Sebastian’s father’s cousin Johann Christoph Bach: Ach, das ich Wassers genug hätte (Oh, if only I had water enough in my head). The work was a showcase for countertenor Mobley, whose pure, unforced tones wept with the text. Violists Adam LaMotte and Victoria Gunn joined the ensemble for this work in which voice and upper strings communicate so directly. Mobley embellished the da capo with grace, not showing off his own considerable talents but illuminating and emphasizing the true intended master of the da capo: the text. After the final tones faded, the audience sighed – the first of two such moments in this concert.

All artists relinquished the stage to organist Jonathan Oddie for a work composed by the leading organist of the late 17th century, Dieterich Buxtehude. In 1705 J. S. Bach, age 20, took leave from his own organist position to walk from Arnstadt to Lübeck (think Portland to Grants Pass), where he developed a relationship with Buxtehude. In the Canzonetta in D Minor, BuxWV 168, one hears techniques, forms, voicing and themes that would slip into Bach’s own keyboard compositions. Oddie demonstrated these characteristics and his own keyboard skill in this intricate yet compact work. And kudos to Oddie for serving as stalwart foundation throughout the concert.

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Johann Pachelbel’s relationship with Bach came from the influence Pachelbel had on J. S.’ brother–also named Johann Christoph–who studied with Pachelbel and who ended up with a collection of Pachelbel’s keyboard works. Pachelbel experimented with a variety of forms and vocal/instrumental forces, and is associated with a clear, uncluttered canon style. In the three-minute Tröste uns, Gott, Pachelbel composed for double SATB choir, with choir II as echo, and gave the upper strings a break. Farley Pearce on the bass violone grounded the lower instruments.

In Blessed are all who fear the Lord by Nicolaus Bruhns, student of Buxtehude, soprano Kherani got a chance to shine alongside colleagues Panthaki and Woody. The three resonant voices balanced well. The bass-baritone part took Woody through his wide vocal range, a stunning performance. Once again, theorbist Stauffer got a few moments to shine. But added fun in this work was the gloriously soaring minute-long “Amen.”

A beautiful friendship

The concert was studded with composers whose relationships with J. S. Bach helped shape his life’s work. PBO performers hone a relationship with the music–and, within that, a relationship with each other, all of which translates into a relationship with the audience.

And then there’s the relationship with the performance hall. A venue is a participant in the performance. Like winter Olympians know each mogul and slope on their slalom course, performers and concert-goers in the Portland area know the ways certain venues treat sound. One sanctuary is quite live; another catches the high harmonics; another has some serious dry spots. You might like Philip Glass in A but prefer Bach in B.

The Reser has been open for less than a month; developing a sonic relationship with this comfortable, accessible and beautiful new venue will take time. The PBO performance has provided insight about how performers can or cannot hear each other on stage, about how–or if–sound mixes in the hall. PBO met the hall at 5:30, downbeat was at 7:30. Yet it seemed as if in the 90-minute performance the artists became more comfortable with the acoustic. That comfort helped make the final Bach cantata a success. 

Inside the Patricia Reser Center for the Arts. Photo courtesy of The Reser.
Inside the Patricia Reser Center for the Arts. Photo courtesy of The Reser.

Oboist Margaret Owens joined the full ensemble for Auf der Tiete, rufe ich, Herr, zu dir (Out of the depths, I call, Lord, to you) BWV 131. The vocal forces alternated between full chorus and solo quartet, a delightful tossing of sound across the stage on the words “take note of the sound of my pleas.” Bach’s use of a hovering choral solo was a welcome alternative to full choir. What wonderful construction: Woody’s rich tones pointing out to the Lord that if all sinners were taken to account, no one would remain. Oboist Owens and Woody writhed about in perfectly synchronized semiquavers while the pious Kherani doled out the choral verses one by one, oblivious to their antics.

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Suspended notes in the fugue theme of the next choral movement tell us to await, setting up the tenor aria “Meine Seele wartet auf den Herrn” (My soul waits for the Lord). Mobley reverently reiterated the same choral melody, different verse, above the ensemble which included portative, viola de gamba, violone and theorbo. But the next few minutes were owned by Perry. His velvet ribbon of tone caressed each word. The text said “wait”; we did. He used the hall, letting his sound be carried rather than shoved into the space. As there was one choral movement remaining when he finished, the well-trained Reser audience did not leap to its feet–but there was another sigh.

That audience size was small, but their response to the concert was enthusiastic. They finally did leap to their feet and, as they filed out of The Reser into the cool dusk of quiet Central Beaverton, they seemed content. They had joined the wonderful Portland Baroque Orchestra in a good evening of music with our collective community’s new friend of the arts.”I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

A livestream of the Saturday, March 20 performance of this concert at Kaul Auditorium in Portland has just been released. It is available for free for a limited time.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Daryl Browne is a music educator, alto, flutist and writer who lives in Beaverton, Oregon.

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