Guest Review by Lorin Wilkerson
Maestro Rinaldo Alessandrini of the award-winning Concerto Italiano made his Portland debut, leading the Portland Baroque Orchestra in a flawless all-strings concert entitled “The Italian in Europe.” The program – presented Friday evening at the First Baptist Church – featured works by by Georg Muffat, George Fridric Handel , František Tuma, Gaetano Pugnani, and Michele Mascitti.
During the pre-concert lecture, Linda Hathaway Bunza of the Columbia Research Institute for the Arts and Humanities referred to the five composers represented on the evening’s bill as “musical Johnny Appleseeds,” spreading the Italian concerto grosso style throughout the continent. A fascinating commonality linking all of the pieces, is that each composer either met, performed with, was taught by, or otherwise directly influenced by Arcangelo Corelli, the violin impresario and godfather of the concerto style that was heard throughout the evening.
The PBO was in rare form even for a group from which we are used to expecting much. Much of the credit was due to the virtuoso direction of maestro Alessandrini, who was quite obviously in his element. In a Thursday interview with Krista Wessel on KBPS 89.9 he spoke of “the variety of attitudes” on display in the Italian-style concerto, referring to its mission of “giving sound to extreme passion.”
He certainly lived up to his word. He conducted without a baton, leaving both hands free for his extremely physical and idiomatic style. He employed his hands and even fingers to great effect, drawing out succinct yet subtle phrasing from the orchestra, here gently imploring them to draw out a tender motif, there issuing an abrupt command that left no doubt as to how and when to finish a particular declamation. He squatted, leapt, and swooned to such an extent that at times it looked like he cradled an invisible dance partner to his bosom. His arms swooped and soared as if tracing sigils in the air, and the talented PBO players responded in immaculate fashion.
The first piece of the evening was a concerto entitled Dulce Somnium by Muffat, (1653-1704) a Frenchman of Scottish descent whose family had fled to Paris during anti-Catholic persecution in Scotland. The opening movement, labeled Sonata: Grave, was very much in the Lullian style of the court music of Louis XIV; languid, almost detached with long, drawn out suspensions, and dissonances held for as long as possible to render maximum effect. By the fifth movement, a Borea, the piece was definitely in Italian territory and could’ve easily been mistaken for Corelli.
The opening half closed with No. 4 of the Op. 6 Concerti Grossi by Handel, a piece that again showed the polyglot pattern that was the featured sound of the evening. The PBO knows how to play Handel, and it was the most highly polished work in a sterling evening. The opening Larghetto affetuoso couldn’t have been more aptly named; slow yet never stalling. It showed the violin’s Italian singing qualities that Alessandrini is known to favor. The Allegro of the second movement was a four-voice fugue that possessed a quintessentially Teutonic flavor. The metronomic precision of tempo and complete clarity of voicing that the maestro and orchestra combined to display was nothing less than a pure, delicious treasure to be savored.
The second half opened with the more forward-looking works of Tuma, (1704-1774) a peripatetic Bohemian theorbo player and viola da gambist who studied with Corelli, and Pugnani (1731-1798) another wanderer, who according to Bunza is considered the “grandfather of the modern violin playing style.” Tuma’s Partita a 4 in D minor was beautiful. In it one could hear the end days of Baroque exorbitance coupled with the exciting, earthy harmonic structure of the style galante. A particular gem in this piece was the Arietta: Andante, which reminded one of an operatic aria, only this time sung by the viola in a surprising switch from the violin as principal concertina instrument.
The String Symphony in B flat major by Pugnani was the most modern of the works on the program. It sounded just like a nascent Viennese symphony, looking ahead to the sinfonia concertante more than the concerto grosso of days past. The first movement, a long, sighing Adagio, was positively Mozartian in character: noble, cantabile, straightforward, and harmonically uncluttered.
The final work of the evening, a concerto grosso by Michele Mascitti, (1663-1760) returned us to the days of the high Baroque. The orchestra consisted of 8 violins, 2 cellos, 2 violas, theorbo and harpsichord. This allowed for a throaty, full-voiced sound from the violin section that was put to judicious use in the dense Larghetto of this work.
The concert was a smash from start to finish – quite literally in a couple of instances. Before the opening downbeat, the theorbo player came crashing to the floor and knocked over the music stand belonging to the contrabass player. No one was hurt, but apparently the bass player’s music became jumbled and out of order. He didn’t realize this and began the second work of the evening with his music in disarray.
Everyone recovered professionally. I didn’t notice a thing and only knew what had happened after overhearing the scuttlebutt during intermission. During the second half, Alessandrini got caught up in a passionate moment, nearly knocked the first violist’s music stand right off the stage, but disaster was averted due to the quick hands of the violist. Overall, this performance was resplendent and glorious, and it was a pleasure to watch Alessandrini draw out the full potential of this immensely talented group.