Saturday, November 22, 2008

PBO Assembles World Class Talent for 'Pergolesi, Naples and Julius Caesar'

Friday night the Portland Baroque Orchestra gave the first concert of the second cycle in their 25th anniversary season at the First Baptist Church in downtown Portland. World-renowned early music scholar Nicholas McGegan, director of (among many other groups) "the other PBO" as it was called Friday night (Berkley's Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra), took the podium to kick off a spectacular weekend with a concert entitled 'Pergolesi, Naples and Julius Caesar.' In addition to McGegan there were two other guest baroque specialists present: soprano Yulia Van Doren and alto Matthew White. Neither is a stranger to the area; Van Doren sang in last year's PBO presentation of Messiah, and White has sung at the Oregon Bach Festival.

Italy, cradle of the Baroque, was the focus of the evening. Concerti grossi by Neapolitan composers Francesco Durante (1684-1755) and Leonardo Leo (1694-1744) bookended the first half of the program, with three arias from Handel's Giulio Cesare in between. The second half was devoted to Giovanni Battista Pergolesi's (1710-1736) rendering of the Stabat Mater. In the pre-concert lecture, McGegan noted that, along with Handel's Messiah, Pergolesi's Stabat Mater is one of a very few works from the baroque era that has been incessantly beloved since its first performance, never leaving the repertoire even when baroque music was at the height of unpopularity.

The first work, Durante's Concerto No. 8 in A Major "La Pazzia," was not in keeping with the usual concerto grosso form. Rather than contrasting concertino and ripieno groups playing simultaneously, the work was almost schizophrenic in character, and varied all throughout between bold, racing tutti sections interspersed with charming little vignettes for a viola duo, during which parts the rest of the players were almost always completely tacet. Victoria Gunn Pich and Karen Vincent kept these varying duets interesting and fresh, whether they took the form of a delightful, singing pastorale, a somber lullaby, or a lively dance.

Yulia Van Doren then took the stage in the role of Cleopatra for the first of three arias from Handel's Giulio Cesare. Looking the part in a royal purple gown with a bold necklace of golden coins, Van Doren immediately captivated the audience as she launched into the fast, furious aria "Anzi ti pur...Non disperar." It was immediately obvious why she is so highly regarded despite her relative youth; she sang in a dizzyingly intricate coloratura, flawless in timbre while executing rapid, difficult ornamentation with pinpoint accuracy despite the merciless tempo.

Her operatic training served her well as far as the dramatic presentation went. She was immediately able to switch from anger to joy to sadness as necessary, projecting the effortless calm of one singing for friends in the parlor of someone's home. She was able to immediately penetrate to the heart of meaning in each text she sang all throughout the evening, her stage presence serving to enhance her shining musicianship. She was joined by Matthew White as Caesar for the duet "Caro, Bella!" While White's presentation seemed a bit wooden next to Van Doren's animated delivery, no fault could be found with his singing. They played off of and accompanied one another perfectly, and when they moved in unison thirds it was breathtakingly precise, a marvel of synchronicity sounding as in-tune as keys on a perfectly pitched organ.

Leonardo Leo's Concerto for Four Violins and Continuo in D Major followed the standard concerto practice a bit more closely. The program invited the audience to decide for themselves whether, as has been asserted, Leo's music was "less sentimental...more logical" than that of Durante and Pergolesi. From the examples presented it was easy to hear why one would make this characterization. Even during the slower moments of the Leo it was more straightforward; there was no exaggerated lamentoso, and during the livelier parts it felt more akin to a jaunty stroll through the crisp autumn air than scaling the heights of Olympus. The concertino consisted of four violins, often playing in pairs. It was a fascinating study in comparing the very different timbres of the instruments each violinist played, some of which instruments are over three hundred years old.

The focus of the evening, however, was mostly on the singers, and this was the main presentation of the second half. That in Pergolesi's tragically short life (he was cut down by tuberculosis at the age of 26) he could produce in the Stabat Mater one of the most beloved masterworks of his era is a testament to the tremendous skill of the young composer. The sad story of the weeping mother at the cross has been tremendously popular since it was first set to music. Van Doren was again unafraid to animate the music with her facial expressions and gestures, leading to a more emotionally weighted performance. The blend between White and Van Doren was almost uncanny at times, flowing together like the proverbial milk and honey. Especially during the first part of the work however, the formidable array of strings behind the singers occasionally rose in volume to obscure some of the finer nuances that these skilled singers were able to deliver.

White's alto presented a truly deft exploration of the power and range of the male loft voice. There were several times during the Stabat Mater where the alto voice held one long, sustained note underneath the soprano line, and White delivered these moments with the utmost in skill and dexterity, the pitch rising seemingly from nowhere in a perfectly even crescendo until it reached full bloom and ended, a truly breathtaking effect.

McGegan's conducting, while accurate and professional, was very much like his personality: affable, approachable, humorous and almost self-deprecatory at times. He brought the audience to laughter once or twice (purposely I'm sure) with an exaggerated gesticulation. His pre-concert talk, which took the form of a dialogue with PBO's executive director Thomas Cirillo, will surely delight any early music lover, as McGegan enjoys exploring bits and pieces of baroque history punctuated by bawdy vignettes about the seamy underside of 17th and 18th century life. The talk takes place one hour before the performance.

Leave it to the PBO to assemble this kind of stellar talent and go to such lengths to make early music accessible, fresh, and exciting, which is so vital to ensuring that this scene thrives. The large contingent of people in their late teens and early twenties who attended was no accident. This program will repeat tonight at 7:30 at the First Baptist Church, and tomorrow at 3 pm at the Kaul Auditorium on the campus at Reed College. Tickets are no longer available online, but will continue to be sold at the door.

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