Sunday, May 6, 2007

PBO beefs up and serves Romantic fare

For their final concert this season, the Portland Baroque Orchestra pressed the expando commando button and increased their bandwidth to 27 members in order to perform several early works of composers associated with the Romantic era. The result was a wonderful concert of music by Schubert, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, and Carl Maria von Weber that still had its legs in the classical period but also revealed glimpses of the Romantic.

The concert began with Schubert's Overture in B-flat Major, which he wrote when he was 19 years old. This piece starts with a pleasant theme that becomes a lull before the storm as the second theme really takes off in a con brio fashion. The PBO played this piece with grace and agility. Overall, it seemed a bit like dessert... maybe a creme brulee that's followed by bracing cup of coffee.

The second piece, Beethoven's Romance Op. 50 in F major, featured PBO's director Monica Huggett as violin soloist and Adam LaMotte (a member of the violin section) as conductor. Huggett played with excellent expression, and her way of sticking the high notes with a beautiful sound was perfect. The orchestra excelled at transitions from a near staccato to a smooth legato. I wanted flutist Janet Lee to play a little louder, but I also may have been at a slight disadvantage because I was sitting just under the lip of the balcony. Overall, the music was a little sweet but not sentimental.

The orchestra completed the first half of the program with a thoroughly engaging interpretation of Mendelssohn's Sinfonia for Strings, No 12 in G minor. This three movement work is full of wit and charm from the get go. The lower strings of the PBO had some terrific passages that were outstanding in every aspect. The violas in the second movement really set the mood with a plaintive melancholy that was exquisite. The last movement had wonderful decrescendos and a cascade of notes that melted into each other in a delicious way. The furious, animated ending was invigorating.

After intermission the orchestra performed Beethoven's Romance Op. 40 in G major. Beethoven wrote this piece when he was 33 years old. He wrote the Romance Op. 40 when he was 28. I think that the rising temperature from the audience affected the tuning of the violins and intonation was a big of a challenge. Fortunately, the artistry of Huggett as the soloist can overcome just about any obstacle, and she created a warm and elegant sound for this piece.

The concert ended with Carl Maria von Weber's Symphony No. 2 in C Major. The PBO played this tricky work with relish. I really enjoyed the way that oboist Gonzalo Ruiz applied a light, soft touch -- like someone tip toeing through a lawn of freshly cut grass -- to his exposed passages. Hornist Paul Avril was superb. In one or two passages, he seemed to magically alternate between a muted and an open sound. Janet See's flute solo was remarkably clear and beautiful. I (and the audience in general) loved the way that the ensemble could stop and start on a dime in the last movement. That showed the terrific charm and wit of this music.

I'm looking forward to the next time that the PBO delves into the Romantic era. They know how to make this music their own.

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