Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Egarr lights up Portland Baroque’s Haydn and Mozart

I’ve heard that Richard Egarr is good, but that’s an understatement. He’s fantastic! I got to see and hear him direct the Portland Baroque Orchestra in a concert of music by Mozart and Haydn at the First Baptist Church on Saturday evening, and it was amazing. Actually, Egarr took on the player/coach role, directing the orchestra and playing the fortepiano at the same time. How he weaves and bobs while hunched over the keyboard in order to direct was entertaining in itself. But the way he arches his eyebrows and stares at the violin one moment and the cellos at the next was even more impressive, because he seemed to be challenging the orchestra to stay up with him.

In introducing Mozart’s Symphony No. 1, which the Wolfgang wrote when he was 8 years old, Egarr said, “Put yourself in his father’s shoes.” He left us musing over how we would handle a son who was genius, when he and the orchestra launched into the music. The strings were fleet and the tempi very brisk. The presto of the third movement danced marvelously, and Egarr’s directions were crisp.

Haydn’s Piano Concerto was also a delight to hear. The sound from Egarr and the orchestra was lively and engaging. They also excelled at decrescendos and changing the pace of music. In the second movement, Egarr and forces and a great way of almost staggering the rhythm – slowing down and speeding up and then slowing down again – all of which kept me on edge, wondering what would happen next.

I could say much the same kind of thing for the orchestra’s playing of Mozart’s Quintet for Fortepiano and Winds. However, with so few instrumentalists, the sound of the fortepiano had more presence. Egarr showed a superb touch throughout the piece, dazzling us with fine nuances. The four winds instrumentalists were splendid, but oboist Gonzalo Ruiz went the extra mile in a terrific performance.

The concert ended with Haydn’s Symphony No. 44 (“Trauer”), and it was filled with all sorts of sudden variations in volume and tempi. The violins really got into the fast lane at one point, but they had no problem transitioning into a slower tempo, showing great control the entire way. Egarr placed a micro copy of the score on the fortepiano, and it was a wonder that he could see the itty-bitty notation, but it seems as if nothing can stop this fellow from making great music. I should add that the orchestra was outstanding when they went from a jagged and jarring sound to a sudden liquid smooth sound.

Egarr sat on a couple of cushions while playing, so that his knees could reach the pedals (or levers). The fortepiano had two pedals (one for sustaining and the other to soften the sound, I think) located just under the keyboard, so he would raise one knee or the other to activate the pedal he wanted. The fortepiano was a 1986 creation based on an 1805 instrument, and it looked like a toy piano because it was so small in comparison to today’s concert grand.

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