Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Guest review of Portland Baroque's Bach Cantata concert

I couldn't attend last weekend's Portland Baroque Concert so I asked Lorin Wilkerson, a singing colleague and writer for the Bach Cantata Choir to record his thoughts. Here's Lorin's review:

There’s nothing that will liven up an evening’s performance like a little controversy. Friday evening’s performance by the Portland Baroque Orchestra consisted of J.S. Bach’s Violin Concerto in D minor delightfully sandwiched between music from four of his sacred cantatas, and the controversy surrounded the concerto.

The night started with the opening sinfonia of Cantata BWV 21 appended to Cantata 159, which was composed with no orchestral introduction. Because they are both in the same key, the sinfonia proved a seamless segue into the first cantata of the evening. This cantata was a good opener. Especially impressive was the soprano aria Ich folge dir nach, which Amanda Jane Kelley sang with precision and clarity of phrase. During a technically difficult section where she was doubled by the oboe, both soloists showed a high degree of intuition and sensitivity. Countertenor Ian Howell also stood out with his unforced and mellifluous head-voice showcasing the now-rare skills this type of singing demands.

The second half began with Cantata 32, which oboe soloist and visiting scholar Gonzalo X. Ruiz described during the pre-concert lecture as a "dialogue cantata" due to an intimacy between the melodic lines of the oboe and soprano. He explained that "we are constantly stepping on each another’s toes," and that the technique using melodic lines weaving in and out of close harmonies and doublings was unusual in this context. Perhaps the most sublime moment of the evening for me came with the bass aria Hier in meines Vaters St├Ątte. Bass David Stutz sang this lengthy movement with tenderness and grace.

The finale was the famous "Wedding Cantata" Der Herr denket an uns, BWV 196. Artistic director Monica Huggett stood graciously aside and allowed her small orchestra to take the helm during the sinfonia, and it seemed as though she was enjoying it as much as the audience.

The opening chorus raced right from the outset, and at times the structure held together tenuously at best. There were several instances where Huggett had to stop playing and direct the singers with her bow at this furious tempo. There were a few brief moments like this during the evening, when the musicians seemed to be trying hard to feel each other’s tempos: sometimes between singers and instrumentalists and sometimes amongst the instrumentalists themselves. There were no disastrous moments however; the high degree of trust between Huggett and her orchestra came through each time there was a moment of searching, and each time a rhythm was found. The final chorus was another "presto" with a dense contrapuntal texture; during this fugal movement I was reminded not so much of a cantata as a concerto grosso, with the vocalists forming the concertina. This one went off without a hitch and provoked a long ovation which netted a reprisal of the "Amen" chorus as an encore.

Ruiz spoke during his pre-concert lecture of the argument between Bach scholars as to which if any of his famous clavier concerti (specifically BWVs 1041, 1042, 1052 and 1056) actually started life as keyboard works, and which were meant for violin. Huggett, on the strength of her baroque violin virtuosity, expressed the opinion that BWV 1052, which was heard Friday night, was originally composed for the violin. Ruiz had arguments otherwise, but invited the audience to decide for itself which instrument was better suited to this work.

While the cantatas were a laudable exploration for the PBO, the Bach violin concerto let this group perform at its shining best: strings, continuo, and Huggett out front -- a fearless leader of a group displaying such precise musicality that at times it seemed as though the individual members were really just parts of one colossal instrument. Right from the boldness of the opening attack, through the heart-rending adagio in the middle and on to the brutally difficult ricercare of the final allegro, Monica showed why she is such a bright star in the firmament of baroque musicians.

I told my friend with whom I attended the concert that I think of Monica Huggett as the Eddie Van Halen of baroque violin; an analogy that Huggett might not mind, given that she cites guitar hero Eric Clapton as one of the musical influences from her youth. She often grits her teeth in grim determination during the ferocious sequence of lightning-quick, arpeggiated bariolages; she sways gently to and fro while making her instrument sing during the more tender moments. This piece was virtually flawless and well worth the enthusiastic standing ovation, which seemed to genuinely touch Huggett. I was never able to decide whether or not it was originally written for the violin, but it sure was a wonderful experience trying to figure it out.

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