Portland Baroque comes to town

By R.M. Campbell

For more than a quarter of century, the Portland Baroque Orchestra has been an integral part of the early music scene on the West Coast. Any number of luminaries have been associated with the period orchestra. including Ton Koopman Richard Egarr, Andrew Manze and Monica Huggett, the ensemble’s artistic director for 15 years. At one time the orchestra attempted to create a base in Seattle. That was not successful, so we have to wait for special opportunities to hear this exemplary group of musicians.

Saturday night was such an opportunity when a chamber ensemble from the orchestra gave a concert at Town Hall, led by Italian harpsichordist Rinaldo Alessandrini. The full orchestra, conducted by Huggett, returns March 20, 2011, for a performance of Bach’s monumental “St. John Passion.”

Portland Baroque brought some of its key players, like flutist Janet See, violinist Carla Moore and oboist Gonzalo X. Ruiz. They were joined by three others with Alessandrini conducting from the harpsichord. The music ranged from Francois Couperin to Vivaldi, Telemann and J.C. Bach. The music was often engaging but not always. It was designed to appeal to connoisseurs of early music, who were at once attentive and enthusiastic Saturday night, filling Town Hall. From my seat, the septet’s acoustical presence was not strong, distant really. But that says more about the variable acoustics of the hall than anything else. I have had this experience before in similar seats. But enough could be heard to appreciate the kind of musicianship and authority the musicians had, especially guided by the expert hands of Alessandrini.

The Couperin fared the worst, the furthest removed in sound with some rather tentative playing. The music of this famous late 17th and early 18th century French composer did not always help. The Sonade and Suite taken from his “Les Nations,” which occupied the first half, were variable in quality, and the musicians were not always able to get beyond that. Despite various nuances and contrasts, the 16 sections were too much alike.

The second half fared better, beginning with a lively reading of a lively work — Vivaldi’s G Minor Concerto (RV 107). It was inevitably tuneful and suave and charming. It gave plenty of opportunities to See and Ruiz to shine as well as violinist Rob Diggins, which they did. Telemann’s Sixth Quartet in E Minor held plenty of interest for the listener with its cross references in style. The musicians, plus Alessandrini, played with verve and even a little attitude. It was refreshing. So too the D Major Quintet (Op. 22) of J.C. Bach. Published posthumously, the work brought the evening to a satisfying conclusion.

The Early Music Guild, which presented the Portland Baroque, announced its 2010-11 season: Cellist Jaap ter Linden, Oct. 9; Monteverdi’s “1610 Vespers,” Dec. 3-4; Paolo Pandolfo, viola da gamba, March 5, 2011; Bach’s “St James Passion,” March 20; Anonymous 4, April 30.

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