Portland Baroque with Richard Egarr
by Tom Manoff
The Portland Baroque Orchestra appeared on May 9, 2009
with Richard Egarr as guest co-director and soloist.
Such woeful and wonderful playing on the same night! I can’t remember a professional concert of such extremes.
The Portland Baroque Orchestra closed its 25th anniversary season with an all- Mozart program on May 8, 9 and 10 at Portland’s First Baptist Church. The evening was co-directed by the orchestra’s long time artistic director Monica Huggett and Richard Egarr-guest conductor and fortepiano soloist. The Friday night concert I attended was sold-out to an enthusiastic audience, many of them season subscribers. This organization seems successfully rooted in support from fans and patrons, a joy in these hard times for the arts.
But the opening half of the concert led by Huggett was inexplicably terrible. Mozart’s Serenata Notturna K. 574 was played, not only without charm, but with sloppy phrasing and no cohesive sense of how the group would phrase the work. The number of flubs was astonishing for a professional group. They barreled through the piece as if brash energy alone would bring it off.
I thought perhaps it was a matter of too few rehearsals, but at this level one expects to at least hear all the notes. Perhaps it was just nerves, a bad start to an important evening. I expected the second piece to be an easy read, How could it not? It was Mozart’s famous Eine kleine Nachmusik K. 574, a work that each member of the group must have played hundreds of times. Another sloppy performance. The phrasing again messy, as if the group couldn’t decide on the right style. A complete lack of charm.
Mozart’s music must always have a touch of Viennese lyricism to succeed. But not a whiff of it was evident on this part of the program. The problem seemed to rest with Hugget. Her approach to Mozart, to my ears, is utterly wrong and un-Mozartian in style. She over-sculpted the short motives within phrases in Baroque fashion. Such fusiness undid Mozart’s long lines, making his graceful melodies downright clumsy. I’m sure the other players were thrown off. In fact, at times I could hear more delicate and appropriate playing from the ensemble, as if they were in another performance. The two fine cellists come to mind.
Huggett and Egarr opened the second part of the program with the composer’s Sonata for violin in E minor K. 304. Egarr is famous for his Mozart Sonatas, and having heard Egarr play Mozart before, I was interested in the match-up. How would Huggett phrase when playing with this world-renowned Mozart interpreter?
Egarr’s pacing, phrasing and understanding of the work carried the performance. Egarr gets colors from the fortepiano that are ravishing, and opens up the instrument’s sound palette in ways that I’ve never heard. But Huggett, again, was in another world with phrasing. However odd the result, listening to Egarr play Mozart is such a fine experience, the performance was satisfying.
The final work was Mozart’s Concerto for fortepiano on A major K. 414 with Egarr leading from the keyboard.
Egarr was wonderful -that was a given. But the orchestra was wonderful too. Touched but not drenched with Vienesse lyricism, the phrasing was at times graceful, powerful, and always unified in approach. The colors of the fortepiano with the ensemble were magical. It was a performance that will long stay with me.
In the first half there had been a lot of loud, brash playing, especially from the first violin section which sounded especially strident. However with Egarr in the lead, not only was the ensemble’s sound rounded and beautiful, even when playing softly it seemed much bigger, the unpushed and relaxed playing resulting in a warm, full sound.
An odd night. And no joy to recount. I’ll be interested in next year’s programs. The Portland Baroque is a fine ensemble. I’d like to know what went wrong on this evening. Hopefully just a fluke.
Richard Egarr continues to amaze me. I’ve never heard him conduct a big choral work. I’m looking forward to what he does with that kind of repertoire.