Portland Baroque Orchestra review: boss bassoonist

Nate Helgeson shines in concert featuring an instrument rarely in the spotlight


He might as well have been a rock star. Every time baroque bassoonist Nate Helgeson finished a piece, there were cheers, whistles, and prolonged applause from the April 29 audience at Portland’s First Baptist Church. Helgeson might as well have been performing by himself instead of with a crack quartet from the Portland Baroque Orchestra in which he plays principal bassoon: violinists Monica Huggett and Adam LaMotte, harpsichordist Ignacio Prego, and violone player Curtis Daily. The young bassoonist’s headlining was more than appropriate for a concert called Spotlight on Bassoon, specially designed to showcase the player Ms. Huggett calls “one of the pre-eminent period bassoonists of his generation.”

And he’s from Oregon! Helgeson grew up in Eugene and honed his bassoon chops before receiving a degree from Juilliard. He’s Artistic Director of Sacro Profano, a northwest chamber quartet specializing in old music, and also a founding member of the New York groups Grand Harmonie and New Vintage Baroque.

This PBO concert

Nate Helgeson. Photo: Jonathan Ley.

, given just once, featured music by only two composers: Jean-Marie Leclair (1697-1764), known as a great violinist, and Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767), esteemed during his long life as the foremost composer in Germany, notwithstanding the concurrent existence of  Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750). Telemann was certainly an imposingly fecund composer, with hundreds of pieces of music in a great variety of genres. Comparatively, Leclair wrote a small number of pieces, all 92 of them featuring the violin in some capacity.

Nate Helgeson, a superb bassoonist but doomed to play an instrument very rarely used for solos, was at some pains to produce music for this concert. Telemann’s Sonata in G Minor for Violin, Viola da Gamba, and Continuo (harpsichord plus violone) was transformed by substituting the bassoon for the viola da gamba, a fretted precursor of the cello. All four movements of this eleven-minute piece are duets, the most arresting being the second-movement Vivace, in which Mr. Helgeson danced a very fast pas de deux with violinist LaMotte.

Telemann’s Sonata in D Major for Bassoon and Continuo, re-arranged by Helgeson, and also in four movements, proved a lusty finishing piece for the concert’s first half. Helgeson again excelled in Telemann’s Sonata in F Minor to open the second half. Here, his extremely athletic playing of the second-movement Allegro was an apt prelude to the extremely quick fourth-movement Vivace, only two minutes long.

The music of Leclair provided the contrast. After the four-minute Overture No. 3, which opened the concert with the entire quintet playing but with no other discernible reason for having been programmed, Leclair’s pieces fell between Telemann’s. In the first half it was his Sonata in D Major for Two Violins. In four brief movements lasting nine minutes total, Mr. LaMotte held his own playing with Ms. Huggett, no easy feat. The two-minute closing Allegro offered an odd sort of bagpipe sound, with one fiddle playing a drone against a melody in the other.

Curtis Daily, Ignacio Prego and Nate Helgeson performed with Portland Baroque Orchestra. Photo: Jonathan Ley.

Leclair’s other piece, his Sonata in C Minor for Violin and Continuo, nicknamed “Tombeau” (“tomb,” athough often designated an elegy), and brilliantly played by Monica Huggett, was the longest piece on the program at 13 minutes and much the quirkiest. Its two slow movements, the first and third, were written almost entirely in double stops, undoubtedly so that Leclair could show off his substantial violin chops. As well as they were played, I couldn’t help wishing that Leclair had simply written these two movements for two violinists, which would have allowed for greater flexibility and expression.

In its structure, this piece aped all of the others on the program except the opening Overture and the final Quartet No. 5 by Telemann. Five pieces, in other words, followed the arrangement of four movements, the first and third being slow and introductory to the second and fourth, which were fast. This setup proved somewhat enervating as the concert continued.

At the end, Telemann’s departure from this form in his seven-minute Quartet was a positive relief. Here, a slow movement Andante begins the piece, followed by four very short divertimenti, labeled Vivace, Presto, and Allegro. The ending, very quick, is quiet and cute. The audience laughed and broke into applause at the same time.

Mr. Helgeson quite properly got the curtain calls. Rock star or not, he is a remarkable player, destined to play with all the great early musicians during his career.

Recommended recordings

Leclair, Sonata in C Minor
Patrick Cohën-Akenine, violin and conductor, Les Folies Françoises (Alpha ALPHA083), 2005.

Leclair, Overture No. 3
Music for the King’s Pleasure, Florilegium (Channel CCS 7595).

Telemann, Der Getreue Music-Meister
The Rosette Collection (Deutsche Grammophon Archiv 4761852), 2004.

Terry Ross is a Portland freelance journalist and the director of The Classical Club, through which he offers classical music appreciation sessions. He can be reached at classicalclub@comcast.net.

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