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Portland Baroque Orchestra, Oregon Symphony reviews: Gifted guests

Guest conductors and musicians ably lead local orchestras in familiar music

by TERRY ROSS

The Portland Baroque Orchestra had set themselves a difficult task in presenting all four of J.S. Bach’s orchestral suites in one concert. Alongside the Brandenburg Concertos and a number of concertos for various instruments, these suites represent the most expansive of Bach’s purely instrumental music. They also represent a hell of a lot of notes, especially for the wind instruments. Another challenge — or opportunity — lies in choosing how many instruments to use, for the scores are not specific about this.

For the first of three concerts, on February 17, the PBO marshaled its largest ensemble: 22 players, including conductor and harpsichordist John Butt, familiar to Portland audiences for the vibrant Messiah he directed with the orchestra a few years ago. It was a distinct pleasure to hear these classics treated as orchestral pieces rather than chamber music, with one player per part, as is the practice on more than one contemporary recording.

Portland Baroque Orchestra played JS Bach’s four orchestral suites.

After the customary Ouverture, a first movement modeled on a French style, a 16-piece ensemble sailed into the additional ten movements, all named for baroque dance forms (courante, gavotte, forlane, menuet, bourrée, passedpied) of Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 1. Their playing in the two bourrées was especially noteworthy. The first, the eighth movement of the piece, was very effective with the violins moving constantly under the meter in three; the second, the ninth movement, was superb in its lavish sighing motifs in the strings.

John Butt led PBO.

Mr. Butt then played a seven-minute piece, the Ricercar a 3, from Bach’s Musical Offering. This exercise in contrapuntal writing seemed rather sterile after the orchestral glories of the the Suite No. 1. But the band returned to form in the Suite No. 4. After a difficult Ouverture, in which the abrupt two-note figures sounded a little rough (no doubt, they would improve in the next two concerts), the entire band, minus the flute player, seemed to enjoy themselves very much, especially in the seventh and closing movement, the Réjouissance (rejoicing), which was taken at a ferociously fast clip. Bassoonist Nate Helgeson, a local treasure, demonstrated his astonishing ability in the first Bourée movement, immediately after the Ouverture. (Mr. Helgeson will be featured in PBO’s Spotlight on Bassoon concert on April 29.)

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