portland baroque orchestra

‘Messiah’ review: authentic surprise

Portland Baroque Orchestra and Cappella Romana’s historically informed performance of Handel’s masterpiece made the familiar sound new


I recently ushered at Portland Baroque Orchestra’s Dec. 8 performance of Handel’s Messiah at First Baptist Church in Portland. I looked forward to the music less for excitement than for its familiarity, since I had heard it many times before, both in concert and on the radio. But I was in for a surprise.

Cappella Romana sang ‘Messiah’ with Portland Baroque Orchestra.

This was the first time I had heard the Messiah with truly baroque instruments, techniques, and voices. I was just blown away. I’m sure that part of it was the skill with which PBO, Portland choir Cappella Romana, and three talented young soloists played and sang. But it was also because this historically informed performance displayed an authenticity that I hadn’t experienced before with this popular masterpiece.


‘Orfeo’ review: a contract for excellence

Stephen Stubbs leads Pacific MusicWorks's masterful authentic concert reading of Monteverdi's pioneering opera based on the Orpheus myth


Pacts with the Devil rarely work out. The decks are usually stacked in the devil’s favor. Joe Boyd (Damn Yankees) yearns for the return of his youth. Jabez Stone (The Devil and Daniel Webster) just wants some good luck for a change. Keanu Reeves’s character in Devil’s Advocate wants professional success. Those Faustian characters, and the needy protagonist Faust himself, want more than the earthly pleasures currently offer.

Then there is Orfeo, title character of Claudio Monteverdi’s opera performed last weekend by Pacific MusicWorks. In this concert version presented by Portland Baroque Orchestra at Portland’s Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, the performing forces were a composite of early music experts: cornetto, trombones and recorders of Dark Horse Consort, eight soloists/choristers, and the Pacific MusicWorks Orchestra, led by Grammy Award winning Seattle-based music theorbo artist Stephen Stubbs.

Stephen Stubbs led Portland Baroque Orchestra’s performance of Monteverdi’s ‘Orfeo’ at Portland’s Trinity Episcopal Cathedral. Photo:

In Greek mythology, Orpheus (Orfeo in Italian) is a dude to rally round. He embraces only the “good,” uses music to charm the flora and fauna and to even soften the most hardened heart. There is something about Orfeo that makes him more palatable than Faust, more endearing. In this segment of the Orphic saga, he is at one moment ecstatic over his coming wedding to Eurydice, then plunged headlong into despair over her sudden death by serpent. In quintessential Orphic style – heroic, confident – he sets out to find and work his charms on Plutone (Pluto), the God of, you know, down there. He will bring Eurydice back to life. But alas, because of his passion, his pact does not end as well as he had hoped. Yet somehow we applaud his effort.

All of the above enticed the 40-something Claudio Monteverdi to set Orfeo to music. Further inspired by the libretto of Alessandro Striggio the Younger, his colleague at the court of Mantua, Monteverdi wrote emotional, picturesque, complex and riveting music which was, like caramel sauce on a latte, cast and staged – to a degree anyway.

This is an important operatic work. First opera? Fact check: FALSE. No, not even the first Orphic opera. Florentine composer Jacopo Peri preceded it with his own L’Euridice. But it was a ground breaking and landmark work. It was written on his way toward Monteverdi’s professional apex, the position of Maestro di Capella, at San Marco in Venice.

Monteverdi was interested in pursuing the innovative idea of drama being sung on stage. It is important to understand this as a gradual evolution of the genre when we see Orfeo. Those anticipating a fully costumed, staged with scenery and developed musical drama might be underwhelmed by Orfeo. But on Friday evening, there were so many things about which to be overwhelmed.


MusicWatch Weekly: scary sounds

Scary times deserve scary music in Oregon this week

There’s a lot to be afraid of these days, and this week’s Halloween and other concerts offer plenty of spooky music to suit the times.

Chamber Music Northwest brings America’s leading new music ensemble, the Kronos Quartet, back to Portland for an ideal Halloween spectacle: a live performance of venerable American composer Philip Glass’s 1999 score (with Glass himself playing keyboards) to the classic 1931 film starring Bela Lugosi.
Wednesday, Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, 1037 SW Broadway Ave. Portland.

The Korea-born, Seattle-raised composer/violinist/singer who moved to Portland from LA last year opened for Amplified Repertory Chamber Orchestra of Portland last February. Now electric classical band returns the favor in this release concert for Migrants, Kye’s second release, which ranges from pop to jazz and even a bit of rapping. Along with Kye’s looping violin and vocals, the show includes Portland’s BRAVO Youth Orchestra and Northwest Dance Project’s Ching Ching Wong, with whom Kye embarks on a world tour. Read Jamuna Chiarini’s story on the collaboration.
Friday,  Alberta Abbey, Portland.

Joe Kye opened for ARCO-PDX last February.

Naomi LaViolette
Portland classical fans know her as the longtime accompanist for Oregon Repertory Singers, but LaViolette is also a composer and  sincere, ‘70s style singer-songwriter who’s performed at PDX Jazz Festival, Doug Fir, and Jimmy Mak’s. She also written for ORS, some of whose singers join musicians from the Oregon Symphony, the Oregon Repertory Singers and Grammy-wining oboist Nancy Rumbel in this CD release concert for her new CD, Written For You.
Saturday, Old Church Concert Hall, 1422 SW 11th Ave, Portland.

Portland Baroque Orchestra
The tragedy of Orpheus, which is still being set by composers (Philip Glass did a recent version), has been part of opera since the very beginning — and this 1607 version by Claudio Monteverdi is among the first operas and the first Baroque masterpieces, though echoes of Renaissance music remain. This historically informed Pacific MusicWorks production led by Grammy-winning Seattle based early music master Stephen Stubbs should bring us as close to Monteverdi’s intentions as possible in a concert reading.
Friday, Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, Portland.

Senju Matsunami
Accompanied by traditional dance and shakuhachi flute, venerable koto master plays classical Japanese tunes, adaptations of Western music, and more.
Saturday, Winningstad Theatre, Portland.


MusicWatch Weekly: global vision

This week's Oregon music highlights feature music from the Middle East, Africa, Europe, and beyond

While our leaders do their best to keep the rest of the world away, Oregon musicians and presenters are keeping the doors open through music. Got more musical suggestions? Please add them to the comments section below.

Seun Kuti brings Fela’s band to Star Theater Wednesday.

Seun Kuti & The Egypt 80
The youngest son of the great Nigerian Afrobeat pioneer embraced not only his father’s immensely powerful and danceable music and sharp-edged progressive political and anti corruption attitudes, but also even the remnants of his mighty band, Star 80, who comprise three-quarters of the current lineup. They’ll also play contemporary music by Seun and others.
Wednesday, Star Theater, Portland.

Schubert Ensemble 
For the final Oregon stop on its farewell tour, the London piano and strings quintet plays music by Shostakovich, Schumann, and their namesake.
Wednesday, Liberty Theatre, Astoria.

“Mozart Requiem”
Portland Baroque Orchestra, Cappella Romana and Trinity Chamber Singers team up to perform one of the most moving musical obituaries ever written — Mozart’s final statement, a commission that turned into his own requiem. This is a rare and valuable opportunity to hear it performed on the instruments and in the style closest to what Mozart intended.  A pair of other popular Mozartean creations also decorate the program.
Thursday-Saturday, Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, 147 NW 19th Ave. Portland.

Portland Baroque Orchestra and Trinity Cathedral Choir join Cappella Romana in Mozart’s ‘Requiem.’

Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping
See AL Adams’s ArtsWatch preview.
Friday, The Old Church. Portland.

American Brass Quintet
In this Chamber Music Northwest/Portland5 show, the acclaimed trumpets-trombones-horn ensemble plays stirring music from 17th century England, 19th century Russia, 16th century Europe, and today’s tunes by leading American composer Joan Tower, Swedish composer Anders Hillborg and more.
Friday, Winningstad Theatre, 1111 SW Broadway. Portland.

Raquy Danziger performs at The Shedd Friday.

Raquy Danziger
The Turkish composer/performer/teacher, a virtuosa on dumbek drum and 12-string Kemenche Tarhu spike fiddle, plays originals and music from Turkey and other Middle Eastern lands.
Friday, The Shedd, Eugene.

Michael Doucet and his bubbly Lafayette-based band continue their decades-long exploration of Louisiana Cajun and zydeco music, often spiced with rock, country, bluegrass, even African influences.
Friday, The Shedd, Eugene, and Saturday, Alberta Rose Theater. Portland.

45th Parallel
The organization’s first chamber orchestra show features Oregon Symphony musicians in a pair of the 20th century’s most tuneful and scintillating ballet scores: Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring and Igor Stravinsky’s Pulcinella, plus Mozart’s lively ballet music from his opera Idomeneo.
Friday, Rose City Park Presbyterian Church, Portland.


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.


ArtsWatch Weekly: Media Blitzen

A pair of premieres at Center Stage, dance and theater openings, Brett Campbell's weekly music picks, Christopher Rauschenberg & more

It’s a busy weekend at the Armory, where Portland Center Stage hangs its hat: world-premiere opening nights Friday for Wild and Reckless, the new concert/play from the band Blitzen Trapper, and Saturday for Lauren Weedman Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. Both will be playing on the Main Stage, in repertory.

We haven’t (of course) seen either show yet, so we’ll quote the company on what’s up with Wild and Reckless: It “traces the unforgettable tale of two kids on the run, in a futuristic vision of Portland’s past. Evoking a bygone era of Portland, this sci-fi love story features a rock-and-roll score that pairs unreleased songs with favorites from the band’s catalog, including Black River Killer and Astronaut.” And what, precisely, is a futuristic vision of Portland’s past? Francis Pettygrove and Asa Lovejoy tossing a coin in spacesuits to name the city? Probably not. But tune in Friday, or anytime through April 30, to find out.

Eric Earley as The Narrator and Leif Norby as The Dealer in “Wild and Reckless.” Photo: Patrick Weishampel/blankeye.tv.

Lauren Weedman we know a little better from her smart and edgy previous one-woman shows at Center Stage and elsewhere. She could run a clinic on how to grab and hold an audience’s attention: She can be funny, and she can be fierce, and she has the focus of a hawk hunting rabbits in an open field. This newest show, also through April 30, homes in on heartbreak and how to mend it, and arrives with big hair, tight jeans, and a passel of country tunes. Plus, a backup band.


Portland Baroque Orchestra review: Shakespearean sounds

Ensemble and guest singer Suzie LeBlanc give first-rate performances of first- and second-rate English Baroque music 


It was a program dear to Portland Baroque Orchestra artistic director Monica Huggett’s heart: English music of the time of Henry Purcell (1659-1695), paired with the literary genius of William Shakespeare. The venerable violinist’s enthusiasm was more than clear in PBO’s pre-concert radio appearance on KQAC, which is still available online for another week. It was even more evident onstage on Sunday, March 12, when in her concertmaster’s chair, she mouthed the words to every song soprano Suzie LeBlanc sang.

Suzie LeBlanc sang Purcell and more with PBO.

Ms. Huggett put together a very skilled chamber ensemble to tackle this music: basically a string quartet (two violins, viola, and cello) with an added violone (fretted double bass), harpsichord, and lute/theorbo. The sound mix was especially pleasant (and authentic) when cellist Joanna Blendulf played her viola da gamba, a fretted pre-cello, which complemented bassist Curtis Daily’s violone and the soft strings of the violins and viola.

The programming and even the staging of the concert went beyond PBO’s usual straight-ahead, one-piece-after-another-with-retuning-between-selections routine. In both the first and second halves of the concert, Ms. LeBlanc entered theatrically while the music was already playing. When not singing, she sat on a sort of throne amidst the players.

Her songs were interspersed among instrumental bits based on dance rhythms: airs, galliards, gavots, corants, and the like. In the first half, these were mostly from Matthew Locke’s music from a production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest in 1674. In the second half, they were exclusively from Henry Purcell’s music for The Fairy-Queen, an opera based on the Bard’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, first staged in 1692, only three years before Purcell’s premature death at age 36.

Suzie LeBlanc.

The songs, the heart and soul of this concert, were uniformly and superbly executed by Ms. LeBlanc, a singer who has made herself an expert on English and French music of this period. Her clear and admirably controlled soprano danced easily among the high registers, arpeggios and ornaments of Purcell’s music, and brilliantly masked her low notes in emotional expression. It’s hard to imagine a more skilled practitioner of this period of music.

By the same token, the instrumentalists took advantage of every opportunity to make the music of Locke (1621-1677), Purcell, and the others — Robert Johnson (1583-1633), Pelham Humphrey (1647-1674), Pietro Reggio (1632-1685), and John Banister (1630-1679) — as vivacious as possible.

And yet… and yet.

There’s a reason that English music of the 17th century has been less represented in CD and concert productions, compared to earlier and later music. With the exception of Purcell’s, it’s not very interesting. Locke’s musings on The Tempest are, with the exception of a short piece called Curtain Tune, not memorable, whatever the composer’s other virtues. Johnson, Humphrey, Reggio, and Banister are footnotes in histories of this period, which is generally considered a slack time between the death of William Byrd in 1623 and the heyday of Purcell in the late 1670s and thereafter.

Purcell in 1695.

To be fair, that period was a particularly difficult one for the arts in England, which included the Puritan revolution, the killing of King Charles I, and a waiting period until the revolution petered out and Charles’s son could be recalled from banishment in France. It was only with Charles II’s establishment of his royal 24 violins and reopening of English theaters that things began to pick up. Matthew Locke was the official court composer until his death in 1677, at which point Purcell was appointed — at age eighteen! — to the post.

Things weren’t much better on the continent, where the Thirty Years’ War turned vast stretches of Europe into barely populated moonscapes. But somehow, despite the carnage, musical activity went on there, especially in Germany, Italy, and France. After the death of Purcell, the English were playing catch-up, only partially mitigated by the glorious presence of Händel from 1710 until his death in 1759.

The songs of Locke, Purcell, et al. performed in this concert are not all best rendered by a high soprano like Ms. LeBlanc; many work better when performed by male countertenors, as the recorded literature attests. Still, Suzie LeBlanc did a perfectly fine job with the material, and the chamber ensemble played with precision and wit, particularly the Seattle theorbist John Lenti, whose huge instrument seemed especially resonant in his hands. And in the second half, once the Purcell music got underway, the concert went from strength to strength.

Recommended recordings

The Willow Song
• Suzie LeBlanc & Alexander Weimann, harpsichord (YouTube), 2016.

Robert Johnson & others
• Andreas Scholl, countertenor, and Concerto di viole (Harmonia Mundi HMC 901993), 2008.

Music from The Tempest by Locke, Humphrey, Reggio, Banister, 
Matthew Locke: Incidental Music for His Majesty’s Sackbuts and Cornetts, Academy of Ancient Music (L’Oisueau-Lyre DSLO 507), 1977. (Monica Huggett is in the orchestra.)

The Fairy Queen
• Eight vocal soloists plus The Sixteen, Harry Christophers conducting (Coro COR16005), 2011.

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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