Stubbs and Huggett Present Music as (Brilliant) Speech

United StatesUnited States The Vocal Concerto: Co-production between Pacific MusicWorks and Portland Baroque Orchestra; Harry van der Kamp (bass), Monica Huggett and Carla Moore (violins); Stephen Stubbs (chitarrone), Erin Headley, John Lee, and Elisabeth Reed (viole da gamba), Curtis Daily (violone), Jillon Stoppels Dupree (organ), First Baptist Church, Seattle, 10.4.2014 (BJ)

Scheidt: Canzon super intradam aethiopicam
Buxtehude: Ich bin eine Blume zu Saron; Sonata in D major for bass viol, BuxWV 268
J.M. Nicolai: Sonata for three bass viols
Biber: Rosary Sonata No. 1 for violin; Nisi Dominus aedificaverit domum
Weichlein: Sonata No. 3 in A minor from Encaenia Musices, Op. 1
J. Christoff Bach: Wie bist du denn, o Gott, in Zorn auf mich entbrannt

When we want to compliment the way an instrumentalist plays, we are inclined to declare that his or her tone positively sang. Such praise is appropriate for music written in the classical period or later. But in the 17th century, and especially in Germany, music aspired not to sing but to speak.

The Austrian conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt even wrote a book on the subject, whose title, in English translation, is “Music as Speech.” And it was the intensity and variety of the rhetoric generated by the performances on 10 April—the force and clarity of their speech—that lifted this concert far above and beyond the ordinary.

Stephen Stubbs and London-born Monica Huggett, artistic directors respectively of Seattle’s Pacific MusicWorks and the Portland Baroque Orchestra, gave us with this exploration of “The Vocal Concerto” another memorable installment in what has been a notable season for fans of old-style string instruments. Three months ago, with our own Seattle Baroque Orchestra in Town Hall, Rachel Barton Pine offered a virtual master-class in the capacities of the viola d’amore. Now it was the turn of the viola da gamba, the viol family’s forerunner of the violin family’s cello. No fewer than three examples were gathered together for this program, and they even had a sonata all of their own to play.

The most celebrated of the composers on the program was the Lübeck organist Dieterich Buxtehude, so famous in his day that in 1705 the 20-year-old Bach walked more than 250 miles to hear him play, and stayed nearly three months in order, he said, “to comprehend one thing and another about his art.” The peculiar sweetness of Buxtehude’s music, the extravagant brilliance of Heinrich Biber’s string writing, and the quirky dramatic thrusts of the lament, Wie bist du denn, o Gott, by Johann Sebastian’s older relative Johann Christoph Bach, were only three examples of the creative riches of the period. We also heard a jolly Canzon super intradam aethiopicam by Samuel Scheidt, and attractive instrumental pieces by Johann Michael Nicolai and Romanus Weichlein.

The most remarkable instrumental virtuosity of the evening came from Monica Huggett. Recordings I have heard, while spectacular enough, proved to be an inadequate preparation for the positively stunning impact she makes in live performance. Though using the merest modicum of vibrato, she produces a tone that is forward and brilliant, yet at the same time free from the abrasive quality of some period-instrument playing. Dazzling finger-work from the left hand, authoritative bowing, stylistic insight, expressive power: she has all of those virtues, and with them a stage demeanor that is at once modest and graceful.

Skillful additional contributions on second violin, bass viola da gamba, and viol one were provided by Carla Moore, Elisabeth Reed, and Curtis Daily. For most of the program, continuo support was provided by Erin Headley on viola da gamba, Jillon Stoppels Dupree on a small organ, and PMW artistic director Stephen Stubbs on the lute’s long-necked cousin the chitarrone.

The last word, however, after an evening of such combined compositional strength and performing brilliance, must be devoted to the Dutch bass Harry van der Kamp. Where has this phenomenal artist been all my life? The voice is thrilling—blood-curdling almost—in its solidity and power. And it is used with a depth of musical understanding and an emotional intensity as rare as they are compelling.

With Van der Kamp’s monster voice nestled amid an instrumental texture of extraordinarily vivid color and sonority, enhanced by First Baptist Church’s sumptuous acoustics, it was hard not to feel that we had escaped from the 21st century, and were experiencing the works on the program not as old music, but as a direct expression of 17th-century sensibility. It was as if we were ourselves living in that far-off time.

Bernard Jacobson

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