On Great Performances! No, Just Kidding. Not Really.

Ah, the many mysteries of classical music. What is a great performance?

Classical Review: Portland Baroque Orchestra soars through Bach’s four Orchestral Suites
(James McQuillen, The Oregonian, 5/15/2010)

A great performance offers music as you've never heard it before.

Okay. I’m not sure I agree completely, but that’s potentially interesting. So: newness is good?

Unless you've listened to Ensemble Sonnerie's recent Grammy-nominated recording of J.S. Bach's four Orchestral Suites, Portland Baroque Orchestra's concert Friday night at First Baptist Church did exactly that.

Wait. Unless I’ve listened to the recording…the concert did what? Ah, it offered a great performance, because it would’ve been new. To me, that is. In mixed tenses, apparently.

So if I’d heard the recording, it wouldn’t have been new, and therefore…not great?

I think I have that right. Let me read it again…yup, that seems like the deal.

So great performances are new performances.

Figure 1: "Any good music must be an innovation.” --Les Baxter

That’s actually a pretty damn radical thing to say. I may agree more than I thought; however, I suspect that you don’t mean it.

Obviously, since it occupies the marked position of the introductory paragraph, this argument will be borne out (or at least be investigated) in the rest of the review, so I hope to find out whether this is really what’s intended. Yes?

Featuring violinist Monica Huggett, who directs both ensembles, and PBO principal oboist Gonzalo Ruiz, both recording and concert presented the pieces in lean, probably original versions.

What the fuck?

“Probably original versions”? What in Cyprus are you talking about?

The second suite, in Ruiz' own reconstruction, substituted oboe for the usual flute, creating a radically different sound especially for listeners familiar with the piece performed on modern instruments.

His own construction is…probably the original version?

Jesus shit! That, sir, is taking the Cult of Newness to the radical extreme! Holy FSM, man. That takes some cahones.
Figure 2: Huge ones.

While a flute pierces and soars above the string texture, the baroque oboe is comfortably integrated with the rest of the ensemble.

Okay...sure. Radical...newness?

The third and fourth suites are known today for their grand sound thanks to the use of trumpets, but scholars have shown that trumpets were added later – by Bach's son Carl Philipp Emanuel in the third suite, and by Johann Sebastian himself in the fourth, when he adapted the music for use in a cantata.

New is the new old! Old newness? Older fucking newness, that’s what’s new! I’m pickin’ up what you’re layin’ down. Ceci n’est pas une critique de musique and all that. I am so down. Let's fucking go there.

Figure 3: "There is nothing with which it is so dangerous to take liberties as liberty itself. " --Andre Breton

The playing Friday was first-rate.

But, obviously, that’s not important, unless it was new.

The ensemble was intimate – the two violin sections numbered just four players apiece – and tightly focused behind Huggett, who demonstrated once again that she wields one of the most vividly expressive bows in the early-music business.

Also unimportant, with the same caveat. Is this for contrast to the radicalism proffered above? Or an interrogation thereof?

Nuanced bowing and articulation brought out a wealth of details.

But…radical newness? Bowing details? Found objects? Christmas hat?

Figure 4: Mr. Rabbit needs to think about changing the water in his elaborate smoking apparatus.

In one of the Bourrées in the fourth suite, for example, the violins played a three-note figure several times before passing it off to the oboes.

I don’t…usually, the violins fail to pass the figure to the oboes? I don’t understand.

What are we talking about? Details? Newness?

The continuo group – harpsichordist Susan Jensen, bassist Curtis Daily and cellists Joanna Blendulf and Lori Presthus – was similarly imaginative, giving buoyant underpinning throughout.

Was it a buoyant, radical underpinning, at least?

Ruiz lit up the evening with brilliant solos, especially in the quicksilver finale to the second suite (earning a wildly enthusiastic standing ovation.) His fellow oboists Debra Nagy and Priscilla Smith matched him in verve; along with bassoonist Dennis Godburn.

They were really good? That’s…nice. But what happened to our radical stance on “great performances”?

Tempos were generally pulse-quickening, sometimes just this side of too fast, and the entire program, including all four suites, intermission and an encore by Telemann, breezed by in slightly under two hours.

It was breezy? Awesome.

But Huggett knew when to let up, too, as she did in the famous lilting Air from the third suite. Taken together, the four suites were as compelling and rewarding as any experience of new music, which, in a sense, they were.

Oh. My. God.

Is this some sort of fucking terrible middlebrow cop out?

It was just as rewarding and compelling as if it were new…because it was breezy and well-played and the fucking tempi were adequate.

Crap. I thought someone was taking a stand--an aesthetic stand, any aesthetic stand--and I got excited for a second there.

But never mind. Nothing to see here. Go hear your local orchestra, they’re like totally good and stuff.


Anonymous said...

I love this blog. Makes me laugh, makes me think. Hope it makes me write more clearly, too.

Danny Liss said...

Attention James McQuillen of the Oregonian:

You know what's always a new experience? A premiere. If you love the new so much, how about advocating for that?

Empiricus said...

"The second suite, in Ruiz' own reconstruction, substituted oboe for the usual flute, creating a radically different sound especially for listeners familiar with the piece performed on modern instruments."

...because the oboe is older than the flute?!

blabber said...

Okay everyone -- I LOVE this blog, but lighten up on Mr. McQuillen. He is that last of an almost extict breed: a thoughtful and balanced musical critic who still tries to make a living doing that.
The paper he writes for, like most in the nation, is all but dead, and his space and editorial contraints are so immense, he's fortunate to be able to say anything at all.

Also, if you were at the performance and read the program notes - the old/new; (maybe) original; oboe vs. flute stuff would make more sense.

These works -- like many of Bach's -- have come to modern audiences through transcriptions and editions that came as much as a generation after this death. figuring out the original version is a real challenge and does, in fact, make the work new again.

Okay, tear my writing apart please... I always need a good editor!

Sator Arepo said...

blabber's point is well-taken; this is merely the second time Mr McQuillen has graced our hallowed pages.

And, in fairness, although there were some confusing bits, the article was mostly chosen as a medium through which to make a broader point. My hyperbolic reading was deliberately obtuse, in a way.

I thought that was clear-ish, but perhaps not. Was it the pot-smoking bunny picture that's confusing? Huh.

Sator Arepo said...

Also in fairness, I shouldn't have had to be at the concert for the review to make sense; that makes no sense.

Sator Arepo said...

Also, I *do* know how to spell "cajones". But I didn't do it correctly, and that's too bad.