For Martin Pearlman everything old is new again in Boston Baroque’s 40th season

November 4, 2013 at 7:03 pm

By Aaron Keebaugh

Martin Pearlman will conduct Boston Baroque in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 this weekend at Jordan Hall.

From humble beginnings forty years ago, Boston Baroque has become not only a powerhouse in the field of early-music performance, but also celebrated for its expansive repertoire, much of which lies off the beaten path.

“I’ve never thought of myself as an antiquarian,” music director Martin Pearlman said during a recent interview at his home in Medford, Massachusetts. “I’ve always thought of the [period instrument orchestra] as a modern phenomenon . . . more modern than a symphony orchestra.  It’s very much of our time, created for our time, just like electronic music.”

Pearlman founded the organization–originally called Banchetto Musicale–from a group of eight musicians. With one player per part, their first concerts consisted of concertos and orchestral music, he said.

The addition of more instrumentalists and singers by the late 1970s widened their repertoire to include choral works.  Opera productions followed in the 1980s. In their current seasonal programs, the ensemble now explores every conceivable genre from the Baroque and Classical periods and beyond.

Friday night at Jordan Hall, Boston Baroque will officially open its 40th anniversary season with Beethoven’s Elegiac Song and Symphony No. 9, works that lie at the very edge of period-instrument repertoire.

Pearlman believes hearing Beethoven on such instruments opens a new world of experience one can’t always gather from standard orchestral performances.

“It’s not going to sound small,” Pearlman said when asked what audiences can expect. “There’s a certain transparency. You hear the inner voices, you hear details in a different way. But for me, part of Beethoven’s character . . . is pushing limits. Pushing instruments beyond what we think they can do and not caring, just going for it. There’s a certain kind of attitude, anger sometimes in Beethoven, plus incredible beauty, but that sense of aggressiveness is very much part of Beethoven.”

The composer’s other symphonies have filled Boston Baroque programs over the years, but they’ve never before tackled the monumental Ninth.

And as much as the music tests the limits of the instrumentalists, it poses considerable demands upon the singers in the finale’s famous “Ode to Joy.”

“I find in this piece that things just move really fast with a lot of leaps,” soprano Leah Partridge said in a telephone interview from Nebraska. “The tenor has to drop down where the bass is singing and cross with the alto and bass lines.” To top it off, “they are just long, florid passages. Sometimes you have to breathe in the middle of a word,” she added.

Partridge, whose performance credits include the Metropolitan Opera and Florida Grand Opera, among others, will make her debut with Boston Baroque as one of the Ninth Symphony’s quartet soloists. Filling out the other parts are mezzo-soprano Ann McMahon Quintero, tenor William Burden, and bass Kevin Deas.

The lineup of star soloists continues next month when tenor Nicholas Phan, soprano Kiera Duffy, mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsey, and bass Jesse Blumberg join the Boston Baroque in their annual performance of Handel’s Messiah.   

Their New Year’s Eve and First Day concerts will feature some local favorites. Soprano Kristen Watson, tenor Matthew Anderson, and baritone Andrew Garland will perform in Bach’s “Coffee” Cantata, part of a program that includes the composer’s Brandenburg Concertos Nos. 3 and 4 at Sanders Theatre.

“What’s great about Marty [Pearlman] is that he doesn’t tend to cast exclusive Baroque specialists,” said Garland recently.  “If you look at who he’s cast in the recordings of his concerts over the years, they’re just very good singers of a wider array of repertoire, and they also sing the Baroque repertoire extremely well.”

The baritone became a devotee of Boston Baroque after singing with them in Messiah for the first time in 2010. He has since appeared in a number of productions, including their staging of Handel’s Partenope last season. For Garland, the ensemble’s expressive approach to the music has been a perfect fit for his vocal style.

“They were playing the way I had always wanted to sing this music,” he recalled. “I’ve sung Messiah with many good modern orchestras. But there was this extra level of support and freedom [with Boston Baroque] that I’d never experienced.”

In February, Garland will join soprano Amanda Forsythe and tenor Lawrence Wiliford in Boston Baroque’s staging of Rameau’s La Guirlande, a beautiful one-act pastoral. That same concert will feature Charpentier’s triumphant Te Deum.  

Opera productions have become a Boston Baroque hallmark. In April, the company will offer Monteverdi’s Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria, based on Pearlman’s own performance edition of the manuscript. Their staging, as one can recall from last season’s performance of Partenope, are evocative in their simplicity. With only a few props the singers move around and even behind orchestra, which occupies center stage.

“To me, it’s not just a matter of lower budget,” Pearlman said, “I like the focus on the music in this kind of show. And with the orchestra there, they’re a player in the drama. You see them pick up their instruments and see them furiously bowing when there’s a wild passage in the music. And that’s all part of the action as far as I’m concerned.”

But French music, like the Rameau and Charpentier works, are a relatively new area of exploration for Boston Baroque. The company previously aired Rameau’s Zoroastre and Pigmalion as well as Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride, among others.

“I’ve been very interested in getting us and the audience gradually into French music because it’s such an important part of the repertoire,” Pearlman said. “I think it’s part of our mission to not always be doing the most famous piece.”

Some lesser-known French pieces have also crept onto the New Directions programs, chamber music concerts, begun last season, that combine contemporary, twentieth-century, and much older music. Works by Rameau and Clérambault appeared on their first (and quite successful) opener just last month.

The series also gives Pearlman, who earned degrees in composition from Cornell and Yale, the chance to air his own music. This coming March, his Finnegans Wake: An Operoar Act 3, a follow-up to the first part of his setting of Joyce’s novel heard last season, will appear alongside music by Bach’s Sonata in G minor for unaccompanied violin and Handel’s Agrippina condotta à morire.  

“Composition has always been part of my life but it’s not much of a public one,” he said. “There are composers who know my stuff, but it’s only recently that I’ve put it out.”

As for the New Directions wide-range of repertoire, “Contemporary music informs what I do with earlier music too,” he added.

Looking ahead to future seasons, Pearlman said that there is a wealth of music from other regions of Europe and the Americas for Boston Baroque to explore. And seventeen-century opera remains fertile territory.

But aside from tackling Beethoven’s boundary-pushing Ninth this week, Pearlman plans to stick to the ensemble’s roots.

“There’s been a move with some period-instrument orchestras to go way into the nineteenth century. I have not done that. I love nineteenth-century music. But I felt there are diminishing returns on these instruments, and we could go deeper into the repertoire that we are doing” he said.

“So at this fortieth anniversary, it’s not just a look back. It feels to me like a fresh start.”

Martin Pearlman will conduct the Boston Baroque Orchestra and Chorus in Beethoven’s Elegiac Song and Symphony No. 9 with soprano Leah Partridge, mezzo Ann McMahon Quintero, tenor William Burden, and bass Kevin Deas 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday at Jordan Hall. 

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