One of the joys and challenges of life as a freelance musician is its frequent variety. I might be performing at the Royal Opera House in London one day and introducing children to the wonders of Baroque music the next, or rehearsing a Handel chorus with a Gospel Choir before discussing ornaments in François Couperin’s keyboard Ordres. There are also some bemusing social non sequiturs. As a rookie, I once sat at dinner with an ex-Prime Minister’s wife before getting drenched having to wait over an hour for the night bus home!
Commuting will bring my most startling contrast to date. During the first Covid lockdown in March 2020, I initiated a series of online house concerts that included my performing a Prelude and Fugue from Bach’s ‘‘48’’ over 48 evenings from my music room. My trip from our living room to the clavichord was all of 5 metres. Compare this to my imminent journeys from the United Kingdom to Oregon following my recent appointment as Artistic Director of the Portland Baroque Orchestra: some 5,000 miles…
Paradoxically, I suspect that this new position will allow me slightly more time at home since I can now streamline my varied career around my fixtures in Portland and for Cambridge Handel Opera. Wishful thinking? Not now with the ‘‘new norm’’ of online meetings that allows me regular contact with the orchestra’s musicians, staff and Board members. Of course, I can’t wait to spend time in and around Portland getting to know all those associated with the orchestra – and possibly indulging in a Blue Star Donut (or two). Home time is where I’ll focus on all the nitty gritty from devising rehearsal schedules and sourcing music editions to deciding where extra upbows might be effective in a dance movement.
So, what is my vision as Artistic Director of Portland Baroque Orchestra? In short, I aim to be a worthy successor to the life-force that is Monica Huggett in devising bold and ambitious events that offer profound musical experiences for all audiences. I envisage the orchestra as a leader in the field of what I call ‘‘Historically Inspired Performance’’ – as opposed to the customary term ‘‘Historically Informed Performance’’ – in which we interact creatively with the past so that this life-affirming art form speaks to each of us afresh.
Education will be the organization’s heartbeat with projects that include hands-on workshops in which children are initiated into the sound-world of period ensembles by trying out our instruments, and are quizzed to spot how our style of playing Bach is different from, say, Karajan’s with the Berlin Philharmonic. If we’re feeling brave, we might then ask them why they think we love period performance.
Our concerts will explore meaningful narratives through varied programmes that often leapfrog borders and sometimes span centuries. Celebrated works will rub shoulders with lesser-known gems that could include – spoiler alert – Mozart’s arrangements of fugues by Bach and a symphony by a Ukrainian composer. There might even be a freshly-minted opera pasticcio at some point that sees music by Handel and his contemporaries reset to a new story. Watch our website!
As somebody who more often directs from the keyboard than conducts on a podium, I see my role primarily as one who provides a clear framework within which fellow musicians are empowered to express themselves in search of the same ambitious goal. The conductor John Eliot Gardiner says that ‘‘Democracy and music don’t really go together’’ when leading an orchestra, while Vladimir Jurowski talks of being a ‘‘midwife’’ who unlocks the score of a piece of music so that it is born anew at each performance. I intend to dance between these seemingly contradictory positions of benign dictatorship and musical midwifery with the Portland Baroque Orchestra so we create Historically Inspired Performances that can enhance our lives. Only then can I justify my commute across the pond.
I am extremely grateful to Portland Baroque Orchestra’s family of supporters as we embark on this adventure together. They are central to our mission of sharing music creatively with as many people as possible.
© Julian Perkins