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Monica Huggett brings theatrical flair to PBO for 20 years



Photo Credit: COUTRESY OF HIROSHI IWAYA/PORTLAND BAROQUE ORCHESTRA - Monica Huggett spends her time leading the Portland Baroque Orchestra, teaching at Juilliard and directing the Irish Baroque Orchestra in the United Kingdom.World-renowned baroque violinist Monica Huggett says she should have been a rock guitarist instead.

This year marks her 20th as artistic director of Portland Baroque Orchestra, one of the nation’s top five largest premier period-instrument orchestras. Not unfamiliar with the rock-star lifestyle, Huggett primarily splits her time between Oregon and New York, where she is the artistic adviser of the Juilliard School’s Historic Performance Program, and spends time in the United Kingdom, where she also directs the Irish Baroque Orchestra.

She has accomplished much since first picking up the violin at the age of 6. In the rare moment she has some free time, she enjoys gardening and looking out at the sea with a good English bap sandwich.

Portland Baroque Orchestra presents “Bohemian Trumpets and Stylus Fantasticus,” fit with theatrical flair with musical depictions of musketeers, tavern scenes, animals and battles, at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 22, at the First Baptist Church, 909 S.W. 11th Ave. (limited tickets at door) and 3 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 23 at Reed College’s Kaul Auditorium, 3203 S.E. Woodstock Blvd., ($20-$58, www.pbo.org).

The Tribune caught up with Huggett on the eve of PBO’s season:

Tribune: In your 20 years with PBO, how have you seen your artistic vision change and evolve? What have you learned from this transformative process?

Huggett: I’ve learned an enormous amount. I had never had this kind of job before, so I had to learn how it works. You have to be a public figure, you have to engage with people on the basis of being somebody who is always advocating for the orchestra. I am the public face, and I have to make it welcoming, attractive and friendly. I came in with all sorts of crazy ideas, and I’ve had to learn to live within budgets.

Making programs is a huge skill, and it takes a long time to do the research and put something that hangs together as an evening of entertainment, musically and historically. I’ve become better at my job. When I first came here I was just a talented violinist, with lots of energy and a very intuitive way of making music. What I’ve learned in 20 years is that I’m very good at analyzing and understanding music in a conscious way. I still think I use my intuitive brain to build the architecture of a piece, but now I know much more about why I do what I do. I teach a lot now, so that has helped me realize the building blocks of music.

Tribune: So you are able to break it down to make it easier to learn?

Huggett: Yes, and if you want something to work you can’t just play what’s on the page. You have to understand all the emotional and rhetorical and harmonic and melodic elements and how they build up to a complete satisfying piece.

Tribune: What goes into the process of developing a program?

Huggett: I’m very interested in establishing new repertoire. That’s one of the things that keeps me inspired. There is a lot of early music that has not yet been discovered. I’m always looking in catalogs and trying to discover new music that suits my orchestra with unusual combinations. In this program that’s coming up, we’re playing some repertoire that’s totally new to me. It’s like treasure hunting, sometimes it might be a piece of broken crockery, but other times it might be a gold coin.

Tribune: What are some of your fondest musical memories in Portland?

Huggett: (Vivaldi’s) “Four Seasons” in the autumn was very fun, because I do a very theatrical performance. The music is a description of everyone dancing and having a great time, and then they all get drunk and fall asleep. So during that part on stage I actually drop my head and start snoring, and a person from the orchestra has to come tap me on the shoulder to wake me up. I like theatrical music.

Tribune: What other theatrical elements have you added to your music?

Huggett: The program we are doing now is very theatrical. There are pieces ... where several songs are going on at the same time in a complete cacophony. There’s a battle, and once two cellists picked up their cellos like they were rocket launchers and ran around the orchestra shooting at each other. There’s arias with the wailing of the dying, people fencing, having a bath. There are [moments where the] violin is a fife, drum, trumpet, cats, dogs, chickens, all these different effects.

Tribune: The violin is actually able to mimic these sounds?

Huggett: Yes! In early times the violin was considered for low-class professionals. They were itinerant, and played in the streets. They would play jigs and dances and folk tunes and would do funny effects to make people laugh and give them money.

Tribune: Your playing has been described as “lively” and “symbolic” and “sublime” — where does this passion stem from? I think people might not typically associate classical music with those adjectives. How do you get away from the stigma?

Huggett: I love classical music, but I feel the way we present it is killing it. We are entertainers, and you want to make people feel in touch with the whole universe and feel the humanity. I used to spend a lot of time listening to Eric Clapton, and some people might say I have that kind of stage persona. I’m very full on, with a lot of passion. Music has always been my solace. I get everything out of music. It moves me more than anything else. It is my drug, and can give me incredible highs.

Tribune: And that’s how you want your audience members to feel?

Huggett: I want to transport them.

Tribune: What have you been listening to lately for inspiration?

Huggett: When I’m packing for one of my many trips, I love listening to “Kind of Blue” by Miles Davis. It takes away all my stress. I just looked it up — the genre is modal jazz. You can tell by the way he plays that he likes melody. John Coltrane and Bill Evans are geniuses, too.

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