A version of this story appeared recently on Oregon Live.
PORTLAND, Ore. — Julian Perkins, the newly appointed artistic director of Portland Baroque Orchestra, is cooking up some fresh ideas for his first season with the ensemble. One of the dishes he has concocted is an opera pasticcio, which is basically a musical pie.
“Baroque composers often recycled arias — they were very environmentally friendly in musical terms,” said Perkins via Zoom. “They put together stories from different pieces, different operas, sometimes by different composers.”
The recipe for such a concert might be disastrous in the hands of some, but not for Perkins, 45, who has been acclaimed as a keyboardist and conductor of many groups, such as the Academy of Ancient Music, the Northern Chamber Orchestra, and the orchestra of Welsh National Opera. He has directed more than 20 Baroque projects with Southbank Sinfonia and conducted productions with numerous opera companies and festivals. He appears regularly at the Salzburg Festival as a keyboard player and has performed at the Bayerische Staatsoper and the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.
In addition to a discography of more than 25 recordings, Perkins is the artistic director of Cambridge Handel Opera Company and Sounds Baroque, an ensemble he founded in 2005.
“I love interacting with the music and playing with it,” said Perkins. “So, I like to say historically inspired performance rather than historically informed performance. I feel that if you immerse yourself in the style, you are being more true to the spirit of the music if you interact and play with the material. It’s also much more fun than putting it in a glass cage!”
Perkins is not trying to draw a distinction between himself and Monica Huggett, the rock-star Baroque violinist who helmed PBO for 27 years. But for Perkins it is important that performances on period instruments are not stuffy and earlier-than-thou.
“Without a doubt this pasticcio will be a U.S. premiere,” said Perkins. “It’s called Dinner with Handel. It’s a story that circulates around an invented dinner party. The singer Gustavus Waltz, who lived with Handel for a short amount of time as his cook, puts on a surprise dinner party. He is a Leporello type of figure who playfully provokes his boss by inviting some people Handel wouldn’t necessarily like. He invites Francesca Cuzzoni, the diva who has been at the sharp end of Handel’s critique. He invites Handel’s rival composer, Johann Pepusch. Another guest is Mary Pendarves, who lived nearby and was a lifelong friend of Handel. We have taken arias mainly by Handel, but also by Thomas Arne and Henry Purcell and Vivaldi. Librettist Stephen Pettitt has set them to new texts — while keeping to the original metric patterns of the music — and I have glued it all together by composing the recitatives.”
There are plenty of stories about Handel’s love of food.
“There is an anecdote about one of Handel’s dinners,” Perkins said, “where he kept disappearing during the meal, pretending to be inspired. One of the guests became quite suspicious about this. The story goes that the guest looked through the keyhole and saw Handel quaffing the best wine and enjoying the best cuts of meat for himself before rejoining his guests. Whatever the case, I think that he had a hearty appetite. So, the idea of a dinner party is true to life, but it is also our version of reality. This is our way of playing with history.”
When the pandemic hit, Perkins responded by performing Handel-based “Cantata-thons” with Cambridge Handel Opera.
“Handel wrote a lot of cantatas for solo voice and continuo,” he said. “They usually had harpsichord accompaniment and sometimes involved larger ensembles. These pieces aren’t done much. There is a whole treasure trove of them — around a hundred in all — enough for about a dozen CDs. They are like miniature operas and only entail two or three musicians. You can get your opera fix in 15 minutes instead of four hours. We’ve given seven or eight performances of them so far. The most famous cantata of these is La Lucrezia, which Lorraine Hunt Lieberson used to sing a lot. Mostly these cantatas were written for sopranos, mezzo-sopranos, and countertenors, and occasionally tenors and basses.”
With Portland Baroque Orchestra, Perkins plans to serve up concerts that explore themes and interesting connections.
“Our final program will be called ‘Harmony of Nations,’ which is my paraphrasing of the composer Georg Muffat. He talked about bringing people together through music. In addition to one of his suites, we will celebrate diverse musical styles with pieces by François Couperin, Maxim Berezovsky, a Ukrainian composer who wrote a symphony around 1770, and a short piece, the Jagiellonian Triptych by Andrzej Panufnik, which he wrote in 1966 based on early Polish works. It is slightly off beam, but the piece is not a gimmick. It has resonance.”
Of course, the Portland ensemble’s season will offer favorite and neglected gems by Bach, Telemann, Vivaldi, and others. Yet Perkins intends to keep the musical context and connection in mind, showing how one piece may have been influenced by another.
Perkins completed his studies at King’s College, Cambridge, and pursued advanced work at the Schola Cantorum in Basel, the Royal Academy of Music in London, and privately with conductor David Parry and harpsichordist Trevor Pinnock.
“I gravitated to Baroque and early music because when I was at school I played a lot of organ and recorder, as well as violin,” said Perkins. “I have quite thin fingers, and my technique is best suited to harpsichord, fortepiano, and organ. It’s a mixture of love for the music and my technical abilities. Also, I used to sing a lot in choirs as a baritone — with a bass extension! I sang with the Monteverdi Choir and performed a number of Bach cantatas and Handel oratorios with that organization. It was an excellent way to earn and learn.”
Like many musicians, he is a bit like a human ping pong ball, ricocheting about in order to meet his freelancing obligations. He might teach one week, work with singers at the National Opera Studio the next, and then travel out of town for a recital.
“One of the wonderful things about the PBO appointment is that it gives me a structure,” said Perkins. “I love all of the freedom of the activities that I do, but having PBO now in addition to Cambridge Handel Opera and Sounds Baroque will make for a stimulating counterpoint.”
Perkins and his Italian wife, pianist Emma Abbate, have twin boys (age 8), who are dabbling in music.
“One plays the violin, and the other has taken to the trumpet,” he said. “We aren’t pushing them. Music-making should be fun.”