written by Ben Salmon
Monica Huggett is one of the world’s leading Baroque violinists, an expert in the historically informed performance style, and the artistic engine behind the Portland Baroque Orchestra for the past twenty-four years. And just like anyone else, she had to get her start somewhere. For Huggett, that was the Pizza Express near her family’s home in London, England, where she played violin for £3 per night plus free pizza from ages 17 to 24. “By the time I stopped,” Huggett said with a hearty laugh, “I’d sort of had enough pizza for life.” Huggett, 65, has come a long way since then, and the PBO has come with her. The orchestra’s upcoming season—its 35th— will run from October through April and feature performances of works by Vivaldi, Telemann, Bach and more, plus the music of Latin America, Northern Europe and the Baroque period of England and France. The season will end with one of Huggett’s all-time favorite pieces, Mozart’s Jupiter symphony. In fact, it’s Huggett’s enthusiasm that drives much of the PBO’s programming each year.
Raised as part of a hard-working and highly musical family, she listened to pop, rock, jazz, classical and beyond. “I loved it all,” she said. But when she started playing the modern violin, she never quite felt at home. Then, she discovered the Baroque violin—a violin from the Baroque period or modified to Baroque specifications—and historically informed performance, which aims to present classical music using the style, techniques and instruments of the day. The Baroque period is roughly defined as 1600 to 1750. Historical performance is a “very lively, very intense and much more communicative way of playing classical music,” Huggett said. “Sometimes, classical music feels like going to a museum. It’s almost like going to church—you worship these pieces that were icons of Western civilization.” A PBO performance has more in common with a rock concert, she said. Baroque music features strong rhythms and colorful textures. The period instruments—fitted with gut strings, among other adjustments—have a different temperament and timbre than their modern counterparts. Huggett works hard to imbue the orchestra’s four dozen members with the history behind pieces, as well as the stories they tell without words, which informs their playing. “Baroque music is like a conversation,” Huggett said. “I can actually put words to it. It’s like theater, (and) the more theatrical you can make the music, the more it translates to the audience.”
The PBO formed in the early 1980s, and when Huggett took over as artistic director in the ’90s, it was more or less a semi-professional community orchestra full of historical performance buffs. Since then, “the standard has risen enormously,” she said, “to an orchestra that has international repute.” Huggett deserves credit for that, of course, but she is also quick to point out that she has grown artistically over the years, along with the PBO. Even with all her accumulated knowledge, skill and reputation, however, Huggett said she is still a rocker at heart. (She started out playing pop sessions in London, and can be heard on The Rolling Stones’ “Angie.”) “I adored Eric Clapton when I was young. Really, somewhere in me, I have the soul of a rock guitarist,” Huggett said. “When I started working on historical performance, I found an avenue to let out that intensity. Wanting to be exciting on stage. Wanting to be a real performer. That’s definitely a part of me.”