Music of the Baroque presents a varied and engaging Bach program

Given Johann Sebastian Bach’s towering presence in the baroque world, any ensemble dedicated to the historical era has to pay due attention to the composer each season. And that’s exactly what the Music of the Baroque did earlier this week with a pair of concerts devoted to his instrumental music.

The 28-member group steered clear of the oft-performed Brandenburg concertos for this program, opting instead for an engaging, nicely ordered mix of other familiar and not-so-familiar selections. Monday evening’s program at the Harris Theater was a winner by just about any measure.

This little gem of an orchestra has established itself as a vital part of Chicago’s classical spectrum, with its varied, sometimes out-of-the-mainstream repertory and consistently high level of musicianship.

The all-Bach program began, not as might be expected with a catchy, spirited opener, but with the quiet, spare “Ricercar a 6,” a famous six-voice fugue from the Musical Offering, BWV 1079. The ensemble offered an understated, respectful version that allowed the music to gently flow and breathe.

Already, it was possible here to hear several of the indispensable qualities that define Music of the Baroque. These include impeccable intonation and a kind of organic cohesion that comes from its fine musicians – some from the Chicago Symphony and Lyric Opera of Chicago – who listen closely and respond to each other.

Providing a big boost in this selection and throughout the concert was Nicholas Kraemer, who is marking his 10th anniversary as the ensemble’s principal guest conductor. The veteran, London-based maestro leads with an easygoing yet authoritative manner that is obviously well suited to this ensemble.

The orchestra’s concertmaster, Robert Waters, was the soloist in Bach’s Violin Concerto No. 2 in E major, BWV 1042. He played with technical proficiency and commendable energy, but at times his approach seemed a bit too programmed and lacking in spontaneity. Although it’s a lot to ask, considering how many different works he probably tackles each year, the performance would likely have been freer and more natural if Waters could have loosed himself from the score in front of him and played the piece by memory.

Ending the first half was one of the best-known works on the program, the Suite No. 4 in D major, BWV 1069. It is, as the conductor eloquently explained in his introduction, a complex, layered piece built around a spirited dialogue among three instrumental groups. Kraemer and the ensemble gave full voice to this interchange in a zestful, buoyant performance, especially the wonderful Ouverture. Noteworthy were the precise articulations (some cued with telling gestures by Kraemer) and the exquisite balance throughout, with the brass smartly integrated into the whole at just-the-right dynamic levels.

Perhaps the least-known offering on the program was a grouping (what Kraemer in the program notes called a kind of “symphony”) of instrumental introductions from three of Bach’s many cantatas. It proved an imaginative and workable way to package these excerpts for this kind of non-choral concert. The clear highlight was the third, the Sinfonia from the BWV 196 cantata, with its addition of an English horn and brass. Music of the Baroque delivered a thrilling, up-tempo take on this resplendent music, realizing the full drama of Bach’s accented conclusion.

The program ended in showy fashion with the Concerto for Three Violins in C major, 1064, a transcription of a concerto for harpsichords that is in turn was believed to have been based on a now-lost concerto for violins. The well-matched soloists, in addition to Waters, were two other Music of the Baroque members: principal second violinist Sharon Polifrone and Kevin Case. They are clearly used to playing together, delivering well-prepared, well-meshed performances.