Music of the Baroque Blog

  • One of these things is not like the other...or is it?

    In several recent posts, I’ve compared Baroque repertoire to music from other genres, especially popular music. The feedback I’ve gotten has been interesting. Many find the connections make old repertoire more relevant or illuminate a commonality they hadn’t considered. Others have had stronger reactions to my wanton musical border-crossing. After I shared my reasons to love Henry Purcell, one reader commented that talking about him alongside people like Pete Townshend was an insult to Purcell. And the opposite critique was leveled, too—that I had no business mixing Purcell with trendsetters like the Pet Shop Boys.

    Why make these connections at all? For me, these parallels help me access one of the most fascinating aspects of music—its social function. Thinking about classical pieces now far removed from the people, places, and ideas that gave rise to them alongside music that’s primarily social in nature, like popular music, sparks new ideas. I’ll admit—it may be a stretch to compare Purcell with Peter Gabriel. But the harpsichord solo in Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 5, which we are performing on May 22 and 23, has long invited these comparisons.

    The harpsichord is an important part of the continuo group, the small ensemble that provides the harmonic foundation in Baroque repertoire. In the fifth Brandenburg concerto, Bach pushes this quiet, stalwart member into the spotlight in the most dramatic way.

     

    Both completely virtuosic and wholly unexpected, this solo has attracted a lot of attention. Musicologist Susan McClary wrote an essay called “The blasphemy of talking politics during Bach Year” in which she labels it as a moment of liberation, a point at which Bach subverts social expectation by thrusting a member of the “support staff” in the limelight. It’s not simply a virtuosic turn, it’s an act of rebellion—and the combination is potent. Rock musician Andrew W.K (who as of a few weeks ago was assiduously collecting signatures to establish a political party known as the “Party Party”), talks about the harpsichord solo as having “all the thrills, theatrics and drama of a massive electric-guitar shred-fest,” and takes it even a bit further:

    I like to imagine that the feelings Bach was trying to manifest were the equivalent feelings to what a hard-rock band is trying to create: pure joy, a total rush of energy, without ideas, concepts or even specific emotions to stand in the way of the total sonic experience. It's everything and nothing and a mystery and a revelation all at once. 

    It's precisely this kind of anachronistic comparison that for me gets at what's special about this piece. Like most composers of his day, Bach was an employee. He wrote what he was supposed to write and excelled beyond belief. In the fifth Brandenburg concerto, he mixes rebellion, virtuosity, and a few minutes of complete freedom in a way that almost feels closer to guitar shredding like Eddie Van Halen's "Eruption" than anything classical. 

    So back to the question: why make these connections? We make emotional investments in music, and crossing boundaries between genres can feel like a transgression. Pushing at these demarcations a bit, however--and even questioning the reasons they exist in the first place--can make room for new ideas that help us have greater appreciation for the pieces we love. 

     

  • Looking for mercy

    I have a problem, and I’m willing to admit it: I’m an obsessive listener. At least once a week, my brain snags a piece of music and won’t let it go. I listen to it over and over until I’ve figured it out, put words to exactly what it is that’s grabbed my attention. This week, I was caught in the grip of Henry Purcell’s “Miserere mei,” one of the pieces featured on “Hear My Prayer,” our April 24 and 25 concerts featuring anthems and other music by Henry Purcell. It’s only a minute long, so repeated playings go by quickly.

    “Miserere mei” may be one of the most beautiful pieces I’ve heard recently. Purcell sets the simple text (which translates as “Have mercy on me, Jesus”) as a double canon: there are four vocal parts, but the piece essentially has two melodies with staggered entrances. It’s a rigid structure, esoteric and cerebral. But the result is the opposite, shot through with moments of incredible passion.

     

      

    The sopranos and altos enter on a single note, the first syllable of the word “miserere.” The tenors and basses come in on the final syllable—“re”—both allowing the entire word to speak and adding emphasis at the end. The piece proceeds deliberately, the canon structure creating poignant, almost painful dissonances. This is no offhand request. This is the most heartfelt of pleas, as if mercy is the only thing standing in between the speaker and certain death. 

    Last week, I talked to our guest conductor, Paul Agnew, about the repertoire he chose for “Hear My Prayer,” and he told me that mercy is a predominant theme in religious music of the time. As Paul described to me, Purcell is the product of a very specific time in English history, and the context in which he lived very much shaped his compositions. 

    This emphasis on emotion--and specifically, on mercy--is part of what distinguishes Purcell's music from that of the older generation of English composers. In order to better understand how this is manifested aurally, I listened to a few "miserere" settings by Thomas Tallis and William Byrd. Byrd’s “Miserere mei, Deus,” written about a century earlier, is almost hypnotic in its austere, seamless beauty. 

    The emotional energy is completely different than that of Purcell’s “Miserere mei, Jesu.” A calm statement supplants the direct, heartfelt plea. Mercy has been achieved--or is at least on the horizon. Purcell's view is slightly less certain. I found my mind pushing ahead a few hundred years to another song about mercy that I love, Peter Gabriel's "Mercy Street." An homage to the poet Anne Sexton, who committed suicide in 1974, "Mercy Street" is based on Sexton's poem "45 Mercy Street," in which the poet describes her own fruitless search for mercy. In both lyrics and music, Gabriel captures Sexton's feelings of futility and the tragic peace that she ultimately achieved with her death. 

    From Henry Purcell composing in the face of war and plague, to Anne Sexton looking for a street that doesn't exist, to a music lover on the treadmill in a suburban YMCA listening for life's answers in a minute-long song from the seventeenth century, the search for mercy continues.  

    Join us on April 24 and 25 for ""Hear My Prayer", featuring the Music of the Baroque Chorus under the direction of Paul Agnew in a program of stunning sacred music by Henry Purcell. 

     

  • Reasons to love Henry Purcell

    On April 24 and 25, Paul Agnew is leading our chorus and orchestra in music of Henry Purcell, and I'm thrilled. Purcell is one of my favorite composers. Many know him because of Dido and Aeneas, the only English Baroque opera (which Mark Morris Dance Company and Chicago Opera Theater just performed at the Harris Theater). Purcell's semi-operas were what drew me in, marvelous mélanges of spoken word, song, and dance that contain masterful examples of text setting. Every time I hear the air “If Love’s a Sweet Passion” from The Fairy Queen, I’m captivated. The text opens with questions to which many of us can relate: “If love’s a sweet passion, why does it torment? If a bitter, oh tell me, whence comes my content?” A hundred years earlier, a madrigal composer like Thomas Morley might have brought the words to life with the repetition of significant words, dramatic changes in tempo, and perfectly placed dissonance, as he does in “April is in my Mistress’s Face.”   Purcell is wholeheartedly Baroque, however, taking these questions and placing them against a melody that eloquently summarizes the entire poetic conceit, capturing both love’s rapture and sting.  

    Music doesn't tell the whole story, however, so I embarked upon a brief quest to learn more—both about Purcell's life and about others he’s influenced. Here are a few of the facts I unearthed: 

    Purcell was a child prodigy, writing his first composition for Charles II in 1670 when he was twelve and earning the post of organist at Westminster Abbey when he was just twenty years old. (He’s buried next to the organ.) When he played at the coronation of William and Mary, spectators were so pleased that they passed him cash—which didn't go over too well with his coworkers. 

     

    Purcell died at the young age of 36, and may be the only classical composer said to have died of chocolate poisoning. Other explanations for his demise include catching a chill after his wife locked him out of the house following a late night of carousing and the more likely explanation of tuberculosis.

    Purcell was a pinball wizard—or at least inspired the opening of The Who's "Pinball Wizard," according to Pete Townshend 

    Sting recorded Purcell’s “Cold Song” on his album If On a Winter’s Night.  

    In 2013, the 80s band Pet Shop Boys released a single called “Love is a Bourgeois Construct,” based on a composition by Michael Nyman that was itself inspired by Purcell's music. https://www.baroque.org/Att/280 

    Last, but not least, doesn't Purcell look a little like rocker Eddie Van Halen?

     

  • He's got a way with words

    The very first time I heard Monteverdi’s music was in an undergraduate music history survey. I was working on a dual major in English and music, so the coupling of the two in his madrigal settings opened a whole new world. For me, Monteverdi makes poetry spring to life more than any other composer. I loved listening to his madrigals—especially those from Books 4 and 5—repeatedly with the score. And perhaps because I was 18, I delighted in the omnipresent double entendres, especially death as a euphemism for sex. The overall effect was exhilarating.

    My favorite madrigal, and the one I always used as an example when I taught music appreciation, is “Si, ch’io vorrei morire”   from Book 5 (1605). If there were any doubt about death’s significance, the text dispels it immediately: 

    Sì, ch'io vorrei morire,
    ora ch'io bacio, amore,
    la bella bocca del mio amato core.

    Yes, I would like to die,
    now that I'm kissing, sweetheart,
    the luscious lips of my darling beloved.

    Rather than dwelling on individual words, Monteverdi turns the opening line—“ Sì, ch'io vorrei morire”—into a simple statement, and then gleefully revels in the sentiment of the poetry, the overall experience, for the rest of the piece. The opening line returns at the end—but the sensual excess of the music before it creates almost a Monty Pythonesque air of “wink wink, nudge nudge.”   

    Composed five years later, the Vespers for the Blessed Virgin is a remarkable sacred piece on a grand scale—as Jane Glover points out, it is the only work of its kind before Bach’s great Passions. Like Bach over a century later, Monteverdi mixes jubilant choral music with intimate, detailed writing inspired both by specific words and the text’s general sentiment. On the face of it, the Vespers could not be more different from a song like the patently secular “Sì, ch'io vorrei morire.” But just as he does in the madrigal, Monteverdi makes the emotions inherent in the words almost palpable. “Duo Seraphim,”  with its text taken mostly from Isaiah 6:3, tells of angels proclaiming the glory of God and the Holy Trinity.

    Duo seraphim clamabant alter ad alterum:
    Sanctus Dominus Deus Saboath.
    Plena est omnis terra gloria ejus. 
    (Isaiah 6:3)

    Two seraphim cried to one another:
    Holy is the Lord God of Sabaoth.
    The whole earth is full of his glory.

    The predominant subject matter is simple: “Holy is the Lord God of Sabaoth. The whole earth is full of his glory.” If I were a composer, I might seize upon “glory” and set the text in an extroverted way. But Monteverdi does the opposite.  The music begins slowly, quietly, with two-voiced imitative polyphony that builds to a chain of achingly beautiful suspensions. In the absence of words, it almost sounds like an operatic love duet. Even the more straightforward examples of word painting add to the overall sensual effect. At “Tres sunt qui testimonium” (There are three who give testimony), Monteverdi languidly intertwines a third soloist. And what he does at “tres unum sunt” (3:12 in the video) is genius.

    The Monteverdi Vespers is everything at once—it’s prayerful and passionate, grand and intimate, dramatic and restrained. And to understand all the expressive nuances in Monteverdi’s composition, the Vespers must be heard live. Join us on April 1, 2, or 3.

  • The case for live music

    I sat down at my desk, fit my Sennheisers snugly over my ears, grabbed my Vespers score, and settled in to listen, when it struck me—the only way to experience this piece the way Monteverdi intended is to hear it live. Over the past decades, much energy has been invested in studying performance elements such as tuning, timbre, tempi, dynamics, and much more. But one of the most authentic practices is also the simplest—hearing music in person. Before the advent of recording, composers knew people would experience their music directly, whether in a cavernous cathedral, a 19th-century drawing room, the ballroom of a lavish castle, or a large public theater. And in many cases, it makes a difference.


    Ironically, it was the convenience of modern technology that sparked my thinking about what’s lost when music is recorded—the Live from the Met HD Marriage of Figaro at my local movie theater. Opera straight from New York City 10 minutes from my house, complete with popcorn and Twizzlers. “This is amazing,” I thought as I draped my legs over the seat ahead of me and stuffed a piece of licorice in my mouth. As the opera progressed, however, I became increasingly aware that while sugar augmented my experience, something was missing. One of my favorite parts comes in the Act II finale. Susanna, the Countess, and Figaro say to the Count, “Oh, my lord, do not quarrel, fulfill their desires.” Mozart sets the text with utmost sincerity—and the second time we hear the melody, the double basses blow the texture wide open with an amazing low C. The Met Opera orchestra sounded great—but the amazing vibration of being in the hall with the instruments was conspicuously absent.


    In the foreword to the published Vespers, Monteverdi is clearly thinking about the performers and venue, saying that it is music “suited to the chapels and chambers of princes.” In this small statement, we learn that Monteverdi expected the musicians involved would be skilled professionals, and he pitched the difficulty level accordingly. He also knew that the music would in effect serve as decoration for a special space—and he goes to great lengths to create textures that show off every possible spatial dimension. The suspensions in slow, luxurious motets like “Duo seraphim”  would have been particularly poignant in the reverberant acoustic of a large stone room, and works for double chorus like “Laudate pueri dominum”  must have been incredibly majestic.


    Music Director Jane Glover and Chorus Director William Jon Gray are experts on the Monteverdi Vespers. We’ve got early music specialists—both our soloists and a period orchestra—and an excellent choir, just as Monteverdi himself would have had.

    But to experience the Vespers in the most authentic way, come and hear it live.

  • No Haydn this talent

    Music Director Jane Glover constructed our January performance around the reality of musical patronage, the relationship between wealthy patron and composer that guided most music-making prior to the nineteenth century. We could just have easily given our concerts on February 28 and 29 the same name. “From Dawn to Dusk” features a trilogy of short, delightful symphonies Haydn wrote as part of his first responsibilities to the court of Esterházy, where he was to spend most of his career. For me, they sum up a reality of classical music that always astounds me: some of the most beautiful music was composed for incredibly mundane purposes.


    For the February concert program notes, I decided to research working conditions in Esterházy. It wasn’t a bad gig. Sure, I’d be required to devote my life to the prince as a court violinist, but in return I would have gotten a nice salary, health care, room, board, and care for my family as well. (The fact that I’m a woman would have been an impediment to being hired, but a girl can dream.) Haydn’s contract makes his own enhanced responsibilities clear. Of the first three of fourteen points, only one really involves music:


    1st. Seeing that the Capellmeister at Eisenstadt, by name Gregorius Werner, having devoted many years of true and faithful service to the princely house, is now, on account of his great age and infirmities, unfit to perform the duties incumbent on him, therefore the said Gregorious Werner, in consideration of his long services, shall retain the post of Capellmeister, and the said Joseph Heyden as Vice-Capellmeister shall, as far as regards the music of the choir, be subordinate to the Capellmeister and receive his instructions. But in everything else relating to musical performances, and in all that concerns the orchestra, the Vice-Capellmeister shall have the sole direction.

    2nd. The said Joseph Heyden shall be considered and treated as a member of the household. Therefore his Serene Highness is graciously pleased to place confidence in his conducting himself as becomes an honourable official of a princely house. He must be temperate, not showing himself overbearing towards his musicians, but mild and lenient, straightforward and composed. It is especially to be observed that when the orchestra shall be summoned to perform before company, the Vice-Capellmeister and all the musicians shall appear in uniform, and the said Joseph Heyden shall take care that he and all members of his orchestra do follow the instructions given, and appear in white stockings, white linen, powdered, and either with a pig-tail or a tie-wig.

    3rd. Seeing that the other musicians are referred for directions to the said Vice-Capellmeister, therefore he should take the more care to conduct himself in an exemplary manner, abstaining from undue familiarity, and from vulgarity in eating, drinking and conversation, not dispensing with the respect due to him, but acting uprightly and influencing his subordinates to preserve such harmony as is becoming in them, remembering how displeasing the consequences of any discord or dispute would be to his Serene Highness.


    Haydn was not just an employee, he was considered a “member of the household.” He was supposed to be a role model. And his orchestra was more than an ensemble—they were his housemates.


    Winning over his ensemble players was essential to Haydn’s success at Esterházy—and the Morning, Noon, and Night symphonies were his tools. Nearly everyone in the orchestra has a solo, which I figured was simply an homage to the quality of their playing—but upon further investigation, I learned that the players received a bonus for solos or exceptional virtuosity. In the process of this necessary but relatively pedestrian task of getting acquainted with his coworkers, Haydn creates an ingenious blend of Classical form, the Baroque concerto grosso, and his own incomparable humor.

    Join us for From Dawn to Dusk on February 28 & 29

  • An early Valentine

    “Jane Glover is the best conductor of Mozart I have ever had the pleasure of seeing.  Every movement, every phrase is just right.”

    “Watching Jane Glover conduct is like watching a dancer.”

    “The best part of this concert is Jane. What she said at the beginning was perfect, and the music—we are so fortunate to have her here in Chicago.”

    These are just a few of the things patrons said to me as I wandered around the lobby during the intermission of “Musical Patrons” at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts a few days ago. Everyone with whom I chatted mentioned the music, but Jane Glover was the focus of their comments.  She has that effect: she is completely unassuming, yet her obvious passion for what she does immediately captures one’s attention.

    She first got my attention when I was a graduate student. I vividly remember sitting in a library at the University of Chicago holding her monograph on Cavalli—which weighs at least a pound—wondering how anyone could have the discipline to write an entire book on this composer. (More importantly, could I possibly finish reading it in a week for my survey on 17th-century music?)  I was relatively new to the whole field of musicology, and it was through books like Jane’s on Cavalli that I learned that areas of scholarship I considered obscure were in fact tiny windows on vast historical worlds I knew little about.

    When I left academia for the world of live performance, Jane and I crossed paths once again. But this time, she wasn’t just a name embossed on the cover of an impressive-looking book. She was a real person, sitting in the lobby of the Music of the Baroque office and talking to me animatedly about the program notes I was writing for our March 2004 performances of Monteverdi madrigals. It was the first of many such chats about upcoming Music of the Baroque concerts, especially for video previews of our concerts. Often funny, always eloquent (at least on her end) and thought-provoking, these conversations are one of the highlights of my job.

    I often have to remind myself that the woman standing in our office talking about Pilates is the same person who has published the critically-acclaimed book Mozart’s Women, is the Director of Opera at the Royal Academy of Music, and was among the first female conductors to appear with the Metropolitan Opera. At the same time, she’s so impressive that the accolades she receives don’t surprise me at all. In December, she made her debut with the New York Philharmonic in Handel’s Messiah—and it seemed only natural that the review in the New York Times was mostly about her. As Anthony Tommasini summed up, “It’s hard to make a strong first impression with a piece as familiar as the ‘Messiah.’ Ms. Glover did.” To me, that’s Jane: someone who makes a strong first impression whether she’s conducting Handel’s Judas Maccabaeus or talking about American politics.

    Let Jane Glover impress you in just a few weeks in "From Dawn to Dusk," a program featuring three short, fascinating Haydn symphonies full of solos for our entire orchestra. Performances take place at the North Shore Center in Skokie on February 28 and at the Harris Theater in Chicago on February 29.

  • How to Handel your finances

    Jane Glover programmed our January concert, “Musical Patrons,” around the relationship that fueled the livelihoods of most Baroque and Classical composers—that between composer and patron. Until the second half of the 18th century, composers were completely reliant on the needs of churches, courts, and wealthy people for their incomes, and many of history’s greatest works came to be not as the result of artistic inspiration, but because of a specific request or need on the part of someone with money. Who can forget the scene in Amadeus in which Mozart, in spite of his terror, is forced to take a commission from a mysterious masked man simply because he had no other choice?


    At least one Baroque composer was as nearly as wealthy as his patrons, however. George Frideric Handel amassed a fortune roughly equivalent to £2 million in today’s currency—mostly from playing the London stock market. According to a 2012 article in the Wall Street Journal,

    Like many other intellectuals living in London at the time, including Alexander Pope and Isaac Newton, Handel bought into the South Sea Co., the investment that was at the center of one of the world’s earliest and most devastating financial manias. Unlike most of his peers, however, Handel got in early — and got out early as well. According to Harris, he bought no later than 1716, long before the price ran up, and appears to have sold by the middle of 1719, at least one year before the bubble burst. And once Handel got out, he stayed out; he didn’t re-enter the stock market until 1728, long after the mania had faded.


    Handel was a savvy financial planner, too. He never spent more than he earned, and apparently later in life shifted his money into annuities that paid a fixed rate of 3-4% interest. And in addition to his musical legacy, he left behind comfortable sums of money for his friends and family. Financial security might not make a good movie, but it’s something to which we can all aspire.


    Join us for “Musical Patrons,” featuring a suite from Handel’s Water Music, Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 1, Mozart’s Haffner Symphony, and Haydn’s Farewell Symphony on January 24 and 25.

  • Holiday connections

    I’ve been to Music of the Baroque’s Holiday Brass & Choral Concerts more times than I can count, but I still look forward to them each year. Christmas inspires composers to great artistic heights. I marvel at the amazing variety of music on the program every season, and the close connections between pieces written centuries apart. This year, we’re performing Claudio Monteverdi’s "Exultent caeli," in which Monteverdi uses a wide variety of musical resources both to dramatize the text and, very likely, to highlight the architectural elements of the performance space. Fast forward more than 400 years and we arrive at the last movement of Daniel Pinkham’s Christmas Cantata, "Gloria in excelsis Deo." Like Monteverdi, Pinkham uses the rhythm of the text as the basis for a dancelike melody, while “Gloria in excelsis Deo”—Glory to God in the highest—serves as an increasingly triumphant refrain. Two different people standing at very different points on the historical continuum, but writing with the same basic impulse—to bring the holidays to life.


    These implicit connections between people are what fully awaken my holiday spirit. Getting out decorations, chopping down a tree, surreptitiously buying presents—they're all elements of my Christmas experience. But once I enter the beautiful spaces of Grace Lutheran, St. Michael’s, and Divine Word and hear this music—music that unites composers across time in a common artistic purpose, that brings together thousands of people in Chicago each year—the meaning of Christmas comes alive.

    Join us for our 45th Anniversary Season Holiday Brass & Choral Concerts on December 17, 18, 19, and 20. 

     

     

  • On the Record

    There are many things I like about my job as marketing director for Music of the Baroque, and one of my favorite tasks is getting to record Music Director Jane Glover and Principal Guest Conductor Nicholas Kraemer talking about the concerts they programmed. Both are so knowledgeable, so passionate about what they do, that I don’t have to say a word. I just sit in a room, my video camera perched on a makeshift tripod of scores and books, and listen to them talk about the music they love.


    The series of videos for our upcoming Bach Cantatas concert on October 18 and 19 is a perfect example of how effortlessly these musicians speak from the heart. Off the top of his head, Nicholas articulates exactly what is unique about the three cantatas we’re performing. Cantata No. 119, “Preise, Jerusalem,” which Bach composed to commemorate a town council election shortly after he came to Leipzig, is a celebratory work by a composer new to his job, eager to impress his employers.

     

    Cantata No. 82, “Ich habe genug,” composed for solo baritone, includes two of my favorite Bach arias, so it didn’t surprise me to hear Nicholas say it inspired him to get to know Bach’s other cantatas. I love the way he talks about listening to “Schlummert ein” over and over when he was a young boy.

     

    If I weren’t already going to be at both concerts, hearing Nicholas talk about Cantata No. 140, “Wachet auf,” would probably make me buy tickets. The way he describes Bach’s setting—“It gets you up! ‘Wachet auf!’ Get up and go!”—is totally infectious.

    I can’t wait for these performances. The program is Music of the Baroque at its absolute best, with our amazing chorus, great soloists (including Roderick Williams, who amazed our audience for the Christmas Oratorio last year), orchestra—and most of all, Bach’s glorious music. It’s the perfect way to launch our 45th Anniversary Season. As Nicholas says at the very end of the video about Cantata No. 140, he'd like to do a program like this every time he comes—and that would be just fine with me. 

    Music of the Baroque opens its season with Kraemer Conducts Bach on Sunday, October 18, at the North Shore Center in Skokie, and Monday, October 19, at the Harris Theater in Millennium Park.  

  • The quintessence of life

    “The inexpressible depth of music, so easy to understand and yet so inexplicable, is due to the fact that it reproduces all the emotions of our innermost being, but entirely without reality and remote from its pain...Music expresses only the quintessence of life and of its events, never these themselves.”
    Oliver Sacks
     

    After neurologist Oliver Sacks’ recent passing, the above showed up in my news feed many times. Most Baroque composers would have agreed, as music’s ability to communicate feelings dominated 18th-century aesthetics. And I think it’s brilliant. For Sacks, music’s effect comes from its ability to conjure up emotion devoid of any context. Music’s power does not stem from simple mimicry, but rather from the way in which it expresses the inexpressible aspects of life. In music’s indeterminacy, there is room for each of us to perceive our own experiences, feel our own emotions, and imagine ourselves in each note.

    Sacks’ observation keeps flitting through my head as I write about the pieces on the first concert of the season, “Kraemer Conducts Bach.” To kick off our 45th anniversary, Principal Guest Conductor Nicholas Kraemer has chosen three equally powerful but highly contrasting cantatas: Cantata 119, “Preise, Jerusalem,” Cantata 82, “Ich habe genug,” and the best known of the bunch, Cantata 140, “Wachet auf.” For me, these works bring Sacks’ idea to life. Each chorale cantata is a miniature theology lesson—we are presented with an idea from scripture, Bach offers his own commentary through arias and duets, and then eloquently summarizes the main conceit with a chorale. I suppose a simple conversation could take the same form. But in setting these ideas to music, Bach welcomes us to revel in them. He guides our ears to certain phrases, and invites us to dwell on a specific word. He shows us how he feels—and in so doing, he makes us feel, too.

    This melding of music with emotion is particularly potent in “Schlummert ein” from Cantata 82, which is among the most gorgeous arias on the program (and which baritone Roderick Williams will sing beautifully). The text deals with death—but death in the sense of welcome release, a place of “sweet peace and quiet rest.” Bach sets the words almost as a lullaby, breaking the luxuriously hypnotic music only when discussing the travails of life on earth. The gentle sting of ascending melodic leaps hint at death’s concomitant sadness, however, even if it is not present in the words. This comes to the foreground in one particularly memorable performance by mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. Dying of cancer, Lieberson recorded and performed the entire cantata numerous times, including a version staged by Peter Sellars in which she was dressed in a hospital gown. The emotion inherent in Bach’s music, Lieberson’s interpretation, and her very real illness come together in an incredibly moving and powerful meditation on death.

    Don't miss "Kraemer Conducts Bach" on Sunday, October 18, at North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie, and Monday, October 19, at the Harris Theater in downtown Chicago. It will be glorious. 

  • Celebrations, Baroque-style

    I wonder if I’m the only person who wants to go back in time and take part in one of the royal celebrations for which George Frideric Handel composed works like Music for the Royal Fireworks. Sure, lack of personal hygiene may have made crowds back then a little less pleasant, but baroque-era people knew how to party. Just imagine the pyrotechnic feast for the eyes that the Fireworks Music accompanied, as described in The Universal Magazine of Knowledge and Pleasure on March 4, 1749:

    As to the beautiful sun which you see represented on the top of the triumphal arch; it is composed of three circles of fiery fountains, each circle containing 180 cases of composition…These fountains will also be placed alternatively in the circle, viz. the mouths of the first circle opposite the intervals between the second, and the second between the third, and they being also mixed with steel dust, and fired at the same instant, will form a most brilliant glory resembling the streams of, or rays of light generally painted about the heads of saints, exceeding any thing of the kind ever seen before. 

    We’re used to big spectacles, but a sight like this must have been unbelievable in the 18th century. (And where can I subscribe to The Universal Magazine of Knowledge and Pleasure?)

    While the Music for the Royal Fireworks celebrated the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle, Handel‘s Te Deum for the Victory at Dettingen—which we perform on May 17 and 18 in our final concerts of the season—was intended for a smaller military coup. The Dettingen Te Deum, as it is usually called, commemorates King George II’s victory over the French at the Battle of Dettingen on June 27, 1743. While writing the program notes for these performances, I learned that this win wasn’t quite so straightforward. England wasn’t officially at war with the French when the battle was fought, and rumor had it that the king wore a Hanoverian sash as he commanded his “Pragmatic Army” comprised of British, Hessian, and Hanoverian soldiers. Handel seized the chance to write music for huge forces anyway, and had the Te Deum completed in plenty of time for the king’s return to England. There was just one problem—George II decided to stay in his native Hanover for the summer. The party had to be postponed until November 27, which must have been a bit of a letdown.

    What’s amazing is that the Dettingen Te Deum reflects none of this ambivalence. It’s truly joyful, an inspired blend of Handel’s best writing for orchestra and chorus. (Its only shortcoming might be its generic name, which doesn’t say anything about the music, but titles didn’t mean much in the Baroque.) A perfect ending to what’s been a really glorious season for Music of the Baroque.

    (Hear what Jane Glover had to say about this piece when I spoke to her a month or so ago.)

  • Musical feeling, feeling music

    Our May concert is called “War and Peace.” The music—Handel’s Dettingen Te Deum and Haydn’s Mass in Time of War—has nothing to do with Russian novels, but out of sheer curiosity, I investigated what Tolstoy said about music and came across this great quote: “Music is the shorthand of emotion.”

    Tolstoy may not have known it, but he articulated one of the main developments in late Renaissance and Baroque music: the idea that music is capable of expressing and instilling emotion in its listeners. The most explicit example of this is probably eighteenth-century German theorist Johann Mattheson, who was a big proponent of the Doctrine of Affections—a school of thought that assigned specific musical elements to feelings. For example, joy is “an expansion of our soul, thus it follows reasonably and naturally that I could best express this affect by large and expanded intervals.”

    This idea has found its way into popular culture, too. The same day I came across the Tolstoy quote, I was listening to a song by The Verve (a British alternative rock band) called “Bitter Sweet Symphony.” Lo and behold, there it was again, although put more colloquially: “I need to hear some sounds that recognize the pain in me/I let the melody shine, let it cleanse my mind, I feel free now.”

    Maybe this is partly why music goes hand in hand with something as emotionally fraught as war—to give voice the many conflicting feelings it embodies. (There’s a great article by Leon Botstein in the New York Times about this very subject.) When Haydn wrote his Mass in Time of War, Austria was under attack for the first time since the Turkish siege in 1683, and we know that contemporary listeners thought of the work as the “War Mass.” I can’t listen to theMass in Time of War and not listen for Haydn’s own feelings at a time of great insecurity in his home country. And there are so many other links between music and war, from Beethoven’s “Wellington’s Victory” to Messaien’s Quartet for the End of Time to Barber’s Adagio for Stringsin the movie “Platoon.”

    The shorthand of emotion, indeed.

  • Friends With (Musical) Benefits

    When I was young, my violin was my ticket to friendship. I met nearly all my close friends in junior high and high school through orchestra or summer camp at Interlochen, and these early experiences laid the groundwork for what I love to do today—write about, listen to, and think about music (with the occasional practice session thrown in for good measure). I have a few violin students I work with weekly, and one thing I try and emphasize is that along with the studies about music being good for your brain and the advantages of such extracurriculars on one’s college application, it’s—well, it’s just fun to play music with friends.

    Speaking of musical friendships, our March soloist, Imogen Cooper, is great friends with our music director Jane Glover, and last year the two made their mutual debuts with the Cleveland Orchestra in concerts that included Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 1. (Imogen just performed Beethoven’s Second Piano Concerto (which she plays with us March 29 and 30) with the Philadelphia Orchestra, to rave reviews.) And my colleague just passed along an invitation to MOB principal guest conductor Nicholas Kraemer’s 70th birthday party, which just happens to be a concert in which he leads the English Chamber Orchestra from the harpsichord—along with soloist Imogen Cooper. (Perhaps for my 70th...?)

    I have never met Imogen Cooper, but she was gracious enough to converse via email about Chicago, Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 2 (which is actually his earliest concerto), her newly launched Imogen Cooper Trust, and more. Hopefully I'll have a chance to introduce myself now that she's in town, but if I don't, I know we'll become better acquainted through her live performances with us this weekend. Here's what she had to say: 

    Q: You perform with top ensembles all over the world. What do you enjoy about performing with Music of the Baroque?

    A: I enjoy the mixture of intimacy and great expertise, the humanity, the sheer love of music and of performing. All brought to the fore by Jane Glover’s passion for the beautiful works we perform.

    Q: You’ve been to Chicago several times now. Are there particular places you like to visit, or things you enjoy doing?

    A: Exploring Frank Lloyd Wright, doing the architectural boat trip—if the weather allows!—and of course, the Art Institute.

    Q: Give us a few insights into Beethoven’s Second Piano Concerto. What makes it distinctive? What do you hope listeners notice about the work?

    A: I hope that they will not only notice but also be physically caught up in, the brio and joy of the work, in its outer movements, and the interchange/conversation between piano and orchestra. In the slow movement we have one of the gems of early Beethoven writing (he wrote this concerto before the First Concerto); heartfelt, intimate, the piano’s cantilenas soaring above quiet pizzicato strings, speaking as a singer does, and a magic ending, watch this space!

    Read the rest of my interview with Imogen Cooper

  • Welcome to "Counterpoint"!

    Welcome to “Counterpoint,” our new blog. I’m Jennifer Glagov, longtime program annotator for Music of the Baroque and current marketing director. I’ve held many different jobs at MOB over the past fifteen years (and counting!), but my first experience with the group was as part of the Evanston audience in 1996 for Henry Purcell’s Fairy Queen. I was working on my doctorate in musicology at the University of Chicago, and the focus of my dissertation was seventeenth-century English music. I’ll never forget what it was like to hear live, for the very first time, a work I knew well through recordings and scores. As much as I love Spotify and online streaming, I’ll always go to concerts. The feel of the low strings vibrating in the hall, the way my ears ring when a perfectly-tuned note produces overtones, being still, quiet, and listening in a focused way — it’s an experience that can’t be digitally reproduced.  

    For that very reason, I can’t wait for Music of the Baroque’s 2015-16 season — which believe it or not, is our 45th. We’re performing the Monteverdi Vespers, a piece that’s thrilled me ever since I first heard it as a teenager, but have never heard in concert. I was poking around on YouTube and came across this video of John Eliot Gardiner leading the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque soloists at Versailles in 2014 — and now I can imagine exactly how our own chorus is going to look and sound at St. Michael’s in Old Town and Divine Word Chapel in Northbrook, two gorgeous churches I already know well from our Holiday Brass & Choral Concerts. It’s going to be amazing.

    Over the coming months, I’m planning to write about the music we perform, our performers, classical music in Chicago, and anything else that comes to mind. In the meantime, please feel free to write to me if you have ideas or comments! And if you’d like more information about our anniversary season, you’ll find it here on our website.