A pleasing evening of Bach at the Harris Theater

By Alan G. Artner, Chicago Tribune
October 08, 2013

Vocal masterpieces familiar and unfamiliar made up Music of the Baroque's opening concert of the season Monday night at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance, and it helped that all of them were by Johann Sebastian Bach.

MOB pleases more consistently in Bach than in the works of just about any other composer, particularly when guest conductor Nicholas Kraemer is in charge, balancing historical awareness with communicative expression.

This time he offered the great second version of the Virgin Mary's hymn of praise, the Magnificat in D Major, and two lesser-known cantatas, numbered 197 and 159. Each account was sturdy, reliable and lively, though in the briefest of the pieces, the 18-minute-long Cantata 159, the performance also went deeper.

A half century ago conductor and editor Hans Grischkat wrote that "Behold, we go up to Jerusalem" is "not only one of the best known, but also one of the most frequently performed cantatas." Yet while verbally introducing the work as "a mini-masterpiece," Kraemer was somewhat at a loss to explain why few audiences today are likely to have heard it.

So finely spun was its centerpiece, the aria sung by baritone Roderick Williams and accompanied by Robert Morgan's oboe, that MOB realized the work's inwardness more movingly than many another historically informed performance. The atmosphere of heart-ease was irresistibly sustained at a slower-than-usual tempo, making this recognition of Christ's suffering dropping away the high point of the evening.

Kraemer's Magnificat was the final version without the four movements Bach originally interpolated for the Christmas season. Here the remaining vocal soloists – Sherezade Panthaki, soprano, Meg Bragle, mezzo-soprano, Zach Finkelstein, tenor – shone more strongly and with greater diversity of mood than anywhere else on the program. Here, too, did Kraemer briefly play harpsichord as well as elicit from the well-drilled chorus some welcome unbridled moments of rhythmic punch.

The opening Cantata No. 197, "God is our trust," began bouncily with vigorous singing from the chorus, though both Bragle and concertmaster Robert Waters initially sounded small-toned and timid, as if unsure about how far to project into the hall. This meant the wonderful relaxed writing for violin and wind instruments in the sixth movement showed off wind tone to slightly better advantage, with mellifluous, even caressing fineness.