Baritone sparks a winning Bach program for Music of the Baroque

By Lawrence A. Johnson, Chicago Classical Review
October 08, 2013

Music of the Baroque’s season-opening Bach program didn’t look that earthshaking on paper, with the composer’s celebratory Magnificat paired with two varied cantatas.

Still, with the MOB orchestra and chorus in top form, and Nicholas Kraemer directing with characteristic insight and ebullience, Monday night’s concert at the Harris Theater proved more than the sum of its parts and made an enjoyable and exhilarating leadoff for the ensemble’s season.

Kraemer’s Bach programs with Music of the Baroque have largely centered on non-vocal works, with music director Jane Glover conducting the Passions. But Kraemer showed he is just as deft a hand in these sacred vocal settings as with Bach’s concertos and suites. Impeccably balanced, with superb choral singing, and played with polish and fine vitality across all sections, the English conductor put across the jubilant moments as surely as the passages of introspection and spiritual solace.

The opening work, Cantata No. 197 “Gott ist unsre Zuversicht” came off especially well. A hybrid of sorts, the cantata is set to a sacred text, yet was written for a wedding ceremony. The occasion afforded Bach the opportunity to explore one of his favored spiritual metaphors, comparing the wedding union of husband and wife to the bond between the soul and Jesus.

The male soloist has the most to do in No. 197. Making his MOB debut, Roderick Williams was first class in every way, providing some of the most stylish Bach singing heard in Chicago in recent seasons. The English baritone’s voice has ample weight yet Williams wielded it with nimble agility, singing with grace, dignified expression, and exemplary diction.

The other main soloist in this work proved more variable. Even by Baroque standards, Meg Bragle’s voice sounded lightweight and fluttery, her tone unevenly focused with some pitchy moments in “Schlafert aller Sorgen Kummer.”

The Canadian mezzo fared somewhat better in Cantata No. 159, “Sehet! Wir gehn hinauf gen Jerualem.” In his charming and illuminating introduction, Kraemer illustrated some of Bach’s subtle scoring in this largely somber work, as with the notes that depict Jesus’s faltering steps with the cross.

Bragle sounded short-breathed in the aria, “Ich folge dir nach,” but sang with greater stability and projection. Again, Williams set the standard in his noble and expressive account of “Es ist vollbracht” with notably imposing bass notes.

One wished Bach had given the low male voice more to sing in his Magnificat just to hear Williams’ wonderful artistry, yet here the solo duties are more evenly divided.

Sherezade Panthaki displayed a big gleaming soprano in “Quia respexit humiiatem” and political consultant-turned-singer Zach Finkelstein showed flexibility and admirable vocalism, blending fluently with Hagle in the duet “Et misericordia a progenie.”

But the Magnificat is primarily a showcase for chorus. Clearly well prepared by chorus director William Jon Gray, the MOB ensemble delivered with well-blended, expressive and exuberant corporate vocalism.

All three works abound with obbligato solos, and the orchestra principals brought elegant musicianship to their opportunities, notably concertmaster Robert Waters, oboist Robert Morgan and flutists Mary Stolper and Sandra Morgan.

Even by their elevated standard, the stylish and stratospheric trumpet playing of Barbara Butler, Charles Geyer and Channing Philbrick was spectacular.