Countertenor Mobley proves a light presence in MOB concert

By Katherine Buzard, Chicago Classical Review
November 21, 2022

For a concert titled “Reginald Mobley Sings,” there was surprisingly little singing from the popular American countertenor—at least in the first half of Music of the Baroque’s program Sunday night at Skokie’s North Shore Center.

Though one would expect a recital format from the way the concert was billed, Mobley, who last appeared with Music of the Baroque in 2019, sang a brief solo in the opening piece, Purcell’s “Welcome to all the Pleasures,” but then did not sing again for another hour.

The format of this concert was reminiscent of the most recent Music of the Baroque program that principal guest conductor Nicholas Kraemer led last season with soprano Amanda Forsythe, which favored instrumental pieces and vocal works that were largely not well suited to her voice type. Questionable programming aside, Sunday’s concert provided a fitting showcase for the instrumentalists and chorus of the baroque ensemble, if not for the marquee soloist.

Purcell’s “Welcome to All the Pleasures” opened with a stylishly shaped overture, followed by a trio of welcome from Mobley and two soloists from the choir, bass Kevin Krasinski and tenor Ryan Townsend Strand, whose timbres complemented each other’s beautifully. Sopranos Nathalie Colas and Hannah Dixon McConnell and alto Margaret Fox were also heard in step-out trios, showcasing the wealth of soloistic talent within the chorus.

The one countertenor aria in the Purcell, “Here the deities approve,” took advantage of Mobley’s pleasantly rounded middle range and easily accessed chest voice. His playful ornaments were tossed off with a knowing smile and a wink as he danced between registers. Though never distasteful, Mobley’s rendition was certainly not as chaste as those often heard from English countertenors.

Singing from the choir throughout the Purcell, Mobley faced an uphill battle in this aria, as his mellifluous voice is surprisingly gentle for someone of his physical stature. As a result, his sound was sometimes overwhelmed, even just by the continuo. A better balance would have been struck had he been allowed to sing from in front of the orchestra.

In the second half of the program, Mobley returned for two Handel opera arias, taking his proper place downstage. “Fammi combattere” from Orlando was a militaristic tour de force, Mobley executing the rapid coloratura with machine-gun-like clarity, while “Cara sposa” from Rinaldo showed off Mobley’s dynamic control and lyricism. Unfortunately, balance issues still persisted, even with Mobley in front of the orchestra. Further, both arias lay too high for him, and top notes were a bit unstable and strained. Mobley’s gentle timbre did not have enough point to cut through the orchestra consistently.

Perhaps Mobley’s best singing of the night came in the encore, a touching song for voice and guitar by nineteenth-century American composer Justin Holland. Singing with guitarist/theorbist Brandon Acker, Mobley demonstrated that his strength lies in the more intimate lute song genre, where his gift for communication can truly shine.

Filling out the concert were a number of instrumental pieces, including Purcell’s Fantasia in Three Parts Upon a Ground and Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 in the first half and Suite from The Comedy Call’d the Funeral by William Croft in the second. It was in these instrumental selections that Kraemer seemed most at home as he conducted animatedly from the harpsichord.

The Brandenburg Concerto was especially accomplished, featuring impressive virtuosity from concertmaster Gina DiBello and recorder players Patrick O’Malley and Lisette Kielson. Though DiBello’s opening arpeggios were slightly on the frantic side, the tempo eventually settled down into a comfortable yet still exciting Allegro. The Andante provided O’Malley and Kielson a moment to shine in sumptuous chains of suspensions, while the Presto, barring a few brief moments of untidiness from the full orchestra, was thrilling. Balance issues were not limited to vocal selections, however, as the recorders were covered by the strings at moments throughout the concerto.

By contrast, the Croft Suite was much more straightforward, presenting a string of expertly executed dance movements. However, the eight-movement suite began to sound a bit samey at this juncture in the second half of the concert, as the audience had just been treated to Mobley’s Handel arias and wanted to hear more from the main event.

The Music of the Baroque Chorus, under new chorus master Andrew Megill, were every bit as accomplished as the instrumentalists on stage, both as soloists and as a whole. The chorus provided great dynamic contrasts and tight ensemble in “Welcome to all the Pleasures” and charmed with their facial expressions in the final chorus lauding St. Cecilia, the patron saint of music.

Exploring the sacred side of Purcell’s output, the chorus presented one of his most famous choral works, the suspension-laden a capella anthem, “Hear My Prayer, O Lord.” Kraemer led the chorus in a relatively restrained rendition, after having introduced it as having a concentration of intensity like no other piece. The climactic moment when all eight parts finally sing at the same time wasn’t as rapturous as one would have hoped, which was not helped by the dryness of the acoustic or Kraemer’s tense, instrumental gestures.

Concluding the concert were three excerpts from the lesser-known Handel oratorio Belshazzar—a final aria for Mobley and two choruses, with an additional short solo for the bright-voiced soprano Nathalie Colas. The opening iterations of “See!” in the spritely chorus “See, from his post Euphrates flies” were like perfectly aimed darts, while the sopranos executed the fiendish opening melodic motif with laser precision and impeccable blend.

The program will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Monday at the Harris Theater.