Glover brings crisp stylistic authority to Music of the Baroque’s Handelian opener

By John von Rhein, Chicago Classical Review
September 20, 2021

There is nothing quite like a Dame, particularly when it is Dame Jane Glover conducting George Frideric Handel. Few more formidable interpreters of the baroque master’s music walk the earth than Glover, the British conductor who has led Music of the Baroque since 2002.

She demonstrated as much yet again at Skokie’s North Shore Center for the Performing Arts on Sunday afternoon when the music director and her MOB orchestral colleagues presented a stylish, mostly-Handel program to launch the group’s 51st season.

Handel’s two most popular orchestral works, Music for the Royal Fireworks and a suite from the Water Music, were both written for outdoor celebrations in London during the reigns of England’s King George II and George I, respectively. They provided more than the usual aural tonic for an audience that was experiencing MOB live for the first time following 18 months of lockdown silence.

The same sensibility no doubt applied to members of Glover’s reduced band of strings, winds and brass, who were wearing welcoming grins beneath their masks, she assured listeners in her jovial spoken introduction.

The instrumentalists’ long hiatus—they hadn’t played together for a live indoor concert audience since February 2020 —may have been responsible for the stray horn bobbles that marred the otherwise smooth finish of the Royal Fireworks at the end of the intermission-less concert. Still, the overall level of playing was as high as one has come to expect from this group whenever Glover is in command.

Fireworks was in fact the operative metaphor for Sunday’s concert.

Glover and friends began with the subscription-series premiere of MOB’s first-ever commission, Spectacle of Light, by Chicago composer Stacy Garrop. Written for the organization’s 50th anniversary, the six-minute curtain raiser was, according to the composer, inspired by both Handel’s depiction of the ill-fated fireworks display given as part of the celebration of the signing of the treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle in London in 1749, and a period etching depicting that display.

It would be nice to be able to report that Spectacle of Light is meaty enough to take its place in the repertory alongside such fireworks-inspired classics as Debussy’s solo-piano Feux d’artifice and Stravinsky’s orchestral Fireworks. What we have instead is a bland little piece d’occasion; like the would-be grand fireworks display at the score’s 1749 premiere, Sunday’s Garrop premiere was a fizzle.

Out of an opening episode of post-minimalist running strings tinged with martial brass, an oboe sounds a rising lyrical figure no doubt meant to signify a single firework. A harpsichord is used for coloristic effect rather than harmonic function.

Rumbling timpani and striding trumpets are as close as the piece gets to igniting aural pyrotechnics. Garrop includes two brief sub-rosa quotations from Handel’s Royal Fireworks music, concluding not with the expected bang (her program note wishfully calls it a “big, fiery ending”) but an anticlimactic whimper —a soft, rising glissando in the strings and the work is done.

Thus it came as something of a relief when Glover’s merry band presented the genuine Handelian article. Her Royal Fireworks combined pomp and vivacity without a hint of stodgy, foursquare phrasing. She took care to balance the colors of winds against strings deftly and point the rhythms acutely. A sense of light and shade emerged, and the woodwind and brass ornamentation was set in appropriate relief.

The second of the three Water Music suites (D Major) and the first of three Concerti a due cori (B-flat, though the program identified it as F Major) presented a lively study in familiar versus unfamiliar Handel; given Handel’s tendency to quote from his oratorios in both suites, the pieces also gave alert Handelians in the house several opportunities to name that tune. MOB’s horns and trumpets all but stole the show in the Water Music suite, acquitting themselves stalwartly, apart from the aforementioned glitches.

The less well-known concerto for two choirs of instruments (as a set these works were written as entr’actes for performances of Handel oratorios) also came off to vivacious effect, tempos well chosen, balances judicious, the interplay of strings and opposing groups of oboes and bassoons crisply achieved.

Rounding out the program was a Telemann concerto in D Major for three trumpets (TWV 54:D3). The work’s festive flourishes rise above the formulaic inspiration that makes so many other pieces by Handel’s fellow German contemporary feel as if created by cookie-cutter. The modest bravura was brilliantly taken by the soloists—MOB co-principal trumpet Barbara Butler got the lion’s share, along with colleagues Tage Larsen of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Channing Philbrick of the Grant Park Orchestra. The central Largo amounts to a mini-oboe concerto and was sweetly savored by MOB principal Anne Bach.

The program will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Monday at the Harris Theater. The Music of the Baroque season continues with concerts Oct. 17 and 18.