Glover, Music of the Baroque take flight in Haydn mass

By Lawrence A. Johnson, Chicago Classical Review
October 06, 2012

Jane Glover conducted Music of the Baroque in works of Mozart and Haydn Friday night at the Harris Theater.

Jane Glover opened her tenth season with Music of the Baroque Friday night at the Harris Theater with a characteristic program—i.e., non-Baroque works of Haydn and Mozart.

Some observers may grumble about the elevation of Classical-era rep in the ensemble during Glover’s nine years as music director. But Mozart and Haydn have historically been part of the landscape of “Baroque” groups in the country since the founding of Boston’s Handel and Haydn Society in 1815. Further, one can argue that given their stature both composers remain under-programmed even today by symphony orchestras—Haydn in particular—and that by performing their music Glover and MOB are filling an important void.

Few would deny that the British conductor has reenergized Music of the Baroque over the past near-decade and her celebrated expertise in Mozart and Haydn was bracingly displayed Friday night in the polish and vitality of the group’s performances at the Harris Theater.

If Haydn’s symphonies continue to go oddly neglected in today’s concert halls—though not by MOB—the composer’s masses have been relegated even more inexplicably to the fringes of the repertory. Yet there is much magnificent music in these works, not least the Mass in D Minor or “Lord Nelson” mass heard Friday.

Though relatively short in duration at about 45 minutes, Haydn packs an extraordinary amount of high-grade, often unexpected music in this work. There is a starkness to the original scoring, sans woodwinds and horns, due to the Esterhazy players being dismissed rather than Haydn’s conception, but it seems to suit the punchy eruptive edge of the music. And while there are pages of spiritual joy and consolatory warmth, there is also a surprising, almost Verdian darkness. The opening Kyrie is filled with grim foreboding and the Benedictus, rather than a glowing plea for peace, is more of a Dies Irae with the harsh stabbing accents of the trumpets and timpani seeming to hurl us into a bottomless void.

Glover showed she has the full measure of this work, drawing a vital, boldly projected and richly expressive performance that benefited immensely from stellar vocalism by a first-rate lineup of soloists and the MOB Chorus. One could hardly imagine a more rousing sendoff to Glover’s tenth anniversary season.

Primus inter pares of the quartet was Susanna Phillips who provided quite glorious vocalism and had the lion’s share of the solo moments. The former Ryan Opera Center member displayed an immaculate technique, handling the high-flying passages securely and singing with expressive feeling throughout, radiant in the Credo and beautifully glowing in the Benedictus.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, bass Stephen Morscheck anchored the quartet with a simple sincerity and dignified Biblical gravitas (as with his Jesus in John Nelson’s Chicago Bach Project events). Mezzo Kathryn Leemhuis and tenor David Portillo had less to do, but both filled out their solo and ensemble assignments superbly.

The orchestra played with extraordinary fire and commitment, even by the standards of their partnership with Glover. The MOB Chorus has been steadily improving under William Jon Gray and this Haydn performance offered the finest corporate singing to date under Gray’s direction, the ensemble singers tackling this challenging music with remarkable power, refinement and dynamic subtlety.

Mozart has long been Glover’s most favored composer, and her bona fides in the composer’s idiom were clear in two works on the first half.

Mozart’s Divertimento in F major, K.138, for strings is fully characteristic of early Mozart, written at age 16 and imbued with a youthful effervescence. Glover led a lithe and stylish reading that elicited wonderfully airy and graceful playing from the MOB strings, the conductor lightly underlining the slight pensive expression of the middle movement. With its driving energy, rhythmic twists and dynamic contrasts, the rollicking finale owes a clear debt to Haydn by the young Mozart, and the musicians put across the humor and ingenuity with verve and refinement under Glover’s dynamic direction.

Mozart’s “Prague” symphony (No. 38) hails from the other end of his career, written and premiered in the city where the composer found his greatest success in his short lifetime. Glover brought out the drama and jarring chromaticism of the extended slow introduction, which seems to echo the dark world of Don Giovanni, premiered the year before in Prague.

Yet the conductor kept the music in scale—repeats observed—and maintained an essential Rococo grace without traversing the line to Beethovenian Romanticism. The ensuing Allegro was put across with enormous verve and exuberance by the orchestra, some fleeting disarray in the violins apart.

Likewise Glover’s skillful, flowing pace for the Andante assayed the passing shadows without over-indulging, and she took the closing Presto at a crackling pace that proved thrilling with the musicians articulating clearly even at Glover’s speedy tempo.