Harmonious times for Music of the Baroque

By John von Rhein, Chicago Tribune
November 19, 2013

As classical music organizations continue to suffer the effects of the massive economic tremor that hit the nation some four years ago, just maintaining the status quo without major losses of funding or audience represents a victory.

One such shining survivor is Chicago’s Music of the Baroque. The Chicago orchestra and chorus, which specializes in 17th and 18th century repertory played on modern instruments, stands as a model of administrative responsibility and artistic integrity in this, its 43rd season.

But Karen Fishman, the group’s executive director, refuses to crow, or to be complacent about, MOB’s hard-fought victory. She’s been around long enough to realize how easily lack of vigilance, poor planning or, worse, another economic meltdown, could erode several decades of accomplishments in an instant.

First, the good news.

MOB’s subscription renewals are running high at the start of the season, she reports. Single-ticket sales are keeping pace with those of last year, when they dipped about five percent. Fundraising took an uptick last season and is expected to do at least as well in 2013-14. MOB’s regular venues – the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie and the Harris Theater for Music and Dance in Chicago – are selling roughly 90 and 80 percent of seating capacity, respectively, for the seven programs the group is presenting this season.

Add to this what Fishman calls a “strong, supportive” board of 23 music lovers, plus the “phenomenal” loyalty of MOB’s “solid, happy, satisfied” core audience, and you have a business model other midsized classical music groups could profit from studying.

None of this would have been possible, she points out, without the superior music-making achieved by the orchestra (made up of Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Lyric Opera Orchestra personnel plus freelancers in several key principal chairs), and its excellent resident chorus, all under music director Jane Glover, principal guest conductor Nicholas Kraemer and chorus master William Jon Gray.

Here’s where the cautionary part of the tale comes in.

“All of us in Chicago music are going through a tough period right now,” Fishman observes. “How do you get new people in the door, or, in our case, get people who come for the Bach B minor Mass to come back for something else? It’s really a struggle to fill seats and keep people in those seats. You find yourself running harder just to stay even.

“Everyone who’s got resources is throwing a lot of those resources at marketing. Both the CSO and Lyric are discounting tickets more frequently and earlier than they had been.”

Fishman says she’s also concerned that a lingering economic slump could affect a significant segment of MOB’s demographic, namely, retired people living on fixed incomes. Because current interest rates are poor, retirees are finding their incomes shrinking, leaving them with less to spend on cultural pursuits.

Taking note of the high percentage of seniors in the audience for MOB’s orchestral program Sunday evening in Skokie, I couldn’t help but share Fishman’s concern. Young people are not entering the fold in sufficient numbers to take the place of this aging, graying demographic: You see more young listeners at MOB concerts in downtown Chicago but relatively few at the ones the group presents on the North Shore. Clearly MOB faces stiff marketing challenges.

With Sunday’s concert of works by three great Viennese classical masters (the program was repeated Monday at the Harris Theater), Glover was beginning her second decade as MOB music director. She did so with repertory for which she has long had an affinity. It was refreshing to hear Beethoven and Schubert symphonies, and a Mozart piano concerto, played by an orchestra of 37 musicians, close in size to that of the Viennese ensembles of the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

Hovering over the concert was the spirit of Franz Joseph Haydn. Although the program held nothing by Haydn, you heard that composer’s influence in the high spirits, harmonic surprises and sheer impudence of his former pupil Beethoven’s Second Symphony. Glover applied dynamic energy with a decisive hand, showing us how much the young Beethoven anticipated Schubert in her flowing and lyrical treatment of the slow movement. There were a few bobbles from the horns, but considering that 14 of the orchestra’s musicians, including the two hornists, had come to the concert directly after playing Wagner’s five-hour “Parsifal” at Lyric Opera, I gladly cut them plenty of slack.

Schubert was represented by his youthful Symphony No. 5 in B flat, which pays homage to his musical idol, Mozart. Always the music moved with gracious phrasing and flowing, singing lines. Glover’s orchestra was small enough to ensure lightness of texture and crispness of attack, but not so small as to drain the sound of color.

An ebullient performance of Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 17 in G (K.453) furthered the sense of orchestral chamber music. The playing of the accomplished Portuguese-born pianist Artur Pizarro was notable for its rippling ease and lack of affectation, particularly in the ennobled sadness of the Andante movement and the stylish melodic embellishments he brought to the finale.

Glover joined the audience in applauding the orchestra musicians. If Music of the Baroque can keep building artistic momentum, fully supported by a strong, vigilant management, MOB’s 50th anniversary in 2020 should be a golden milestone indeed.

The Music of the Baroque season will continue with the U.S. conducting debut of tenor Paul Agnew leading the annual holiday brass and choral concerts, Dec. 19-22 at churches in River Forest, Chicago and Northbrook; 312.551.1414; baroque.org.