Kraemer, MOB explore orchestral origins with elan

By Hannah Edgar, Chicago Classical Review
February 28, 2017

With an all-Handel concert, Bach family-focused program, holiday extravaganza, and Mozart mass already under its belt this season, Music of the Baroque devoted Monday night’s concert to the history of an all-too-familiar innovation: the orchestra. 

In general terms, the “Harmony and Invention” program at the Harris Theater—led by principal guest conductor and harpsichordist Nicholas Kraemer—explored the rise of orchestral music as a genre expressive and dignified enough to rival opera, featuring works by Handel, Locke, Vivaldi, Rameau, Muffat, and Telemann.

But more cogent, if subtle threads revealed themselves as the concert unfolded. For example, the program paired Matthew Locke’s incidental music from The Tempest with Vivaldi’s Violin Concerto in E-flat, similarly titled La tempesta di mare. Additionally, while music by Arcangelo Corelli himself was conspicuously missing, two works—Handel’s Concerto Grosso in D minor from his Op. 6 and Georg Muffat’s Passacaglia from Armonico Tributo No. 5—provided clear hat-tips to that most instrumentally minded of Baroque composers.

Though Music of the Baroque is not a period ensemble—its musicians play on modern instruments—the opening Handel concerto served as a reminder that the means matter less than the execution. The strings played the piece with idiomatic élan: the descending thirty-second-note figures ornamenting the opening theme were remarkably crisp, and the second-movement fugue compelling. Some of the concerto’s initial zestiness faded in subsequent movements, but this was more the fault of the piece’s dramatic arc than the ensemble’s consistently well-defined interpretation.

Locke’s The Tempest proved less, well, tempestuous than Vivaldi’s counterpart later in the program. No matter; the well-mannered suite was just another opportunity for Music of the Baroque to flaunt its dynamic and emotional contrast. Kraemer—who gave a brief introduction of the work, especially its evocative Curtain Tune—gracefully led from behind the harpsichord, finessing the melodic lines through his gestures and sensitive continuo accompaniment.

Concertmaster Gina DiBello took center stage for Vivaldi’s swirling La tempesta di mare, the undisputed high point of the first half. A familiar face in the CSO’s first violin section, DiBello flexed her solo chops with an interpretation that was at once energetic, intelligent, and bursting with personality.

She played the exterior Presto movements with biting verve, and the second-movement Largo with cadenza-like liberty and introspection. The ensemble matched her sensitivity with deference, backing off at the right moments to ensure DiBello could be heard in the vast venue. Assisted by a healthy dose of collective enthusiasm, the illusion worked; the concerto’s brilliant closing bars in particular—with flamboyant double-stopped arpeggios in the solo violin—conveyed the spirit and heft of a much larger orchestra, horns and all.

The subsequent Suite from Rameau’s Zaïs was a delightful addition to the program, most of all for its quirkiness. Intended to depict the creation of the universe from chaos, the daring and bizarre Overture opens with a muted bass drum solo, progressing through a series of modulations before returning to its native key.

Zaïs doesn’t merely tolerate dissonances—it embraces them, bringing grating tritones and tense minor seconds to the fore. The suite also brought the largest forces to the stage for the night: winds joined the strings onstage for the first time, and Kraemer ceded his post behind the harpsichord to resident keyboardist Stephen Alltop. Rameau’s suite provides myriad showcases for large ensemble, and Music of the Baroque did not disappoint; the violins and oboes especially impressed with their cohesive rapid-fire unison line in the fifth-movement “Entrée noble pour les Statues animées.”

Essentially a concerto grosso in its own right, Muffat’s Passacaglia borrows Corelli’s formula of a two-violin, one-cello concertino: the principal violins (here, DiBello and Sharon Polifrone) interact above accompaniment by the principal cello (Barbara Haffner). Though the Passacaglia is avowedly unvirtuosic, DiBello, Polifrone, and Haffner’s attuned interplay still brought out the musical interest of their respective parts.

Double reeds and percussion returned to the stage for Telemann’s Tafelmusik. As Kraemer noted, Telemann’s composition was intended as eighteenth-century muzak, offering a soundtrack to posh dinner soirées.

But elevator music this is not: the suite thrives on exquisite detail, most of all the sophisticated interplay between two distinct solo groups—two violins, cello, and harpsichord continuo contrasted with two oboes and a bassoon. The oboes are featured prominently throughout, and nowhere more demandingly than the final movement, marked “Furioso”; for the most part, oboists Anne Bach and Peggy Michel intrepidly rose to the occasion, save for a stumble on the final cutoff.