MOB honors founder Wikman, offers vibrant Vivaldi

By Tim Sawyier, Chicago Classical Review
October 17, 2023

Music of the Baroque founder Thomas Wikman died last week at the age of 81. Monday night’s all-Vivaldi MOB program, helmed by Nicholas Kraemer at the Harris Theater, was dedicated to Wikman’s memory, and made a fitting tribute to their visionary founder’s legacy.

Following a moment of silence, the concert began by featuring 150 students from MOB’s “Strong Voices” initiative, in which members of the MOB Chorus serve as teaching artists in seven Chicagoland schools throughout the school year. These dedicated young singers filed down the aisles of the Harris and, arrayed onstage and in the house, sang the opening chorus of Vivaldi’s Gloria, first accompanied by Stephen Alltop on the organ, followed by a reprise with the full MOB orchestra and chorus.

The collective result was spirited and moving, particularly seeing so many teenagers in the age of TikTok spending their Monday night belting Vivaldi. One also marveled at the enormous logistical effort of getting 150 high school students from all over the city to a downtown venue on a school night, singing with poise and vigor under Kraemer’s direction. Wikman would have been proud.

The formal program featured three Vivaldi sacred works, the Kyrie in G Minor (RV 587), the Credo in E Minor (RV 591), and the aforementioned Gloria in D Major (RV 589). The Kyrie came first and found the MOB Chorus at their considerable finest, as they were throughout the evening with director Andrew Megill’s preparation. Scored for double chorus, the Kyrie makes abundant use of antiphonal contrapuntal techniques, which the men and women navigated deftly. Kraemer emphasized the mournful sighing of the descending gestures that open the work, and drew incisive playing from the double string orchestra in the fugal conclusion.

Kraemer introduced the Credo with the purely instrumental Sinfonia in B Minor (al Santo Sepolcro), RV 169, where he emphasized the close dissonances and wandering counterpoint to the intended sorrowful effect. The Chorus was impressively unified throughout the ensuing Credo, with Kraemer injecting suspense and contrast in the fast outer movements. The slow inner ones—“Et incarnatus est” and “Crucifixus”—offered a further education in the variety of ways Vivaldi captures spiritual mourning.

The well-known Gloria closed the evening in grand fashion. Chorus sopranos Susan Nelson and Nathalie Colas sang the “Laudamus te” duet with fluent grace, with Colas also giving refined solo treatment to the “Domine Deus,” adorned with a piquant oboe obbligato from Anne Bach. Alto Margaret Fox sang with burnished timbre and fluent lines in her two arias. It was a testament to the strength of the MOB Chorus that soloists of this caliber can simply be drawn from their ranks. The collective effort matched the sophistication of the solo turns, jubilantly ending the night with the final “Cum Sancto Spiritu.”

Two instrumental concertos filled out the program. Brandon Acker, YouTube star and presiding dean of the Chicago theorbo scene, was the soloist in the Concerto for Lute in D Major (RV 93). The most pressing challenge with any concerto for a plucked instrument is balance, and this was met with mixed success Monday night. Despite a supporting cast of just two violins, a single cello, and harpsichord, Acker and his 14-string archlute were often buried in the bookending Allegros. Acker was able to find some poetry in the luminous central aria, but even here the soloist had difficulty standing out in relief from the supporting textures.

Three MOB violinists were the soloists in the Concerto for Three Violins in F Major (RV 551) to open the second half. Gina DiBello, Kathleen Brauer, and Kevin Case made a stylish solo trio, playing responsively among each other and committedly leaning into Vivaldi’s virtuosic writing.

The Andante made a haunting impression, with DiBello playing hushed rapid-fire arpeggios and Brauer a pizzicato accompaniment, over which Case spun a graceful, reflective melody. Here the orchestral accompaniment was far less obtrusive, the violinists’ modern instruments easily soaring over the orchestra.

Music of the Baroque’s next concerts are 7:30 p.m. Sunday November 19 at Skokie’s North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, and Monday November 20 at the Harris Theater. Dame Jane Glover leads Handel’s Water Music Suite No. 3, the Hummel Bassoon Concerto with soloist William Buchman, Bologne’s Symphony No. 2, Mozart’s Horn Concerto No. 4 with soloist Oto Carrillo, and Haydn’s Symphony No. 96 “Miracle.”