Music of the Baroque finale reflects a pandemic season with progress from darkness to light

By Lawrence A. Johnson, Chicago Classical Review
June 07, 2021

No one can say that Music of the Baroque hasn’t been attuned to the ever-evolving circumstances of this pandemic season. The organization shifted to a streaming series and revised its programs no less than four times to meet changing public health strictures.

Dame Jane Glover had hoped to present a program of sacred choral music for MOB’s final concert of the season. And while things are looking very positive indeed for a return to normalcy, it’s still a bit too early for a full chorus to take the virtual stage.

Instead, a pair of Bach solo cantatas, well chosen for the occasion, made up MOB’s season finale, live-streamed Sunday afternoon from Saints Faith, Hope and Charity Church in Winnetka.

If the capable soloists didn’t quite mine the expressive potential of either main work, one appreciated how the arduous past year was reflected in the cantatas’ movement from darkness to light, ruminations on mortality to spiritual rejoicing.

Michael Sumuel was the soloist in Cantata No. 82 “Ich habe genug” (I have enough). The somber text longs for death and a release from the pain and shackles of earthly life in music so inviting and beautiful it can make the listener want to jump into his grave.

Sumuel’s warm and weighty bass-baritone was well suited to this consolatory music. The singer handled the cantata’s three arias with sensitivity and mostly worthy agility even with his capacious voice (stretched at times in the quickish final aria). He brought simple dedication to the opening title aria, heightened by Anne Bach’s graceful obbligato oboe.

Sumuel’s vocals were a bit generalized and this young artist’s performance would have benefited from a more varied and nuanced response to the text—especially in the celebrated central aria “Schlummert ein, ihr matten Augen” (Sleep, my weary eyes).

And so from the release of death to uninhibited religious joy in Bach’s Cantata No. 51 “Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen!” (Acclaim God in every land!). As in Cantata 82, Glover’s direction was exemplary, with fine detailing and contrasts neatly pointed between the rejoicing and more inward sections.

Yulia van Doren has been a regular MOB soloist for many years. The soprano sang with flexibility and handled the coloratura passages admirably with pure tone.

Still, this performance did not show van Doren at her best. Phrases were short-breathed in the slower arias and the soprano’s words were often indecipherable. Most crucially, the singer’s expressive blandness kept the performance earthbound.

The soloist sounded especially detached compared to the fire and dedication of the MOB musicians. That applied, especially, to Kevin Case’s vigorous violin obbligato and the gleaming brilliance of Barbara Butler’s dazzling trumpet playing, which truly conveyed the requisite spiritual exaltation.

Both cantatas were preceded by brief instrumental works of Henry Purcell. His In Nomine for six and seven parts respectively are quietly ingenious works, developing contrapuntal voicing and wide-ranging harmonies from the theme’s cantus firmus. While some of the monastic flavor of the original scoring for viols (violas de gamba) is sacrificed with higher-voiced strings, the alert and sensitive playing of MOB’s front desk musicians nicely set the contemplative mood for the Bach cantatas that followed.

The short streamed program was filled out with expansive video commentary by Glover, including an introduction, tribute to a recently deceased donor, musical program notes and a lengthy preview of MOB’s 2021-22 season.

This stream will be available June 9 through July 9.

Music of the Baroque opens its 51st season September 19-20. Jane Glover will conduct a program featuring Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks, Water Music (Suite No. 2), and Concerto a due cori No. 1, Telemann’s Concerto for Three Trumpets, and the world premiere of Stacy Garrop’s Spectacle of Light.