Music of the Baroque opens season with a rare Handel “Feast”

By Lawrence A. Johnson, Chicago Classical Review
October 25, 2016

Handel was nothing if not a practical businessman. When the taste for Italian opera began to wane in 1730s London, the composer–noting the popularity of John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera–turned to works written in the vernacular.

Among these was Alexander’s Feast, which gave Handel one of his great successes and hastened his move toward English oratorios. Handel’s ode to “The Pow’r of Musick” was the sole work on Music of the Baroque’s season-opening program, led by conductor Nicholas Kraemer Monday night at the Harris Theater.

John Dryden’s text depicts a grand fete by Alexander the Great celebrating his victory over Persia. Rather than emphasizing the musician Timotheus’ wily control of Alexander, Handel takes the conqueror’s battlefield success at face value and concludes with a paean to St. Cecilia, contrasting the pagan art of Timotheus with the new “sacred” music to come.

Though it doesn’t quite possess the inspiration of Handel’s most indelible choral works, Alexander’s Feast is full of attractive music in the composer’s characteristic vein of stirring choruses and varied arias for the four soloists.

Kraemer has a most engaging Handel style. With MOB’s principal guest conductor directing from the harpsichord, tempos were lively but never breathless, with lithe, springy rhythms throughout. Kramer’s balancing of the large forces was impeccable, with solo singers always audible against the chorus and orchestra, and the numerous obbligato instrumental contributions by horns, cello and recorders all nicely spotlit.

The vocal quartet proved rather uneven Monday night. Soprano Ruby Hughes was a theatrical presence, swaying to the music in “The Prince, unable to conceal his pain.” She conveyed the tragic expression of “He sung Darius, great and good” yet Hughes proved fitfully unsteady with a somewhat unsettled technique. Bizarrely, the most celebrated music in the entire work, the soprano aria, “With ravish’d ears” was not performed Monday night.

Levi Hernandez’s baritone sounded decidedly light in the bass arias and he didn’t seem entirely comfortable with Handel style in “Bacchus, ever fair and young.” He showed greater polish and agility in an impassioned rendition of “Revenge, Timotheus cries,” though Barbara Butler’s spectacular, high-flying trumpet playing rather stole the show.

Amanda Koopman stepped out from the chorus to handle the brief mezzo solos admirably.

The evening’s finest vocal moments were delivered by MOB’s reigning house tenor Thomas Cooley, who sang with sweet tone, vibrant engagement, and superb Baroque style. He brought a wide range of expressive coloring to his recitatives and arias, including two soprano items (“Softly sweet, in Lydian measures” and “War, he sung, is toil and trouble”) reassigned to him.

Urtext fidelity was more evident with Handel’s Harp Concerto in B-flat major, inserted into the score where it was performed at the premiere. Though the concerto stops the narrative flow just four numbers in, soloist Marguerite Lynn Williams’ elegant, lightly spun playing provided consistent pleasure. Kraemer elicited comparable, feather-light delicacy in his accompaniment.

In her first appearance as MOB’s concertmaster, Gina DiBello was a fluent and capable leader, a couple brief string ensemble lapses apart.

Chorus director William Jon Gray joined his bass section Monday night. There were some early entrances but overall the choral singing was consistently inspired–dark-hued and expressive in minor-key items, while bringing vitality and majestic vocalism to “The many rend the skies” and “Let old Timotheus yield the prize.”

Jane Glover conducts Music of the Baroque in a Bach Family program November 20 and 22.; 312-551-1414.