Music of the Baroque provides a winning night of Bach and Handel “Italian” style

By Lawrence A. Johnson, Chicago Classical Review
April 23, 2014

Much like James Taylor, Music of the Baroque’s spring Bach-Handel program has seen fire and rain.

The program’s March performance at the Harris Theater was cancelled due to an electrical fire at the downtown venue. Monday’s rescheduled event took place on a drizzly gray night.

The music-making inside the Harris was notably vibrant and rewarding, however, with Nicholas Kraemer leading from the harpsichord in a deft mixture of familiar works and rarities spotlighting two vocal works set in Italian by Bach and Handel.

The major work of the evening was Handel’s Apollo e Dafne, one of several Italian cantatas written in his early years in Rome for private performances. Apollo was presented in a condensed version edited by Kraemer, which dispenses with some of Dafne’s music for a tauter structure dominated by Apollo.The slight dramaturgy relates the tale of the god Apollo who pursues the nymph Dafne only to be rejected by her. Apollo ultimately traps her; Dafne’s prayers for deliverance are answered and she is transformed into a laurel tree, watered by the tears of the lamenting Apollo.

The scenario’s Classical absurdities aside, Apollo e Dafne contains much inspired music, and Monday night delivered a superb performance by the two soloists and orchestra under the alert direction of Kraemer,who also supplied a characteristically breezy and witty introduction.

With some laurel in her hair Yulia van Doren was a worthy Dafne singing with a bright tone and gamely resisting the advances of Apollo.

But Philip Cutlip as Apollo stole the show and the evening. His baritone is a bit dry and hoary but Cutlip entered the role with such uninhibited theatrical panache that any vocal quibbles were instantly swept aside. Cutlip’s full-blooded characterization offered a virtual seminar in making stiff Baroque archetypes come to fizzing life, the singer even searching for the elusive Dafne among the orchestra’s ranks.

Cutlip segued from boastful frat boy in his opening aria (“Spezza l’arco e getta l’armi”), to being enamored by the sound of Dafne’s voice, to half-crazed romantic frenzy in the rapid-fire Gilbert and Sullivan-like duet, “Una guerra ho denttro il seno.” The baritone sang the devastated Apollo’s melancholy final aria, “Cara pianta, co’ miei pianti,” with great depth of feeling. Kraemer and the orchestra supplied idiomatic and flexible support with Robert Morgan floating lovely obbligato oboe solos.

Italian was Handel’s preferred language for his vocal music, while, despite the strong influence of Italian style, it was rarely set by Bach. His Cantata No. 209, “Non sa che sia dolore” is one of Bach’s “pastiche” secular works set in Italian on a theme dealing with the departure of a close friend, clearly a personal occasion of some sort, now lost to history.

With an opening Sinfonia and two arias, the work is substantial enough. Yulia van Doren has a bright top but her soprano tends to fade in middle and low registers. Still, apart from some insecurity in the light coloratura of the concluding aria, she sang it with agility and commitment, though at times one would have liked a more varied response to the text.

Cantata 209 is as much a showpiece for flute as voice, possibly reworked from a lost Bach flute concerto. The instrumental line is almost constant throughout and Mary Stolper was a wonderfully agile and seamless soloist dispatching the graceful flute obbligato without even the slightest hint of breathlessness.

Concertmaster Robert Waters was the evening’s official solo protagonist in Bach’s Violin Concerto No. 1. If his musicianly playing was a bit too deferential in the opening movement, Waters tastefully brought out the rapt lyricism of the Andante with subtly hued phrasing and dynamics and projected a bolder, more incisive tone in the bustling finale.

The evening led off in engaging fashion with Handel’s Concerto grosso in B flat major, Op. 3, no. 2. Kraemer brings a zest and exuberance to even the most familiar works and the reading was delightful, deftly balanced and rhythms pointed with lilting flair. A brief pitchy moment from the cellos in the Largo apart, the ensemble brought due verve and style to the music with especially fine playing from oboist Morgan and bassoonist William Buchman.

Nicholas Kraemer will conduct Music of the Baroque’s final program of the season May 18 and 19. The program contains Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks, along with works of Purcell, Vivaldi, C.P.E. Bach and Rameau.; 312-551-1414.