Music of the Baroque revisits Telemann's ‘Judgment’

By Alan Artner, Chicago Tribune
May 16, 2017

Music of the Baroque observed the 250th anniversary of the death of Georg Philipp Telemann on Monday night with its season-closing performance of his “The Day of Judgment” at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance.

The group gave the oratorio its Chicago premiere nearly 40 years ago and made one of its earliest recordings. As it turned out, Karen Fishman, who is retiring next month after 18 years as MOB's executive director, attended that premiere, so the organization dedicated its revival of the work to her. In making the dedication, conductor Jane Glover playfully noted Fishman's “ironic sense of humor” in choosing “to leave us at the Day of Judgment.”

The performance, obviously prepared with spirit and care, successfully carried listeners through a score of as many weaknesses as strengths.

Chief among the weaknesses is the text, which is full of conventional piety that the music illustrates less than profoundly. Four “contemplations” offer dialogues among four vocal soloists that move from announcing the central event to the day itself and a giving of thanks. This is accomplished in 34 short musical numbers, including arias, ariosos, choruses, recitatives and chorales. The full trajectory, lasting about 80 minutes, has plenty of opportunity for picturesque imagery, though much of it is as comfortable as the writing for voice is bland.

The most consistently strong contributions Monday were from William Jon Gray's chorus, which numbered 27 members who produced a large body of tone that softened enunciation but had considerable dramatic force. This was abetted by many fine moments from the orchestra, including a solemn overture, agitated strings representing thunder, the moment of judgment itself (from horns) and felicitous exchanges of two violins from across the stage. Additionally, extended passages for oboe, bassoon and viola da gamba gave diverse shades of color.

Contributions from the vocalists were less consistent, in large part because of the different levels of characterization in the text. The tenor roles—The Mocker, Faith, Disbelief, One of the Blessed—provide great opportunity for outsized portrayal, and Thomas Cooley made the most of them. But the texts for soprano, mezzo-soprano and baritone are nowhere as individual or outgoing, with the result that Ying Fang, Krisztina Szabó and Roderick Williams usually made beautiful sounds that proved pale as agents in the drama. Baritone Williams receded less than did the women, whose texts prompted none of the theatricality allowed the tenor, with the result that one occasionally—unjustly—wanted Cooley reined in to give better expressive balance.

Glover conducted with urgency as well as accompanied recitatives on harpsichord. Everywhere her tempos were convincing, giving tautness where sometimes the words let us down.
During the final ovation, Fishman, too, appeared onstage, accepting flowers, hugs and whoops from a grateful audience.