Music of the Baroque serves up joyous Handel, valedictory Mozart in season opener

By Lawrence A. Johnson, Chicago Classical Review
September 16, 2018

It’s ironic that Mozart’s darkest work continues to be prime box-office bait for Music of the Baroque. The ensemble opened its 48th season Saturday night at the Harris Theater with Jane Glover leading the MOB Chorus and Orchestra in Mozart’s Requiem, performed to a sold-out house. The program will be repeated this afternoon in Skokie.

While always a concert mainstay, Mozart’s final work became hugely popularized two decades via the tarted-up drama of Peter Shaffer’s play Amadeus and the subsequent 1984 film. Yet its pop-culture manifestations apart, Mozart’s unfinished Requiem remains one of his finest works. The composer draws on Handel models to create a setting of the Latin mass for the dead of remarkable power, variety and beauty, the bleak journey of darkness ultimately reaching a luminous transcendence.

Mozart in general and the Requiem in particular have been touchstones for Glover in her fifteen seasons as music director of the Music of the Baroque. As previously, Glover opted for the traditional Süssmayr completion; the 26-member chorus provided ample breadth and punch for the Requiem’s gaunt drama.

If the opening section could have used more dramatic bite, it was good to have the basset horns Mozart scored the music for rather than clarinets. Their unique dolorous sound—along with the bassoons–began the dramatic journey on an aptly atmospheric note.
The performance soon got on track, with the performance unfolding with an inevitable-seeming flow and cohesion—remarkably so considering the bifurcated authorship of the score. Chorus and orchestra put across the violent intensity of the “Dies Irae” and massed power of the “Rex Tremendae” with daunting intensity as surely as their yielding, balm-like solace in the “Benedictus.”
Four excellent singers made up the vocal quartet. Daniela Mack brought a lustrous mezzo-soprano and focused expression to her solos in the “Recordare” and elsewhere. Soprano Amanda Majeski sang with rich tone and purity though her enunciation and engagement with the text were more generalized.

The tenor has the least to do of the soloists but Jonas Hacker filled his assignment in worthy and dedicated fashion.

It was luxury casting indeed to have Eric Owens anchoring the low end of the quartet. The bass-baritone brought instant authority to the proceedings with his sonorous gravitas in the opening of the “Tuba mirum,” All four singers were at their finest in the well-blended quartet sections, Mack and Owens especially so in the “Benedictus.”

The MOB Chorus, under chorus director William Jon Gray, brought customary strength and sensitivity to the score’s myriad challenges throughout. Less consistent was the ensemble’s enunciation of the text. A persistent cloudiness in diction recurred throughout the choral sections, from the sopranos and mezzos especially, with words too often indecipherable.

Unlike the bleak introspection that predominates in Mozart’s swan song, the first half of the program centered on joyous, major-key ebullience with three of Handel’s Coronation Anthems. Composed in 1727 for the coronation of George II, these choral works show Handel in his most public and ceremonial style.

The festive music proved aptly suited for kicking off a new music season. Glover’s direction was just as sure and idiomatic as in the Requiem, and the performances even finer, with the conductor acutely balancing the chorus and orchestra throughout.

Glover’s dexterous handling of “Zadok the Priest” showed her Handelian bona fides. MOB’s music director built the anticipation of the hushed string opening until the celebrated entrance of the chorus, which was majestic and full-blooded without being overblown or out of scale.

So too, the outer moments of “The King Shall Rejoice” went with rousing choral singing and orchestral playing spiced by MOB’s brilliant trumpets. Yet in these Anthems as well, clarity of words was a sometime thing Saturday.

Though less flashy in its effects, “My heart is inditing” was equally striking. In this more lightly scored Anthem, Glover consistently underlined the ingenuity of Handel’s string writing, which was tossed off with considerable verve and panache by the MOB musicians.