Music of the Baroque wraps season powerfully with war-inspired works

By Lawrence A. Johnson, Chicago Classical Review
May 19, 2015

War closed Music of the Baroque’s season Monday night at the Harris Theater. Or at least, a program with two varied compositions reflecting the impact of war by Handel and Haydn—a largely celebratory work marking victory in battle set against a mass painting the tragedy of armed conflict amid the pomp and flourishes.

In her introductory remarks, Jane Glover provided insightful historical background, noting the constant presence of war throughout the 18th century and each composer’s personal response to it.

The battle commemorated by Handel’s Te Deum for the Victory of Dettingen is now largely forgotten, but the event provided inspiration for one of Handel’s most engaging if infrequently performed works. The Te Deum is a big piece, scored for four soloists, chorus and spanning 40 minutes and 14 sections. While there is indeed much rousing music for chorus and brass, there are also telling contrasts in more inward and spiritual sections.

Baritone Roderick Williams was the most prominent presence among the quartet and the most consistently impressive, singing with warm tone, agility and easy authority. In the penultimate section, “Vouchsafe, o Lord,” he brought a wonderful even line and natural eloquence to the text’s plea for mercy. Soprano Sarah Gartshore, countertenor Ryan Belongie and tenor Zach Finkelstein performed capably in their brief solo moments.

Glover and her forces provided quite stellar advocacy. The conductor finely pointed details and scoring felicities amid the brass and timpani clamor. It was great to have Robert Waters back as concertmaster, leading exceptionally vital and dynamic string playing as well.

Prepared by William Jon Gray, the MOB Chorus was exceptional Monday night singing with imposing strength and polish across all sections. Sections 10-12 are as inspiring as anything Handel ever wrote and the ensemble provided the spiritual urgency of the more restrained sections as fully as the militaristic ballyhoo.

Haydn wrote his Mass in Time of War (Paukenmesse) when Napoleon’s troops were at the gates of Vienna. The elderly composer’s agitation is jarringly depicted at the start of the Agnus Dei finale with the insistent tapping of the timpani like an ominous knocking at the door.

Much of Haydn’s mass is scored with requisite brilliance and the orchestra under Glover delivered consistently lively and exhilarating playing. Even by their usual standard, the clarion trumpet work of Barbara Butler, Charles Geyer and Channing Philbrick was simply spectacular.

The quartet singing (mezzo-soprano Kathryn Leemhuis replacing Belongie) was much more consistent with Gartshore soaring in the high tessitura. Williams was once again outstanding, with especially sensitive singing (with chorus) at the start of the Credo.

But it was the MOB Chorus’s night and their corporate vocalism served up some of their finest work of recent seasons. The singers handled Glover’s challengingly fast tempos and brought due fervor and polished brilliance to the rejoicing of the Et resurrexit and Dona nobis pacem finale.

Music of the Baroque opens its 45th season October 18 and 19 with Nicholas Kraemer leading an all-Bach program.; 312-551-1414.