Music of the Baroque wraps season with a bittersweet concerto feast

By Lawrence Johnson, Chicago Classical Review
May 24, 2016

Music of the Baroque closed its season Monday night at the Harris Theater with Nicholas Kraemer conducting the ensemble’s favored a piacere finale, spotlighting six orchestra members in a feast of sprightly concertos.

The evening had a bittersweet quality as well, marking the departure and final appearances of three of the orchestra’s key members: concertmaster Robert Waters, who is now based in Utah, and longtime principal oboe Robert Morgan and principal horn Jonathan Boen, both of whom are retiring from MOB.

For over three decades, Morgan has delivered first-class playing for Music of the Baroque and his performance of Vivaldi’s Oboe Concerto in D minor, RV 454 (originally for violin) made an apt swan song.

There was undeniable evidence of the march of time in the final Allegro, where the veteran oboist came to grief in one solo passage. But most of Morgan’s playing was polished and admirable, showcasing his bright tone and fluid articulation. The Largo was especially inspired with Morgan floating the theme’s long melody with a refined, even line.

Vivaldi’s Concerto for Two Horns received a nimble and stylish performance from Boen and Robert Johnson. The two soloists matched their phrasing and dynamics deftly in an elegant reading with the hunting motif of the finale thrown off with understated bravura. The horns are silent in the central Largo, a duet for two cellos that explores a surprising depth of tragedy, and was given dark eloquence by Barbara Haffner and Judy Stone.
Robert Waters, MOB’s excellent outgoing concertmaster had the majority of the solo moments Monday, though, oddly, the one work designated as a concerto for his instrument, gave him little to do.

Francesco Durante was that rarest of composers, a Neapolitan active in the early 18th century who wrote no operas. His Violin Concerto No. 8 is titled “La Pazzia” (The Madness), and indeed the music suggests a kind of unhinged quality. With its fragmented material, abrupt modulations, and rhythmic flips, the concerto sounds like a cross between C.P.E. Bach and Vivaldi on some bad drug.

Apart from a brief cadenza in the first movement, the violin soloist has no breakout moments (Waters sensibly elected to sit with the rest of the ensemble). Durante instead pits stormy music for the violins against a jarringly contrasted pastoral theme for two violas. With committed playing by all, the ebullient Kraemer made a fine case for this weirdness, incisively drawing out the humor and dislocations as he does so well with Haydn.

A triple concerto in all but name, Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 gave Waters more opportunities to shine, alongside flutist Mary Stolper and harpsichordist Mark Shuldiner. Waters displayed buoyant and vigorous playing and graceful partnership with Stolper in the middle movement. MOB’s usually reliable principal flute was more variable Monday, fitfully thin of tone and unsteady in the final movement.

Shuldiner had issues as well, not all of his own making. During the celebrated long harpsichord cadenza in the first movement–Bach virtually created the piano concerto with this music–a page with a clipped insert in Shuldiner’s score flipped over, obscuring his music. After Kevin Case’s stand partner drew his attention to the problem, the first violinist stood and steadied the score with his bow yet every time he let go, the page flipped over again. After the third time, Kraemer–unwisely stationed behind the soloists–walked to the front and held the pages steady through the end of the movement. Shuldiner showed poise during the crisis but seemed rattled afterward, making more than a few slips in his playing. Moral of the story: don’t use inserts on heavier bond paper than the page you’re attaching them to.
Two Telemann suites broke up the evening’s concerto emphasis nicely. The Overture in B minor has a more somber cast than the composer’s usual facile style. Kraemer underlined the wistful expression of the Chaconne as well as the dance movements, with the toe-tapping Courante set against the foot-stamping Gavotte.
In the Suite No. 1 from Telemann’s Tafelmusik, Kraemer also pointed the varied dance rhythms with spirit and skill, though Telemann’s stately blandness tends to pale when set next to Bach and Vivaldi.

With his charming introductions, Kraemer was a convivial host, conducting from the harpsichord with energy and lending discreet continuo support throughout.