Music of the Baroque wraps season with an exhilarating “Day of Judgment”

By Lawrence A. Johnson, Chicago Classical Review
May 16, 2017

Jane Glover began Music of the Baroque’s final concert of the season by saying that, while such events amount to a semi-colon before returning in the fall, in one way this marked a full stop.
Karen Fishman is retiring after 18 years as MOB executive director and Monday night’s concert at the Harris Theater was the last under her leadership. Glover gave a heartfelt and touching tribute to her out-going colleague, dedicating the evening’s performance to her and wryly noting the irony that Fishman’s last program was an oratorio titled The Day of Judgment.

Georg Philip Telemann was an accomplished and prolific composer who wrote with facility in all genres. Set against the giants of the Baroque era, Bach and Handel, Telemann’s music can seem a bit pallid, skillful and polished but lacking melodic indelibility and individual distinction.

Still, at his finest Telemann could rise to striking heights of inspiration and such is certainly the case with his oratorio, Der Tag des Gerichts or The Day of Judgment, performed by MOB Monday night.

Music of the Baroque has only performed Telemann’s oratorio once, 25 years ago–a respectable rendering with fine choral singing, later issued on recording.

But the performance heard Monday night was in a different universe altogether. As is often the case when Glover directs large works that need an extra bit of advocacy, MOB’s music director was at her finest, drawing an exuberant, often thrilling performance that showed Telemann’s oratorio in a fresh light.
The 90-minute work is cast in four “Contemplations,” painting the spiritual conflict between Christian believers and heretics, in which the joys of heaven are contrasted with the not-so joys of disbelief and, ultimately, hell. Jesus only drops in for a brief cameo while the four soloists take on an array of symbolic roles, including Disbelief, The Mocker, Devotion, Faith, etc. Choruses have an alacrity and bravura panache that one could almost mistake for Handel.

Under Glover’s direction, the solo and choral singing were put across with blazing intensity, bringing vivid, operatic drama to a texty score that can often seem rather stiff and didactic.
The performance was aided immensely by a quartet of superb soloists. Baritone Roderick Williams, a MOB mainstay, got the evening off to a lively and arresting start as Disbelief—laughing loudly at the possibility of a Day of Judgment in his opening recitative and wielding his dark baritone with authority in the florid aria “Fürchtet nur.” Williams showed his versatility in his later, highly different manifestations as Devotion and Jesus.
Krisztina Szabó was just as characterful in her various roles–as Reason cutting off Williams’ Disbelief in mid-sentence to admonish him (a nice touch by Telemann)–and bringing a rich mezzo tone and confident spirituality to her arias.

Thomas Cooley sounded slightly stretched in the highest tessitura but proved vivid as the insinuating, unctuous Mocker. (Was Wagner’s Loge influenced by Telemann’s trickster role for tenor?) Cooley was an equally mutable soloist as an admonitory Faith and more serene One of the Blessed, his sensitive Arioso as the latter, nicely supported by Anna Steinhoff’s obbligato viola da gamba.

Soprano Ying Fang sang prettily with apt luminous tone in her various celestial assignments (Religion, Faith, Third Blessed Spirit) but sounded somewhat generalized in expression next to her colleagues.

The orchestra played with fizzing vitality and polish across all sections, a couple oboe lapses apart. The whirling violins that open the chorus of the Second Contemplation were dazzling in their speed and accuracy. Trumpeters Charles Geyer and Barbara Butler performed in MOB’s last Day of Judgment in 1992, and 25 years on their playing was just as brilliant and exhilarating.
Prepared by William Jon Gray, the MOB Chorus excelled even by their high standard from the majestic opening chorus (“Der Herr kommt”), to their self-pitying blasphemers (“Ach Hilfe! Weh uns!”) and ecstatic believers, soaring joyously in the final choruses.

One debit to Glover for the show-bizzy conceit of having the soloists stand and sing with the chorus in the final ensemble. Apart from that habitual add-on, the music director’s leadership was exemplary throughout. Telemann’s oratorio unfolded with faultless tempos, and seamless, organic momentum, arias and choruses put across with theatrical immediacy.

One could hardly imagine a better tribute to the out-going Karen Fishman than this stirring performance.

Jane Glover opens Music of the Baroque’s 2017-18 season with Mendelssohn’s oratorio Elijah, with soloists Eric Owens, Susannah Phillips, Elizabeth DeShong and William Burden. Performances are 7:30 p.m. September 16 at the Harris Theater and 7:30 p.m. September 17 at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie.; 312-551-1414.