Music of the Baroque Served Bach With Italian Seasoning, Peppered With Virtuoso Standouts

By Bob Benenson, Third Coast Review
November 27, 2019

Music of the Baroque delivered an appropriately tasty concert to kick off Thanksgiving week. The November 25 performance at the Harris Theater had the self-explanatory title of Bach and the Italians, with two pieces by Johann Sebastian Bach and one each from four of his Italian contemporaries in the Baroque style. The concert enabled some of the troupe’s leading performers to step out from the ensemble to the front of the stage.

Breezily conducted and narrated by Nicholas Kraemer — who spent much of the time joining in on the harpsichord — the concert provided variety and multiple virtuoso opportunities by leaning on shorter pieces. The program pivoted on Bach’s affection for the music of Italian composers of his day, particularly Antonio Vivaldi. According to the program notes, “Bach arranged nine of Vivaldi’s concertos for organ or harpsichord with orchestra, and came to rely heavily on his model for the opening and slow movements of his efforts in the genre.”

A small orchestra of fewer than 20 musicians, most of them violinists, opened the program with two brisk pieces by Domenico Scarlatti, his Sinfonia No. 3 in G-major and Sinfonia No. 13 in B-flat-major. Gina DiBello, a familiar figure as Music of the Baroque’s concertmaster, led the rapid-fire string passages, then took the first of two star turns on Bach’s Concerto for 3 Violins in C-major. The piece allowed DiBello, co-assistant concertmaster Kathleen Brauer and principal second violin Sharon Polifrone ample solo passages in which they shone.
Kraemer had explained that the piece was originally written for three harpsichords, adding that, as an expert on the instrument, he could say that “one harpsichord is entirely sufficient.”

The first half of the concert closed with a piece that gave a rare spotlight to the oboe, a woodwind that both emerged and gained its greatest prominence as a featured instrument during the Baroque period. Oboist Anne Bach captivated the audience, mastering Alessandro Marcello’s three-movement Concerto for Oboe in d-minor, S D935 — no small challenge given how winding that instrument can be to play. Curiously, it was the only appearance of an oboe during the concert, as the only woodwind in the ensemble was a bassoon.

Vivaldi made his appearance after the intermission with his Concerto for 2 Trumpets in C-major, RV 537, with trumpeters Barbara Butler and Charles Guyer taking center stage. Like the harpsichord, the sound of trumpets rings with historic resonance of the era. You almost expected a retinue of robed royals to come striding down the aisles.

Francesco Geminiani’s Concerto grosso in g-minor, op. 3, no. 2 provided Kraemer with an opportunity to introduce Daniel Swenberg, a presence throughout the concert with his theorbo, a stringed instrument that looks rather like a lute on steroids. Despite its size, the theorbo has a rather genteel sound, somewhat resembling the harpsichord in the lower strings and a guitar or lute in the upper strings.

The delightful and fast-moving concert concluded with Bach’s Concerto for 2 Violins in d-minor, BWV 1042, with DiBello again ably taking the lead along with Kevin Case, the troupe’s other co-assistant concertmaster. The piece was preceded by Kraemer’s warm tribute to cellist Barbara Haffner, a 42-year member of Music of the Baroque. Kraemer praised Haffner as a “pillar of consistency and solidarity,” who performed with “consummate ease.”

Music of the Baroque takes a break from the Harris Theater to perform its Holiday Brass & Choral Concerts, on December 19 at Grace Lutheran Church in River Forest, December 20 at St. Michael’s Church in Chicago’s Old Town neighborhood, and December 21 and 22 at Divine Word Chapel in Northbrook.