Music of the Baroque opens 50th anniversary season with polished and familiar Vivaldi

By Lawrence A. Johnson, Chicago Classical Review
January 25, 2021

One has to give Music of the Baroque credit for perseverance in handling the myriad challenges of this Covid-19 era.
The venerable Chicago organization announced its 2020-21 season last February. Due to the evolving circumstances of the spreading pandemic, the schedule was revised in August and then again in November.

The final iteration of MOB’s 50th anniversary season opened Sunday night in a live-streamed performance of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons. And while the concert hardly struck new ground for programming ingenuity, the fact that a chamber orchestra was performing live at all was something to be thankful for.

MOB’s thrice-revised season is based on hope and guarded optimism as much as close monitoring of the mutable public health situation. Six live-streamed programs will be presented each month from January through June with the on-stage forces growing from chamber dimensions to full orchestra and chorus in the final program. MOB is hoping to invite live audiences to attend in May and June.

In her first local appearance since Queen Elizabeth II named MOB’s music director a Dame Commander of the English Empire, Dame Jane Glover introduced the evening. Speaking from the handsome music library at her London home, Glover said she was relieved that her colleagues were able to open the 50th anniversary season “at last,” albeit without her on the podium. She added that she hoped to return to Chicago as scheduled to conduct the March program. (Sadly, that now seems less likely due to the reinstated travel ban on the UK and rest of Europe.)

It shows how desperate we are for live “orchestral” music, that even a streamed live concert of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons provides reason for some optimism.

Concertmaster Gina DiBello performed Vivaldi’s inescapable quartet of isochronal violin concertos with her MOB colleagues two years ago at a subscription concert and again last fall. But considering the continuing challenges of presenting music for larger forces, one can’t fault management for going to that populist, strings-only well once again for this event, presented from the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie.

A new wrinkle was provided with baritone Christopher Kenney reading the brief stanzas Vivaldi appended to the score. The repetition of “The first movement,” “The second movement,” etc., could have been dispensed with; that apart, the Ryan Opera Center alumnus brought a nice mix of relaxed authority and natural eloquence to his assignment—especially so in his reading of Henry Austin Dobson “A Song of the Four Seasons,” which opened the evening.

It would be optimistic to expect something revelatory from Vivaldi’s clever yet overplayed Four Seasons at this point. If there were fleeting passages that verged on the routine, DiBello and her eight colleagues provided a polished and enjoyable performance. The fact that they managed to do so while heavily masked and socially distanced made it still more impressive.

Acting as director as well as soloist, DiBello’s tempos were well-chosen if hewing to the cautious side for some of the fiery solos in the finales of “Autumn” and “Winter.” Even with the distancing, the ensemble was largely well balanced except for “Winter” where little was made of Vivaldi’s scoring subtleties depicting ice and snow.

DiBello, a member of the CSO’s first violin section, brought due brilliance to most of her opportunities and her pure and silvery tone always fell gratefully on the ear. If not the most individual account, her technical command was never in doubt and one appreciated the occasional bit of grain adding some edge. DiBello added a few small embellishments to the solo line though usually in a way that didn’t distract. Her poised and spacious cadenza in the finale of “Spring” was among the highlights.

First among equals in the ensemble were Kathleen Brauer as concertmaster du jour and Mark Shuldiner, whose superb harpsichord work was especially inspired in “Autumn”.

The transmission and direction were exemplary with zero technical issues and the camera always where it needed to be.