Principals shine in the solo spotlight with MOB’s “Bach and the Italians”

By Tim Sawyier, Chicago Classical Review
November 26, 2019

Seven different members of Music of the Baroque took solo turns in front of their colleagues in a program dubbed “Bach and the Italians” Monday night at the Harris Theater. Under the direction of principal guest conductor Nicholas Kraemer, the survey of Baroque concertos was an opportunity to appreciate the depth of talent in the MOB ranks as the ensemble approaches its 50th anniversary next season.

After the evening opened with comely renditions from Kraemer and colleagues of two Scarlatti Sinfonias (Nos. 3 and 13), concertmaster Gina DiBello, co-assistant concertmaster Kathleen Brauer, and principal second Sharon Polifrone were first in the spotlight with Bach’s Concerto for Three Violins in C Major, BWV 1064. This work also exists as a concerto for three harpsichords (BWV 1056), but in prefatory remarks, Kraemer dismissed this other version as “nonsense,” citing how difficult it is to discern separate solo lines among three keyboard instruments.

While this may be the case, having three violin soloists supported by a string ensemble creates a different kind of problem rather than solving the too-many-harpsichords issue. Frequently, Monday night the three soloists’ lines became lost in the accompanying consort, and not only when playing the same material. When clearly in relief, however, the three women proved game virtuosi.

They made a wistful trio in the central Adagio, and the solo turns of the closing Allegro had an escalating sense of progression, culminating in DiBello’s quasi cadenza before the closing ritornello. Here, as throughout, Kraemer led affably from the continuo harpsichord, though this double duty may have limited his capacity to attend to balances.

Principal oboe Anne Bach followed as the lone protagonist in Alessandro Marcello’s Concerto for Oboe in D Minor. Her flexible, welcoming tone was well deployed in Marcello’s work, though at times her extensive ornamentation interfered with the overall sense of line. She floated the mournful aria of the famous Adagio with pathos in some of the finest playing of the evening, and Kraemer assuredly helmed the austere accompaniment.

Vivaldi’s Concerto for Two Trumpets in C Major, RB 537 followed intermission with MOB mainstays Barbara Butler and Charles Geyer at center stage. This is one of the few works Vivaldi wrote for brass instruments, and, while not the most convincing in his vast library of concertante scores, the solo pair made an excellent case for it. Butler and Geyer’s clarion timbres seemed to bounce off one another in the Venetian composer’s imitative passages, and the brisk technical writing was fluently dispatched.

After a game reading of Geminiani’s Concerto grosso in G Minor, Op. 3 no. 2, Kraemer made a significant announcement: MOB principal cellist Barbara Haffner is retiring following these performances after 42 years with the ensemble. Kraemer hailed her unwavering consistency and spoke of Haffner as “an extension of [his] left hand” since he assumed his role with MOB in 2002. She received warm and deserved applause for her decades of service to the ensemble.

The program closed with Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins in D Minor, BWV 1042, with DiBello back in the solo spotlight and joined by co-assistant concertmaster Kevin Case. The pair was fully in sync in the insistent contrapuntal outer movements, and the limpid Adagio was a highlight of the evening, with Case eloquently launching the violinists’ luminous winding dialogue.

Music of the Baroque next presents its annual Holiday Brass and Choral Concerts, conducted by Patrick Dupré Quigley. Performances are 8 p.m. December 19 at Grace Lutheran Church in River Forest; 8 p.m. December 20 at St. Michael’s Church; and 3 p.m. December 21 and 22 at Divine Word Chapel in Northbrook.