Review: Music of the Baroque brings Vivaldi to Life with the Help of Strong Voices

By Louis Harris, Third Coast Review
October 17, 2023

Music of the Baroque Orchestra and Chorus gave a wonderful performance of music by Antonio Vivaldi at Harris Theater on Monday night. In a program entitled Viva Vivaldi, MOB, under the direction of Nicholas Kraemer, offered a lengthy program of vocal and instrumental music that really seemed to bring Vivaldi to life. MOB Chorus is directed by Andrew Megill.

The night was tinged in sadness with the passing last week of Thomas Wikman, who founded MOB over 50 years ago. It was quite a coincidence that the program featured many minor-keyed hymns that one would normally find in a requiem, something that Vivaldi never wrote in its entirety.

But it opened with unexpected joy, as 200 singers from seven local high schools lined the auditorium’s stage and aisles to sing the opening of Vivaldi’s Gloria in excelsis Deo, first with organ backup and then with the orchestra and chorus. These singers were from Strong Voices, an arts education program Music of the Baroque has been offering students from local high schools for 40 years. Wearing a bright pink t-shirt, Kraemer led a beautiful, aural display of music magic.

Vivaldi, a contemporary of Johann Sebastian Bach, relied on the counterpoint musical practices fashionable at that time. While using most of the same instruments found in Bach, Vivaldi also used the lute, a medieval, plucked string instrument that was a precursor to the guitar. In addition to making a melody, a lute was used with harpsichord, organ, and lower toned instruments for continuo background.

Brandon Acker used a large instrument known as an archlute, which had 14 pairs of strings. From the first work of the evening, the archlute made its presence felt, offering plucked background in Vivaldi’s Kyrie in g-minor, RV 587. This piece featured the full string orchestra and double choir, which produced a loud, mournful chords to start the opening Adagio. The choirs soon joined the sound to create a moving aura. With the choirs in perfect sync with the instruments, it established the excellent, note-perfect sound that characterized the entire evening.

Up next was Acker performing a Concerto for Lute in D-major, RV 93. Backing him up was a quartet formed by violinists Gina DiBello and Sharon Prolifrone, cellist Mara McClain, and Kraemer on harpsichord. Not having explored the work of Vivaldi all that much, I was thrilled to hear a piece I recognized, although usually performed on guitar. Acker offered a full demo of how this work can sound if performed as written with a lute. His sound meshed perfectly with the backing quartet and the effect was magnetic. The violins shaded the plucking well, and the precision was pervasive.

The first half ended with another set of hymns typically found in a requiem, Credo in e-minor, RV 591. This was introduced by the instrumental work, Sinfonia in b-minor (al Santo Sepolcro) RV 169. This program worked well, as the Sinfonia, with its gradual increase in volume, has all the feeling of an introduction to a larger work. When the four-movement Credo sprang forth, it was a great contrast. The orchestra continued its excellent interaction with the choir.

One MOB practice I admire is a verbal explanation of the work before it’s performed. The program notes were excellent, but Kraemer’s explanation added more context.

After intermission the evening’s magic continued with another Vivaldi concerto, this one for Three Violins in F-major, RV 551. DiBello was joined by Kathleen Brauer and Kevin Case with the backing of the strings, archlute, and organ. The interactions between the soloists and the orchestra were perfect. It was especially great when DiBello and Brauer play fast runs with a dainty touch, something I have never heard before. It was also great to hear Case playing the melody, with the backing of Brauer’s pizzicato and DeBello’s bowed arpeggios.

The evening ended as it started, with Vivaldi’s Gloria. This work included a bassoon, oboe, and trumpet. It really allowed MOB to show off marvelous blend, great interaction between the players and chorus, and precision in phrasing and intonation. Sopranos Susan Nelson and Nathalie Colas formed a duo in Laudamus te. Colas also sang solo in Domine Deus, Rex coelestis. Alto Margaret Fox sang Domine Deus, Agnus Dei and Qui sedes ad dexteram Patris. The strength of the singing was superb

On the whole, it was an excellent program. Tonight, MOB Orchestra will be offering a program of instrumental music, Vivaldi in Austin at the Kehrein Center for the Arts in Austin, 5628 West Washington St, Chicago, Tuesday, October 17, 2023, 7:30 pm. It will include a flute concerto and a concerto for strings and basso continuo.