Review: Music of the Baroque Trumpets Return to Live by Illuminating Handel

By Bob Benenson, Third Coast Review
September 23, 2021

Music of the Baroque’s season-opening program virtually demanded celebratory music. The concerts on Sunday at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie and Monday at the Harris Theater were the first indoor live performances for the company in nearly 19 months.

While Music of the Baroque unofficially kicked off its 2021-22 season on September 10 with a brief and breezy Baroque in the Park concert at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion, this was a first opportunity for many to see the orchestra live in almost 19 months, before the COVID plague hit. On such an occasion, you needed heraldic trumpets in counterpoint, resonant french horns, the rumble of timpani, as much emphatic play as you can extract from oboes and bassoons, with a full complement of strings setting the pace.

In other words, you needed George Frideric Handel, and that’s what Music of the Baroque delivered in a program titled Baroque Fireworks.

The program pivots on Water Music Suite No. 2 in D Major and Music for the Royal Fireworks. These two familiar Handel works—their heavy emphasis on those loud brass instruments—define the sound of 18th century music to many. Aficionados in the Music of the Baroque audience bathed in the warm familiarity of these pieces, which are so infused into today’s popular culture that they can be recognized by some folks who could not say what exactly Baroque music is (or maybe who Handel was).

The program is mostly something old but opened with something brand new. Spectacle of Light, by contemporary Chicago composer Stacy Garrop, was commissioned by Music of the Baroque as part of its planned 2020-21 50th anniversary celebration. Those plans were waylaid by COVID (which prompted the ensemble to present a scaled-down series of virtual concerts from January through June).

That delayed the world premiere of the short piece until the September 10 concert in Millennium Park, and it was repeated at the start of Baroque Fireworks. Garrop says she took her inspiration from an etching of fireworks she saw on the Music of the Baroque site, and then, through research, determined that those were the very pyrotechnics for which Handel wrote Music for the Royal Fireworks.

Spectacle of Light has the requisite brass and drums, and portions of the Handel piece are briefly sampled. But if heard outside of this ensemble’s setting, its Baroqueness might not be immediately obvious. Written as a fanfare, it has a modern American sound that, at least to me, felt more like Copland than Handel. Yet Dame Jane Glover, the music director and principal conductor, is enthusiastic about the piece, making it likely that it will be played again for others to make their own judgments.

Water Music No. 2 followed. Glover explained that the thunderous nature of this and some other Handel compositions stems from the fact that British royalty of the early 18th century loved both to celebrate itself and to throw lavish parties on barges in the Thames River. The German-born Handel worked as kappelmeister (conductor) for George, Elector of Hanover, who became King George I of England (it’s too long a story to explain here). And it was for this king that Handel composed the three Water Music suites.

It was not an unchallenging assignment, since the purpose of Water Music was to be played on a boat in the middle of the river, where sound can fade into the ether. Handel compensated by turning up the volume with lots of brass, and that Handel sound was born.

The piece that followed—Concerto a due cori No. 1 in B-Flat Major—is also by Handel, though of a much more subtle nature. Due cori means two choruses, but in this case the choruses are not vocals, but rather four oboes juxtaposed around two bassoons. The interesting history of the piece is that Handel composed it as essentially intermission music and loaded it with references to other pieces that he wrote, including a passage clearly borrowed from Handel’s Messiah oratorio. It is not clear whether Handel was advertising his other works or playing an 18th century version of Name That Tune.

Concerto No. 1 for 3 Trumpets in D Major by Georg Philipp Telemann—who was hugely popular in his day—provided a break in the Handel Fest. It was also a star turn for Barbara Butler, Music of the Baroque’s outstanding principal trumpet; Tage Larsen, guesting from his nearly 20-year tenure with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra; and Channing Philbrick, who recently retired after a quarter century as assistant principal trumpet of the Lyric Opera Orchestra. The piece is very much in keeping with the evening’s celebratory theme, and the trumpeters were so well received that they were invited to the front of the stage to take their bows.

The program concluded with Music for the Royal Fireworks, which Handel composed in 1747 for what is described as an over-the-top bash ordered by King George II to celebrate a peace treaty. The composition heard over centuries is not the original one Handel composed to the orders of the king, who wanted no strings and only martial instruments such as trumpets and drums. Determined to have the last word, Handel re-scored the piece for a full orchestra, to the benefit of generations of music lovers.

With the last notes of the final movement, La Réjouissance (The Rejoicing), the audience rose to a standing ovation—and Glover and the orchestra applauded right back at the audience. Hopefully watching a live concert will feel more like the old normal soon (even if masks continue to be required), but for now, it kind of feels like fireworks, royal or not.

Music of the Baroque’s next program, Vivaldi & Friends, will be performed on Sunday, October 17, in Skokie and on Monday, October 18, at the Harris Theater.