Review: Music of the Baroque Wowed on Saturday Night
September 18, 2018
Leave it to Jane Glover and her fairly small orchestra and chorus to give a gargantuan performance of a classical music leviathan to a sold out crowd on Saturday night. Music of the Baroque opened their 2018-19 season at the Harris Theater with a masterful and definitive performance of the king of all warhorses, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Requiem Mass in d-minor, K.626. In doing so, they brought out all of the nuances and peccadilloes that make this music a masterwork by every definition of that term.
For four decades Music of the Baroque has been entertaining Chicago audiences with works from the earlier ages of classical music. British conductor Jane Glover has been Music Director since 2002, and she brings a remarkable sense of gravitas to the podium. In her brief remarks before each piece, she reveals a keen intellect and insight into the music on offer, which sheds light on what makes her performance interpretations so remarkable.
It helps that Glover has a very talented roster of musicians at her disposal. When conducting, she does not see an especially large number of musicians in front of her. But their talent is so powerful, their crisp sound fills the hall with music that could come from an ensemble twice the size. Saturday night’s performance also included the Music of the Baroque Chorus, which, led by William Jon Gray, can make a huge, polished sound from only 27 voices. Four excellent soloists, soprano Amanda Majeski, mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack, tenor Jonas Hacker, and bass-baritone Eric Owens, took the stage during the concert’s second half and gave this performance of Mozart’s Requiem even more substance.
The first half of the program featured three of the four Coronation Anthems that George Frideric Handel wrote for the occasion of his German friends, King George II and Queen Caroline, ascendance to the British throne. As is the case of Water Music and other music Handel would later compose for pompous royal occasions, his four Coronation Anthems feature trumpets, timpani, winds, and other instruments that could easily overwhelm the very small string sections they accompany in the Music of the Baroque Orchestra. These anthems also include a choir. On Saturday night, Glover stayed on top of it, ensuring that the instruments and voices blended just right.
Glover set the stage by discussing the circumstances of Handel’s assignment, pointing out that scene of the coronation, the large, gothic Westminster Cathedral, created certain acoustic opportunities that Handel could exploit. He took full advantage of these in first anthem Zadok the Priest. The opening section features a gradual instrumental build-up, brimming with expectation, which reaches a climax right when the chorus enters. This was intended to be the precise point when the crown was placed on King George’s head. Music of the Baroque reproduced the effect beautifully, notwithstanding a momentarily shaky start from the violins.
Although the third anthem was also on the program, Glover appropriately took the fourth one, My Heart is Inditing, out of order because, written for the Queen’s coronation, it has a more subdued feel than other two. Reflecting this, Glover initially used a smaller orchestra and only half the chorus, but by the end, everyone had joined in. Handel divided this and the brighter third anthem, The King Shall Rejoice, into three distinct sections. Music of the Baroque marvelously captured the individual feel of each part.
The second half of the concert was all Mozart, who was commissioned to write the Requiem Mass toward the end of his life. He worked on it to the very end. It is one of Mozart’s darkest works but, as Glover explained, the composer viewed death as an important part of life. Many passages are filled with brightness and wonder, which colored Glover’s approach to the performance.
The work was also unfinished at the composer’s death, and the version Music of the Baroque performed was the one completed by Mozart’s student Franz Xaver Süssmayr. It’s hard to tell where Mozart’s hand ends and Süssmayr’s takes over. But even those sections that do not seem to be Mozart’s are still well orchestrated and feel like they very much belong to the whole, even if quality sags a bit.
Music of the Baroque’s performance brought out all of the Requiem’s appealing features, starting with the moody opening by the lower ranged basset horns and bassoons, the only woodwinds Mozart included in the score. They also adroitly handled the passages where the instruments shadow the voices, all with perfect balance. As one might expect from an ensemble that specializes in composers who wrote lots of counterpoint, the chorus was crisp in the way it handled the many interweaving melodic passages written into the Requiem.
Especially effective were the soloists, as was immediately apparent from the passionate entry of soprano Amanda Majeski in the Introitus. She, mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack, tenor Jonas Hacker, and bass baritone Eric Owens blended well, not just with each other, but, as was evident in the Recordare section, with the orchestra that backed them. Earlier, one of Mozart’s clever moves was the use of a solo trombone to open the Tuba mirum section. Owens’ voice was a perfect complement at the start of the piece; the others voices joined in seamlessly.
For the remainder of the 2018-19 season, Music of the Baroque will be performing six more programs at both the North Shore Center in Skokie and the Harris Theater in Millennium Park. They will also be offering holiday brass and choral concerts at several churches in Chicago, Northbrook, and River Forest. Up next: The Four Seasons, a program that includes music by Telemann, Rameau, and, of course, Vivaldi. North Shore Center, Skokie, Sunday, November 4, 7:30 pm; Harris Theater, Chicago, Monday, November 5, 7:30 pm. $25-$78. For more information, see www.baroque.org.