A reunion with Jane Glover and riveting Mozart at Music of the Baroque

By Hannagh Edgar, Chicago Tribune
March 30, 2021

Even if its name doesn’t ring a bell, chances are you’ll feel a flutter of déjà vu hearing the Sinfonia from Georg Friedrich Handel’s “Solomon,” often dubbed “The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba.” This is Baroque processional music at its most paradigmatic: Sixteenth notes coil in the violins, while two woodsy oboes chatter away. It’s refinement, excitement, and not a little bit camp — music befitting a beloved leader’s grand entrance.

It was quite an apt entree for Music of the Baroque director Jane Glover, who returned Monday night to lead the ensemble for the first time in 13 months — and for its 50th anniversary season, no less. Anniversary festivities will stretch into next season, when, fingers crossed, audiences will be able to return to the Harris Theater for Music and Dance.

Since January, the agile orchestra has streamed concerts from its home base, albeit to empty seats. (I can’t say I hate the effect: The Harris is winsomely resonant when it’s not brimming with concertgoers.) Their Handel/Mozart bill, available to watch on-demand April 1 to May 1, cinched soloist Inon Barnatan’s overdue MOB debut in Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 14 — a less well-worn number in the Köchel catalog even the supremely curious Barnatan had not yet tackled.

Barnatan is plenty familiar to Chicago audiences: He’s been a marquee artist with most of the heavy-hitters in town, most recently in an ill-fated CSO subscription concert set for the day large events were banned last March. Barnatan is a delight to learn from, but, as the Mozart demonstrated in spades, he’s an even greater delight to learn with. Holding court behind a lidless Steinway grand, his finely strewn rendition called forth a parade of colors, each note as lustrous and varied as strung pearls. New sounds abounded, from the harplike, sweeping opening of the piano entrance in the first movement to the subtle cheek of his thematic variations in the third.

And yet, for all Barnatan’s attention-grabbing musicianship, this was, at its heart, a chamber performance. Barnatan’s continual deference to the MOB and delicate touch could not be heard any other way. His arrival was certainly worth the wait, and just as worthy of Handel’s heralding.

In a less apocalyptic year, MOB would have celebrated Mozart’s birthday in January with much fanfare. But Glover — a published historian as well as a performer — wasn’t about to show up to Monday’s concert empty-handed. As an encore, she arranged for what is quite likely the U.S. premiere of Mozart’s Allegro in D, K. 626b/16, a recently “discovered” (“misplaced” might be more accurate) solo piano work from 1774. Barnatan embroidered his own ornamentations in his take on the quirky miniature, which sounds almost Schubertian in its opening and lyrical midsection.

To cap off the belated birthday celebration, Glover and the MOB also presented Mozart’s Symphony No. 29 — another Mozart stepchild, written when the composer was 18. The symphony unfolded operatically under Glover’s baton, opting for dynamic peaks and valleys rather than terraces. To my ears, the second movement Andante presages the mature Mozart’s biting sarcasm, its dotted martial theme as tragicomic as a toy soldier; winking courtly flourishes in the MOB winds only drove the impression home. The same Janus-faced sensibility undergirded a rascally, but never wild third movement.

This symphony sees Mozart both within and without — too old to be a rosy-cheeked wunderkind, too young to bask in high society’s patronage. In the probing hands of Glover and MOB, it staked out a perspective all its own.