Stellar soloists, chorus provide highlights in MOB’s contrasted season opener

By Lawrence A. Johnson, Chicago Classical Review
September 19, 2023

These early days of a new fall season have been a time of high-level transition on Chicago’s music scene. Last week Lyric Opera announced—to much rejoicing—that Anthony Freud will be leaving Lyric Opera at the end of this season. On Thursday night the Chicago Symphony Orchestra will open its first autumn without a music director in place in nearly a decade.

Against that churn, on Monday night Dame Jane Glover opened the 53rd season of Music of the Baroque—a relative island of stability—with Mozart’s Requiem Mass in D Minor at Symphony Center. The impressive turnout was notable for a rare MOB event in the CSO’s home venue.

Mozart’s acclaimed final work was performed regularly long before the advent of Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus. But the hit play and movie took the baleful Requiem into the realm of pop culture, which has only served to increase its renown. Even today, the celebrity status of Mozart’s uncompleted Requiem can obscure what a multifaceted and forward-looking work it is, with an originality and expressive intensity unique even in Mozart’s output.

Monday evening’s performance was reflective of Glover’s long-running tenure, with a stylish and intelligent Mozart Requiem, even if on this occasion the drama and intensity proved more fitful. This was a Requiem decidedly from the Classical era, at times sacrificing the work’s burgeoning Romanticism.

Even with the conductor’s Classical approach, the brisk tempo for the famous opening bars made little of the basset horns’ dusky coloring and shorted the gaunt power and foreboding that should ideally set the scene for the ensuing 50 minutes.

Glover’s balancing was typically scrupulous and her direction alert, and the performance soon found its footing. Yet there were streamlined moments elsewhere where the playing felt in need of greater emotional thrust and, at times, ensemble weight. If there is any late Mozart work that would benefit from a few extra string desks, the Requiem is it.

The MOB Chorus continues to reach new heights under chorus master Andrew Megill. The fugal choral writing of the Kyrie was surmounted with agility, the Dies Irae proved aptly harrowing and the Sanctus clarion in impact. The ensemble brought polished, unified tone and expressive engagement to every page with daunting power in the heaven-storming sections.

It’s not every Mozart Requiem where the quartet provides so many highlights, but the primo lineup of well-matched soloists was consistently stellar, not least in the Recordare and Benedictus.

Michael Sumuel’s bass-baritone was bracingly majestic in the Tuba mirum where tenor trombonist Felix Regalado delivered an equally characterful solo. Also impressive in the same movement and throughout was the clear, vibrant tenor of Miles Mykkanen. Irish mezzo Paula Murrihy in a worthy MOB debut, made the most of her opportunities.

Local favorite Susanna Phillips provided consistently lovely and expressive singing. The soprano’s pure gleaming tone was a highlight of the Recordare and she was aptly radiant in the Lux aeterna.

Mozart’s Requiem was preceded, somewhat incongruously, with the celebratory D-major of Bach’s Magnificat, which led off the evening. A product of Bach’s Leipzig years, the Magnificat was the composer’s first setting of a Latin text, and explores a striking variety of spiritual expression in a concise 25 minutes.

Glover led a performance of bracing vitality that provided the strongest possible advocacy for Bach’s score. She drew playing and singing of layered sensitivity in each of the 11 brief sections that added cumulative impact to the performance beyond the surface brilliance. The MOB chorus was, if anything, even more inspired than in the Mozart, and once again the stellar soloists made the most of their opportunities.

Phillips floated an affecting “Quia respexit humiliatum,” supported by Anne Bach’s equally sensitive oboe obbligato. Sumuel deployed his potent voice in a jaunty “Quia fecit mihi magna.” Murrihy and Mykkanen blended felicitously in the “Et Misericordia” duet.

The festive aspect was especially well served in the framing sections with the pealing trumpets of Barbara Butler, Tage Larsen and Justin Kohan resounding brilliantly in the brass-friendly room.

Nicholas Kraemer leads Music of the Baroque in an all-Vivaldi program October 15 and 16.