Youth and experience score separate victories, as Orlinski debuts and Pollini returns

By John von Rhein, Chicago Tribune
April 24, 2018

With solo countertenors coming out of the woodwork, you wouldn’t think the classical music world really needs another. Ah, but with period performance going full tilt, it’s incumbent on the business to roll out the welcome mat whenever the next countertenor sensation should appear. And Jakub Jozef Orlinski is ready to assume that mantle. The Polish-born singer is very much the real deal.

That much was clear from the Chicago debut of the gifted, 27-year-old Juilliard-trained countertenor in a program of sacred baroque vocal and instrumental works with Music of the Baroque, Paul Agnew conducting, Monday night at the Harris Theater.

Blessed with an uncommonly beautiful voice, splendid technique and a most sensitive refinement of expression to go along with his boyishly handsome good looks, Orlinski was but one musical pillar, albeit an important one, in a reading of Giovanni Pergolesi’s setting of the Stabat Mater that also introduced another impressive young singer, Sherezade Panthaki, as the soprano soloist.

Agnew’s numerous seasons with MOB, as both tenor soloist in the Bach Passions and, more recently, conductor, presaged the stylish refinement of sound and feeling he achieved on behalf of Pergolesi’s sacred masterpiece. The chamber orchestra of strings and organ continuo gave fluent support to the singers, who delivered their solos with conspicuous feeling and blended beautifully in their duets.

The Pergolesi combines spiritual pathos and high drama to a unique degree in sacred music. Both Agnew and Orlinski leaned toward inwardness in their shaping of phrases. The Indian-born Panthaki has the bigger, more penetrating sound of the two soloists, as one or two spiked climaxes indicated, while Orlinski “placed” the alto lines so as to provide discreet harmonic support in the duos. Their vocal interplay in “Fac ut ardeat” and “Sancta Mater” could not have been more deftly achieved.

Orlinski’s pure tone and precise intonation, as he sent the ornate coloratura flourishes flying in Vivaldi’s “Nisi dominus,” kept this sacred motet from descending into dolorous excess, just as Panthaki’s seamless legato and fervent commitment to words and music in Handel’s “Salve regina,” a prime product of his early years at the Arcadian Academy in Rome, had this rarity falling most gracefully on the ear.

Not to be outdone, MOB concertmaster Gina DiBello brought vivacious panache and an incisive bow arm to the rapid string-crossings and other virtuoso flourishes of Vivaldi’s Concerto in C major (RV 581), a sacred concerto in its own right, even if purely instrumental.