By John von RheinClassical music critic
What makes Chicago a world-class center of classical music performance? It’s not just because we have established institutions operating at high artistic levels. Part of the reason lies with the fact that the many smaller groups orbiting around the big boys do quality work in their own right, complementing each other’s repertory while setting their own stamp on it. And this has brought classical fans a healthier array of choices than the city has perhaps ever known before.
I was thinking about this in recent days after taking the artistic temperature of two worthy organizations, Music of the Baroque and Baroque Band. The former group uses modern instruments, while the latter employs period strings and winds. But the sonic differences are superficial. Each has cultivated a style faithful to the nature of the music it performs, and each makes its forays into the 17th and 18th centuries an adventure for area concertgoers.
Now celebrating its 40th anniversary season, MOB is by far the senior organization, with a large and loyal audience base that the much smaller, more modestly funded Baroque Band would envy as it comes up on its fifth season.
MOB has expanded from seven to eight programs this season, filling the Harris Theater to 80-90 percent of capacity, while its concerts at Evanston’s First United Methodist Church remain virtually sold out. The season also has brought a 9-percent rise in subscriptions, according to executive director Karen Fishman.
MOB’s orchestra has long given members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and top area freelancers a chance to perform interesting music they don’t get much chance to play with other groups. And British conductor Jane Glover has taken them to an entirely new level since coming on board as music director in 2002.
That much was clear from their finely poised performances of two late Haydn symphonies, Nos. 102 and 104 (“London”) Monday night at the Harris. Glover scaled her forces down to chamber proportions, blending strings and winds instead of playing up the different timbres as do many period bands. The clarity of her Haydn was matched by its unfailing good taste and deft sense of proportion.
Surrounding the two symphonies were concertos by the Mozarts, father and son. The 18-year-old Wolfgang’s Bassoon Concerto (K.191) drew a flawless reading from William Buchman, the CSO’s assistant principal bassoon. Not since the legendary Leonard Sharrow has anyone played this modest but attractive work better. Papa Leopold Mozart’s D-major Trumpet Concerto is slighter stuff, but it, too, made a winning impression as nimbly dispatched by Barbara Butler, MOB’s co-principal trumpet.
By comparison, Baroque Band operates on the thinnest of shoestrings. Even so, its programs of unusual Baroque instrumental and vocal literature continue to make its concerts unmissable to all who care about historically informed performances in and around town.
Director Garry Clarke also is British, and a fine violinist at that. His intrepid group devoted its most recent program (which I caught last week in the Grainger Ballroom of Orchestra Hall) to suites, fantasias and the like by composers associated with the “24 Violins of the King,” the famous ensemble in residence at the court of England’s Restoration monarch, Charles II.
Instrumental pieces by Henry Purcell, William Lawes, Matthew Locke and other British Baroque luminaries proved to be delightful discoveries, thanks to the acoustical and physical proximity of the players, not to mention their crisp, spirited playing. Now, all that Baroque Band needs is a couple of dozen angels with big hearts and pocketbooks.
A packed agenda of performances awaits this spring. In March, Harry Bicket will take time out from his conducting duties with Lyric Opera’s Handel “Hercules” to lead his first concerts with Baroque Band. The group also will serve as the pit ensemble for Chicago Opera Theater’s performances of Charpentier’s “Medee” in April, before winding up its season with Handel’s oratorio “La Resurrezione” in June.