Music of the Baroque bids farewell to longtime home with “Friends” program

Mon May 21, 2012 at 1:24 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

"The Haydn Quartet," painting by Julius Schmid.

As George Harrison noted, all things must pass: the seasons, earthly existence, even the NATO summit.

On Sunday night Music of the Baroque played its last concert at First United Methodist Church in Evanston. While the evening’s performances proved mixed, it was a bittersweet occasion, with the ensemble being ejected from the church that has been its home for more than thirty of its 41 seasons. MOB will split its North Shore dates next season between First Presbyterian Church three blocks south and the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie.

The offbeat season-closing program, titled “Friends,” imaginatively brought together music of four composers: Haydn, Mozart, Johann Baptist Vanhal and Karl Ditters von Dittersdorf. The contemporaries were convivial acquaintances, often playing quartets together. As music director Jane Glover noted in her introduction, the title also marks the congenial relationship between herself and the orchestra’s members, four of whom were given a chance to shine in the solo spotlight.

The clear highlight of the evening was Mozart’s Sinfonia concertante. A double concerto for violin and viola, K.364 is one of the composer’s finest works in the genre, rich in melody even by Mozart’s standard, and exploring both profound depths and lighthearted spirits in equal measure.

The Sinfonia concertante is a notoriously difficult work to pull off, requiring two musicians of virtuoso gifts able to surmount its technical challenges and evenly balance the concertante voices while bringing individuality to their own solo moments.

With Music of the Baroque’s concertmaster Robert Waters and principal violist Roger Chase, we had two superb musicians who delivered the goods magnificently. Waters’ elegant focused violin and Chase’s dusky viola were fine foils, providing timbral contrast yet with both men playing in symbiotic accord. The Andante plumbs a striking depth of expression and the soloists explored the vein of subdued tragedy with closely knit, sensitively calibrated playing. The Presto offers one of Mozart’s most delightful finales, and the playing of Waters and Chase was exhilarating, the two men romping through the virtuosic pages with polished facility and huge panache. Glover and colleagues provided deft and equally idiomatic support, and the vociferous ovation was well deserved.

The Mozart was pre-echoed by the evening’s opening work, Vanhal’s Sinfonia in G minor, the Andante of which has a stately duet for violin and viola, also well assayed by Waters and Chase.

The music of the prolific Vanhal is tuneful and attractive, though next to Mozart and Haydn, his second-rate status becomes manifest with a repetitious style and Vanhal not doing very much with his thematic material (though the insistent, darkly dramatic final movement sounds like it could have inspired Mozart’s Symphony No. 25 in the same key, coming a few years later). Glover led a crackling performance, putting across the Haydnesque opening movement with great vitality.

The rest of the program offered more variable rewards. Barbara Haffner, principal cellist of MOB for over 25 years, performed the “other” Haydn Cello Concerto, this one in C major and only unearthed in 1961. She brought an elegant tone and ardent expression to the inward Adagio. But the bravura finale sounded decidedly effortful and there was more wayward intonation and technical slips along the way than ideal.

Collins Trier fared somewhat better in von Dittersdorf’s Bass Concerto in E major. The ensemble’s principal double-bass didn’t project strongly enough and Trier’s solo work in the opening Allegro was rather rough-hewn, with the wheels almost coming off in the cadenza. Trier recovered and did better in the Andante and closing Presto, though von Dittersdorf’s concerto is not exactly among history’s timeless masterpieces.

The program will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Harris Theater. baroque.org; 312-551-1414.

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