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Stream review

MOB shines spotlight on talented principals in lively concerto program

Mon May 10, 2021 at 1:49 pm

By John von Rhein

Georg Friederich Handel was among the composers represented in Music of the Baroque’s streaming concert Sunday night. Painting: Balthasar Denner, 1727

If their pleasure in reuniting on stage for the fifth time this season wasn’t visible on the players’ masked faces, it certainly was palpable in the vivacious performances members of the Music of the Baroque orchestra brought to a clutch of early 18th century concertos and concerti grossi on Sunday evening.

The stylish and trusty hand of principal guest conductor Nicholas Kraemer was evident in the symmetry of the programming as well as in the invigorating musical results. The concert was streamed live from the Music Center of the North Shore in Skokie, and will be available on demand from Wednesday to June 12 at baroque.org.

The brilliance of invention in concertos large and small—five in toto by Handel, Telemann, Locatelli and Vivaldi—was matched by brilliance of execution all around. One has long since expected as much from Kraemer, the accomplished British conductor and harpsichordist who has shared MOB’s artistic reins with music director Jane Glover for the last 19 years—a symbiosis of strong leadership that has ushered MOB into a second golden age.

Concertos for four violins by Telemann and Vivaldi, along with a Locatelli concerto grosso for four violins and two violas, were bracketed by two Handel concerti grossi drawn from his Op. 3 and Op. 6. Presiding at the harpsichord continuo, Kraemer saw to it that everything was neat, tidy and properly propulsive, that no texture was under-articulated, no dance movement under-characterized.

MOB’s worthy first-desk fiddle players—concertmaster Gina DiBello, co-assistant concertmasters Kevin Case and Kathleen Brauer, and principal second violin Sharon Polifrone—clearly relished their soloistic interplay, making the most of their modest bravura flights. DiBello, with her rock-solid intonation and acute rhythmic response, typically functioned as the spark-plug keeping the ensemble engine humming.

With Kraemer and Glover alternating as interpreters of the Baroque repertory over the course of almost two decades at MOB, the players (drawn from the ranks of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Lyric Opera Orchestra) have long since proved that modern instruments work perfectly well when musicians thoroughly versed in matters of period performance practice and style are playing them. Such was again the case here.

From his central perch at the harpsichord on Sunday, Kraemer brought clarity, rhythmic point and urgent directionality to the intersecting lines of the concertino (solo strings) and ripieno (larger orchestral body) groups.  

Save perhaps for Vivaldi’s Concerto for Four Violins in B minor (Op. 3, No. 10, RV 580), none of the pieces would ring many bells of recognition among most concertgoers.

The Vivaldi may be best known in J.S. Bach’s transcription for four keyboard instruments and orchestra, but the original, with parts for two violas and cello obbligato, stands proudly on its own musical merits. Kraemer’s players pointed the dotted rhythms appreciatively, and the gigue-like finale came across as a joyous jeu d’esprit.

Telemann’s four-violin Concerto in D minor (TWV 40:202) dispenses with continuo altogether, allowing the four fiddlers to kick up their soloistic heels in music that may betray its chiefly pedantic purpose but is not lacking in charm, as Kraemer observed in his introduction. DiBello and friends made a convincing case for more of the hugely prolific German composer’s music turning up in concert. A poor man’s Bach? Not on the evidence presented here. 

With his sets of concerti grossi, Pietro Locatelli pays homage to Vivaldi and Arcangelo Corelli, devising new ensemble textures and weaving a richer harmonic fabric than his predecessors. In the 12th of his Opus 4 concerti grossi (F Major), the concertino group is enriched by the addition of two violas, here principal violist Elizabeth Hagen and violist Claudia Lasareff-Mironoff. The music is brilliantly conceived, full of Italianate melodic grace, particularly the expressive slow movement. Kraemer’s band clearly relished all that they were given to do, with the solo violinists and violists neatly finishing each other’s musical sentences.    

Kraemer has a special feel for Handel, making him one of the most authoritative Handelians in today’s early-music world. His choice of two of the most interesting concerti grossi from the master’s Opus 3 (No. 4b in F Major) and Opus 6 (No. 2 in F) made satisfying bookends to the intermission-less program.

The Opus 6 concerti in particular represent the summa of Handel’s instrumental achievement, a magnum opus absolutely on par with Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos. The athletic brilliance of Kraemer’s soloists in dialogue with their ripieno colleagues was a constant delight, and the colors provided by oboists Anne Bach and Erica Anderson in the Opus 3 concerto grosso provided welcome tonal contrast.     

The audio and visual presentation left little to be desired, and the pretaped video program notes by Kraemer, in conversation with executive director Declan McGovern, were most helpful. Covid-era protocols were duly observed, with the 16 players spatially separated across the stage of the empty auditorium.  

As a bonus, the concert is packaged online with an informative “digital soiree” video in which Kraemer—assisted by various MOB musicians, including the excellent theorbo player Brandon Acker— demonstrates how the continuo unit of harpsichord, theorbo and cello functions within the ensemble in Baroque performance. 

Music of the Baroque concludes its season June 6 with a live-streamed program of Bach cantatas and Purcell string works under Jane Glover’s direction, also available later on demand. baroque.org   

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