Baroque Band closes season with Purcell and the best work Handel never wrote

Thu Jun 04, 2009 at 5:09 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Baroque Band performed Wednesday evening in the Symphony Center ballroom. Photo: Minoru Ueda

The variety of music in Chicago never ceases to amaze. In a 24-hour period this week one can catch an edgy 1988 opera by Mark-Anthony Turnage and experience a good chunk of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, the oldest English-language opera still in the regular repertoire.

Baroque Band did the honors for the latter with a season-closing program of essentially English music Wednesday evening at Symphony Center. The program to be repeated this weekend in Evanston and Hyde Park, led off with Matthew Locke.

The composer’s music for The Tempest made a fine calling card for Baroque Band’s attractive style— tangy period-instrument timbres, bracing accents and fluent ensemble, some violin disarray on closing cadences apart. Locke’s suite of gracious dance movements are pleasant enough, though don’t really distinguish him from the teeming ranks of second-tier Baroque composers with one exception: the Sarabande displays a jarring expressive depth, and was played with rich feeling and beautifully burnished cellos and bass under Garry Clarke’s direction.

Jennifer Lane was in the solo spotlight—actually on the small raised platform—for excerpts from Purcell’s Dido. For a singer with a background primarily in early music, Lane possesses an imposing mezzo instrument. Her rendering of Ah, Belinda was rather moony with words unclear, though that may have also been the fault of the Grainger Ballroom acoustic and the singer having to continually swivel to project to all sides of her audience.

Lane adapted deftly and sang more convincingly in the latter selections, doing a nasty witch that avoided camp caricature and rising to the expressive height of When I am Laid in Earth with refined eloquence.  Clarke drew alert support from his musicians, with finely sustained string playing at the coda.

Following Baroque Band’s buoyant rendering of Handel’s Concerto Grosso in F major, (Op. 3, no. 4), Lane returned for Giovanni B. Ferrandini’s Il pianto di Maria. This lament for the Virgin Mary was attributed to Handel until just a decade ago, and it’s not hard to understand why. The invention of the otherwise obscure Venetian composer is remarkable, and much of his quasi-cantata sounds more like Handel than Handel. The Cavatina, Se d’un Dio, in particular, inhabits the same rapt timeless expression of Handel’s most indelible arias.

Lane’s voice and temperament seemed more suited to the boldly Italianate passions of Ferrandini’s setting, the mezzo singing with big dusky tone and dramatic intensity. Lane and some of the players appeared to have pitch issues in Sventurati miei sospiri, but otherwise this was an ardent and fully committed performance of an extraordinary work, with Clarke artfully underlining the ingenuity of the string writing. David Schrader’s scholarly yet accessible program notes added to the evening’s edifying pleasures.

The program will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Friday at Hyde Park Union Church and 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Music institute of Chicago in Evanston. Baroque Band will also perform an all-Handel program on June 18 at Ravinia’s Martin Theater.; 312-235-2368

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