With Glover sidelined, Music of the Baroque still delivers worthy Purcell

Mon Sep 27, 2010 at 8:19 pm

By Wynne Delacoma

Jean Raoux: “Dido and Aeneas”

Only one element was missing Sunday night at Music of the Baroque’s opening performance of its 40th anniversary season.

As promised, the program in Evanston’s First United Methodist Church was all-Purcell, beginning with the Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day, Welcome to all the pleasures and excerpts from Timon of Athens and closing with a wonderfully dramatic Dido and Aeneas. There was an impressive array of 10 vocal soloists, among them mezzo-soprano Krisztina Szabo and soprano Charlotte Dobbs (both making their MOB debuts), tenors Rufus Muller and Nicholas Phan, mezzo-soprano Phyllis Pancella and countertenor Ryan Belongie. The orchestra and chorus sounded polished and ready for a season that will include two choral blockbusters: Bach’s Christmas Oratorio and Handel’s Messiah.

Missing from the stage, however, was Jane Glover, MOB’s dynamic music director. Suffering an appendicitis attack on Wednesday shortly after arriving in Chicago from her home in London, she was recovering from emergency surgery. William Jon Gray, MOB’s newly appointed chorus director, took over the podium, conducting the orchestra, chorus and soloists Sunday night as well as the repeat performance Monday in Chicago’s Harris Theater.

William Jon Gray

The challenges were huge, and for the most part Gray rose deftly to meet them. Based at Indiana University, he is an experienced choral conductor. Critics praised his preparation of the Grant Park Chorus in performances of Dvorak’s Requiem last month with the Grant Park Orchestra.

But this is Gray’s first season with MOB, so he is still getting to know his musical colleagues. And few conductors, no matter how gifted, can match Glover’s combination of zesty tempos, transparent textures and expressive phrasing.

After a rocky moment or two at the start of the St. Cecilia Ode, however, Gray and the ensemble found a mutually satisfactory rhythm. By the time they reached Dido and Aeneas, they sounded relaxed and ready to revel in the shifts between dissonance and harmony that make Purcell’s austere music so powerful.

The opera’s main singers—Szabo as Dido, Muller as Aeneas, Dobbs as Belinda and Pancella as the Sorceress—were superb, paying as much attention to the opera’s dramatic requirements as to shaping beautiful sounds. Szabo’s mezzo was strong and ringing, with a dusky edge in the low register and golden highlights near the top. Dobb’s bright, flexible soprano was a girlish foil to Szabo’s more womanly sound. Muller brought both gravity and real torment to Aeneas’ music while Pancella fairly brimmed with gleeful malice as she plotted to separate the lovers. Belongie was a commanding, radiant Spirit, and Nicholas Phan was a charming rogue in the hearty Sailor’s aria.

Through the evening, the chorus sounded cohesive and flexible. Their tone was warm and satiny in quiet moments of the Ode, yet they bubbled with nasal, keening laughter in Dido and Aeneas as the Sorceress revealed her evil plans. The orchestra gave Gray a committed, sensitive performance.

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