Baroque Band’s English program finds common ground across the centuries

Fri Jan 14, 2011 at 7:29 pm

By Michael Cameron

Baroque Band performed a varied program of mostly English music Thursday night at Hyde Park Union Church.

Period instrument concerts stir up far less debate now than even a decade ago, and their historically based performance practices continue to percolate into modern instrument ensembles. At this point attention has more productively shifted to the music itself, especially neglected repertoire from the 16th and 17th centuries that rarely appears on the programs of modern ensembles in our mammoth concert halls.

Chicago’s Baroque Band isn’t marketed as a cloistered guild of stuffy academics. Thursday’s program of music culled from the court of Charles II around the 1660’s was dubbed “Charlie’s Angels” (a subset of the season’s theme, “Angels and Demons”), and the stellar quality of the music and its presentation made one envy the cultivated monarch, if not the lowbrow 70’s TV recluse.

The ensemble and its director Garry Clarke had to contend with a few distractions outside their control, most notably an underpowered heating system at the otherwise splendid Hyde Park Union Church. Most patrons remained clothed in their winter gear throughout the concert (an unintended and unwelcome nod to historically based concert conditions), but the notoriously fussy gut strings of the ensemble seemed unaffected, and intonation was generally secure. The sounds of an unrelated choral rehearsal somewhere in the building leached into the hall from time to time.

The roster of composers included English Baroque masters both famous and obscure. The central figure was Henry Purcell, and Clarke and company served his cause handsomely with energetic readings that put the sharpest focus on forward momentum. The continuous eight bar repetitions of his Chacony could have easily slid into monotony, but the dozen players made each variation a unique and special entity. The slight but delightful Staircase Overture opened with the expected ascending and descending scales, followed by a catchy tune and a striking harmonic surprise for good measure.

The Fantasia on one note was the ultimate minimalist fantasy, the band deftly unveiling the composer’s remarkable skill at weaving a varied tapestry over the bare floor of a single-note pedal tossed among the players. Purcell’s most substantial work of the program was Musick in the “Double Dealer”, a suite of dances that served as incidental music for a play by William Congreve. Clarke bathed the minuets in delicacy and charm, and the final Aire was driven and breathless.  His Three parts on a ground, with a bass line similar to the ubiquitous Canon of Pachelbel, was a far more intricate piece than its famous cousin, with plenty of virtuoso display and bracing harmonic splashes.

Clarke favored nearly egalitarian voicing for the most part, generally a winning plan, though in Matthew Locke’s Suite from Cupid and Death the middle voices overpowered the melodic line. Of all of the lesser-known works on the program, John Blow’s Chaconne was the clear winner. It inspired some of the evening’s best playing, with finely gauged dynamic shading and textures that were varied and intricate.

The King personally imported the French composer Louis Grabu to his English court, much to the dismay of the native musicians.  His delightful incidental music to Rochester’s play Valentinian was even more saturated with dance than the rest of the program. Textures were distilled, leaving room for rhythmic lilt and abrupt harmonic jolts. The one nod to an earlier age was William Lawes’ Suite from Comus.  Record-keeping was sketchy is his day, and its date and the authorship of some movements are in question. No matter – each section painted a vivid picture, and Clarke provided thumbnail summaries of the plot with amusing relish.

The occasional coaxing of on-the-beat foot stomps from the director proved not at all distracting, and probably an appropriate reminder of a more casual age of music making. These were among the many occasions where one can sense parallels with a modern jazz combo searching for a communal rhythmic groove. Harpsichordist David Schrader was the anchor, tasteful and idiomatic as ever.

Once the ear became used to the persistence of the short form (the 1-3 minute length of most of the 40-odd movements was another distant mirror of modern times), it was easy to soak in the uniformly fine music and admire the skills of this stalwart band that brings top-drawer music largely ignored elsewhere in our musical community.

The program will be repeated 7: 30  p.m. Saturday at the Music Institute in Evanston, 3 p.m. Sunday at the Byron Colby Barn in Grayslake, and 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at Symphony Center.


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