Chicago Philharmonic strikes sparks in Baroque program

Mon Apr 18, 2011 at 2:31 pm

By Wynne Delacoma

The joint was jumping at Pick-Staiger Concert Hall on Northwestern University’s Evanston campus Sunday night.

The audience arriving for the Chicago Philharmonic’s concert titled “Going for Baroque” certainly expected a lively evening. They were looking forward to a chamber orchestra comprised of Philharmonic members performing works by J. S. Bach, Vivaldi, Handel and C.P.E Bach led from the harpsichord by David Schrader, one of Chicago’s leading keyboard players.

But the evening included some unexpected infusions of energy. A group of 100-plus attentive teenagers, on a school trip from Toronto, Canada, filled Pick-Staiger’s front rows. At intermission one of them, sporting a baseball cap, seemed to be discussing the fine points of violin technique with concertmaster Robert Hanford.

And before the concert and during intermission, Pick-Staiger’s lobby pulsed with the mellow Caribbean-flavored sounds of the Holy Cross Marimba Band—eight young players from Holy Cross-Immaculate Heart of Mary parish in Chicago’s Back of the Yards neighborhood. With its hint of warm surf and sand, the music was balm to the ears of concert-goers coming into the hall from yet another cold, windy Chicago evening.

The main event, the Philharmonic’s performance of four Baroque concertos plus J. S. Bach’s familiar Suite in C Major, BWV 1066, generated its own energy. Philharmonic players also perform with Lyric Opera of Chicago and Music of the Baroque; Handel and Bach are as familiar to them as Brahms and Beethoven. Schrader’s introductory remarks about each piece were relaxed and witty.

Vivaldi’s Concerto for Piccolo, Strings and Continuo, RV 443, with Alyce Johnson as soloist, was the concert’s high point. In addition to her work with the Chicago Philharmonic, Johnson is a member of Lyric’s orchestra and second flutist with the Grant Park Orchestra. She played with thrilling virtuosity Sunday night.

Originally written for recorder, Vivaldi’s concerto is full of coloratura flights and sections of non-stop, densely packed passage work for the soloist.

Johnson’s tone was golden and airy throughout the work, her phrasing lithe and smooth even in the concerto’s most fast-paced moments. The orchestra supported her with lean, crisp accompaniment, ably matching her subtle color and shading.

Schrader was a similarly skilled soloist in C.P.E. Bach’s D Minor Concerto for Keyboard, Strings and Continuo. Composed in 1748, the concerto’s abrupt harmonic shifts, sharp dissonances and frequently dark moods signal that we are moving from Baroque elegance to a more Romantic era. The conversation between his expressive, high-energy virtuosity and the Philharmonic’s brisk, tensile strings was invigorating.

Handel’s Concerto Grosso, Op. 3, No. 4, with its strongly accented rhythms and lush, unison sound was both stately and genial. In the second movement, the long, sustained melody of Robert Morgan’s oboe cut through the busy strings like a strong, glowing shaft of light.

The concert’s two J. S. Bach works–the Brandenburg Concerto No. 1, BWV 1046, which opened the evening, and the Suite, BWV 1066, the final work—were less satisfying. Though the ensemble was appropriately small—approximately 20 players–their textures sounded muddy and thick.

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