Baroque Band starts transitional season on mixed note

Thu Sep 19, 2013 at 1:23 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Violinist Simon Standage was the soloist in Baroque Band's season opener Wednesday night at Symphony Center.
Violinist Simon Standage was the soloist in Baroque Band’s season opener Wednesday night at Symphony Center.

With apologies to Edward Bulwer-Lytton it really was a dark and stormy night as Baroque Band launched its seventh season.

The raging thunderstorm and torrential downpour that walloped Chicago Wednesday night didn’t prevent a sizable audience of hardy concertgoers from attending Baroque Band’s opening program with guest violinist Simon Standage at Symphony Center.

The tempest outside the Grainger Ballroom seemed a fitting backdrop for an ensemble that has seen its share of upheaval and backstage drama in the past year. The debut of a hapless Baroque Band choir was greeted with harsh reviews, a much-publicized series of Brandenburg Concerto programs at the Museum of Contemporary Art was abruptly canceled, some of the ensemble’s best musicians departed, and the entire Baroque Band board quit en masse. Insiders have not been shy in their criticism of founder Garry Clarke, for his uneven playing and, especially, a management style that could charitably be called chaotic.

Clarke is still in charge, though he is taking a sabbatical this season as violinist-conductor to concentrate on “developing the orchestra’s long-term artistic and educational plans.” So, guest directors will lead Baroque Band’s four programs in 2013-14.

In the wake of last season’s disarray, it’s heartening to report that the Baroque Band ensemble performed quite well Wednesday. Ensemble was crisp, intonation mostly clean and playing spirited among the dozen players. The low end was especially well served with cellist Anna Steinhoff providing firm support.

Yet despite the promising showing by this season’s roster, the evening still provided mixed rewards due to a combination of ill-advised programming and a soloist past his prime.

For those who came of musical and collecting age in the 1980s, Simon Standage was a celebrated figure, a fiddle stalwart of the period-instrument movement and first violinist of the English Concert and, for many years, the Academy of Ancient Music. His best-selling disc of The Four Seasons with Trevor Pinnock and the English Concert remains a vintage recording touchstone.

While there were flashes of the qualities that made Standage such an assured and stylish Baroque player, the march of time was clearly manifest. Standage, 71, can still get his fingers around the music but tempos stayed mostly on the cautious side, and tone production and pitch were highly variable throughout the evening.

The repertory didn’t help, with the British violinist enlisted to perform five solo concertos, a demanding and highly questionable program for a veteran musician no longer at the top of his game, which only served to emphasize Standage’s declining powers.

Vivaldi seemed to bring out the best in him. The outer movements of “Autumn” and “Winter” from The Four Seasons showed some of the old spark, with Standage bringing jaunty vigor to the hunt motif of the former and throwing off some impressive bravura in the finale of the latter.

Standage’s performance of Bach’s Violin Concerto in E major, NWV 1042, however,was rough-hewn and bland, Leclair’s Concerto in D major, Op. 10, no. 3, pitchy. Torelli’s Concerto in Eminor, Op, 8, no. 9, was capably played but doggedly literal.

As a leader, Standage provided little apparent direction, letting Baroque Band sort things out themselves. Most of the program especially the opening concertos by Vivaldi, Torelli and Albinoni, slipped into the kind of faceless Baroque chugga-chugga that happens when no one is there to clarify textures and detail color and dynamics. The middle movement of “Winter,” in particular, was uniformly loud and uninspired, conveying little of the music’s cozy fireside domesticity.

Oddly, the encore of Vivaldi’s “Conca” Concerto for Strings and Continuo in B-flat, R. 163, was delightful, thrown off by Standage and the ensemble with whirlwind energy and a panache conspicuously lacking throughout much of the evening.

The program will be repeated 7:30 p.m, Friday at the Music Institute of Chicago in Evanston and 7:30 p.m Saturday at Augustana Lutheran Church in Hyde Park.; 312-235-2368.

Posted in Performances

One Response to “Baroque Band starts transitional season on mixed note”

  1. Posted Sep 23, 2013 at 10:45 am by Lynne Schatz

    Heard the Friday performance – agreed, program a bit ambitious for SS – that said, a lion in winter is still a lion. Thought that the upper strings had far fewer intonation issues than in previous years so am hopeful about BB musically.

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