Kraemer leads CSO in a vital, varied Handel feast

Fri Dec 02, 2016 at 2:03 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Conductor Nicholas Kraemer and soprano Amanda Forsythe take a bow at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's Handel program Thursday night. Photo: Todd Rosenberg
Conductor Nicholas Kraemer and soprano Amanda Forsythe take a bow at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s Handel program Thursday night. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

While his Messiah is an inescapable part of the concert scene in the four weeks leading up to Christmas, Handel’s secular music fits the spirit of the season nicely too, with its rhythmic vitality, pealing brass, and stream of engaging melody.

Nicholas Kraemer led the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in a Wholly Handel program Thursday night, offering a bracing mix of the familiar and rarities, including three works being performed by the CSO for the first time.

Principal guest conductor of Music of the Baroque, Kraemer has a delightful way with his chosen repertory. There is no finer Haydn conductor before the public and Kraemer, likewise, infused Handel’s music with a delightful lilt and infectious energy. The CSO can sometimes sound out of sorts in Baroque repertoire, yet the musicians were fully responsive to Kraemer’s direction Thursday performing with enviable vivacity and commitment.

Zadok the Priest opened the evening with imposing sonic splendor. Kraemer skillfully balanced the large CSO Chorus against the chamber-orchestra forces in Handel’s brief yet stirring Coronation Anthem No. 1, eliciting rousing singing from the chorus in a vital, crisply executed performance. 

The Concerto Grosso in B-flat major, Op. 6, no. 7, was the first of the program’s consecutive CSO premieres. Leading stylishly from the harpsichord, Kraemer elicited a performance with a consistent, engaging smile  much like the ebullient English conductor himself. The CSO strings brought gracious charm to this music, keeping the music in scale yet playing slow sections with an affectionate lilt and bringing a spirited light-footed quality to the closing Hornpipe.

Amanda Forsythe has been making the rounds of regional opera houses and orchestras and the American soprano made her CSO subscription debut Thursday with two Handel rarities.

It’s not too hard to understand why Handel’s Laudate pueri Dominum is so rarely heard. Scored for soprano, mixed chorus and orchestra the forces are decidedly unwieldy, yet there is much wonderful music in this 17-minute setting of Psalm 112.

Forsythe possesses a classic Baroque soprano instrument. Her tone is bright and attractive, and her voice light in timbre yet flexible with a piping, youthful quality. Orchestra Hall’s problematic acoustic doesn’t make things easy for high-voiced singers but Forsythe sang securely and accurately, and was at her best in the lilting aria “Excelsus super omnes gentes Dominus.”

Yet she often took an extra breath that broke up Handel’s longer lines and in the concluding section, her singing sounded cautious, diluting the virtuosity that might have made a stronger case for the piece.  No complaints about the ensemble singing with rich, nimble and expressive contributions by the CSO chorus. Kraemer and the orchestra provided fine support with Michael Henoch’s stylish oboe playing a standout among the obbligato solos.

Paradoxically, Forsythe was heard to better advantage in Handel’s Silete venti after intermission, even if the work itself was less convincing. This motet for solo soprano offers more operatic opportunities and Forsythe’s singing sounded more confident and better projected, gracefully handling the coloratura demands of the closing Alleluia.

Yet here too one wanted a greater range of expression and more varied vocal coloring, and too much of Forsythe’s performance seemed blandly efficient. At 25 minutes, it’s hard to avoid the thought that even Handel could write a piece where the length outstays its musical content.

The CSO has not played the Music for the Royal Fireworks in 11 years, and Kraemer led those last performances as well. During the stage changes, the conductor provided an amiable introduction, reading from an amusing–if likely apocryphal–contemporary account of the work’s famous al fresco premiere wherein misaimed fireworks set fire to one of the outdoor pavilions.

Happily, no such incendiary accidents occurred Thursday night with Kraemer leading, sans score, a lively and enjoyable reading. The musicians brought winning swagger to the Overture’s main theme, with notably fizzing violins, and trumpets and horns alternating in majestic style. The Minuet was stately yet graceful and Kraemer’s reordered suite closed effectively with a grandly sonorous La Rejouissance.

The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday.; 312-294-3000.

Posted in Performances

2 Responses to “Kraemer leads CSO in a vital, varied Handel feast”

  1. Posted Dec 03, 2016 at 11:58 pm by Ilana

    The program was delightful. I disagree with your criticism of Amanda–she had unbroken melismas that left me wondering whether she even needs to breathe! They were certainly as good as any I have ever heard outside the context of edited recordings.

  2. Posted Dec 04, 2016 at 12:00 am by Ilana

    (Also, her singing in both pieces was far from bland. There was no overdone melodrama, but she was energetic and expressive.)

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