Karen Fishman looks back at 18 years with Music of the Baroque

Sat May 13, 2017 at 3:57 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Karen Fishman will retire next month as executive director of Music of the Baroque.
Karen Fishman will retire next month as executive director of Music of the Baroque.

Music of the Baroque is closing its season in grand fashion this weekend with Telemann’s epic oratorio, The Day of Judgment.

And while Jane Glover will return to lead the ensemble this fall, MOB will be without its executive director Karen Fishman for the first time in 18 years.

A regular presence at every Music of the Baroque performance and rehearsal over her nearly two-decade tenure, the soft-spoken administrator, 68, is retiring in June.

It was Fishman who negotiated MOB’s first crucial artistic transition, hiring Jane Glover as music director and Nicholas Kraemer as principal guest conductor to replace MOB founder Thomas Wikman.

One can quibble about some aspects of MOB during Fishman’s tenure. The upcoming Telemann oratorio apart, one wished that MOB had explored more such Baroque byways and relied less on repeats of the greatest hits of Mozart, Bach and Handel. The adventurous approach of recent Chicago groups like Haymarket Opera and Third Coast Baroque sometimes make Music of the Baroque seem a bit old school by comparison.

One would have also liked a more aggressive approach to expanding MOB’s roster of solo artists and guest conductors, in particular. With Glover’s contract up in 2019, the near-total lack of podium visitors over the past two decades leaves no short list of experienced MOB successors to draw from. (Potential candidates to consider inviting in 2018-19: Harry Bicket, Jeannette Sorrell, Julian Wachner and Patrick Dupre Quigley.)

Still, Fishman deserves great credit for leading the venerable organization successfully through a perilous economic era. If the programs have tended toward the conservative side, that has maintained MOB’s audience base and kept box office strong. Most importantly, the artistic level of performances has remained high under the leadership of Glover and Kraemer. 

(And on a personal note, Fishman was an early and consistent supporter of Chicago Classical Review from its launch in 2009—almost alone at that time among Chicago’s major classical organizations.)

She feels her greatest achievement has been launching cohesive relationships across the organization—creating strong partnerships between board, staff, musicians, and donors,” as she put it. “These partnerships have enabled MOB to thrive in both good and bad economic times, and to focus on making music.”  

MOB’s current budget is a relatively modest $2 million. She is proud that the ensemble has only had one deficit ($420 in 2002) during her 18-year tenure. 

Re repertoire, she says that her one regret is that the market doesn’t seem to be there to support regular performances of Bach cantatas and concert versions of Handel operas–both staples of the Wikman era.

Yet she vigorously defends the record of MOB programming over her tenure. “Artistic planning is always a difficult balancing act—especially when one has just seven or eight programs in a season to devote to our period’s vast repertory. Over the past 18 seasons, we’ve performed dozens and dozens of works for the first time ever.”

Among Fishman’s favorite MOB performance memories: Glover’s first Mass in B minor in 2003, the complete Christmas Oratorio in 2010, and a St. John Passion led by Kraemer in 2006. Also for this diehard Handelian, the “absolutely thrilling” Israel in Egypt of 2013, and “one of my favorite works of all time,” L’Allegro, il penseroso and il moderato in 2012.

She will also cherish the Mozart 250th birthday celebration of 2006 (on the actual day, January 27), which recreated the 1786 premiere of Der Schauspieldirektor and Salieri’s Prima la musica with Simon Callow as narrator. And MOB’s revival of the Monteverdi Vespers last season (a CCR Top Ten Performance for 2016) and Mozart’s Mass in C Minor with sopranos Susanna Phillips and Katherine Lewek this past January were supreme highlights to be sure.

Fishman said she anticipates a graceful handoff to her yet-to-be-named successor, who could be announced as early as next month.

Her retirement is a real one and while Fishman’s plans are open at this time she doesn’t plan on taking a leadership role again.

“I honestly haven’t had the time to put together a real plan,” she said.  “I’m open to interesting projects and looking forward to having more time to become involved in community activism on issues I care about.”

Jane Glover leads performances of Telemann’s The Day of Judgment 7:30 p.m. Sunday at North Shore Performing Arts Center in Skokie and 7:30 p.m. Monday at the Harris Theater. baroque.org

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