Music of the Baroque’s new chief plans to steer a steady course

Tue Sep 12, 2017 at 10:59 am

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Declan McGovern became executive director of Music of the Baroque in July.
Declan McGovern became the new executive director of Music of the Baroque in July.

When Music of the Baroque opens its 47th season Saturday night with Mendelssohn’s oratorio Elijah, it will be the first curtain-raiser in nearly two decades with a new executive director in the house at the Harris Theater.

Declan McGovern took the reins of Chicago’s largest and most venerable Baroque ensemble in July, succeeding Karen Fishman who held the post for 18 years.

Born in Ireland, McGovern came to Chicago from Pittsburgh, where he was vice-president of orchestral operations and general manager for the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. Previously, he enjoyed a long association with the BBC in Belfast and London as editor and producer. McGovern also served as general manager of the RTE National Symphony Orchestra and chief executive of the Ulster Orchestra.

So, what made Music of the Baroque’s top job so attractive?

“I worked with MOB’s music director Jane Glover when I was a music producer at the BBC, so I already admired her extraordinary work with the London Mozart Players, Glyndebourne Opera, and many others, says McGovern. “My musician friends and colleagues within our industry spoke highly about the quality of the orchestra and chorus and Music of the Baroque’s distinctive mission. It was clear to me that the organization was well run, with a strong administrative team and a supportive board, and when I attended a concert prior to my interview, I observed a full house and an audience that loves Music of the Baroque’s concerts.

“Finally, I had the opportunity to live and work in one of America’s (and the world’s) great music cities, a city with an enviable reputation for philanthropic giving and a deep commitment to culture.  When you add all of these reasons together, you can see why I wanted to take the job!”

In terms of favored Baroque repertoire, McGovern’s tastes are populist. “I like the effervescent energy and invention of Antonio Vivaldi’s many concerti, and I am a fan of Francois Couperin’s keyboard music (as were composers like Ravel and Richard Strauss). George Frideric Handel is probably my favorite Baroque composer, however. I’m attracted to his versatility and the range of his repertoire, from grand open-air works to beautifully intimate arias. He achieves great dramatic affect through often the simplest of means.”

MOB has earned a reputation in some quarters as being a bit stodgy in its approach to repertoire, and some audience members feel MOB should be exploring more rarely heard Baroque music rather than programming out-of-genre composers such as Mozart, Beethoven and Mendelssohn. 

“It depends on the context,” says McGovern.  If there is a musical connection that’s historically interesting and relevant, then, by all means, that repertoire should be performed in a Music of the Baroque season.  Eras of music, as we know, are created in retrospect, but of course they are all interconnected.

“That’s what I love about the Baroque. It’s the bedrock of classical music, and the periods we refer to as Classical, Romantic, and modern all owe so much to the innovations and inventiveness of the Baroque. The symphony, the concerto, the aria, the chorus – these forms first flourished in the eighteenth century, and the interconnections between Bach and Handel and Haydn and Mozart are fascinating. But of course the lifeline extends to Beethoven and Schubert and Schumann, right up to Hindemith and Stravinsky and beyond.”

“Our season opens Saturday with Mendelssohn’s Elijah, a ‘hats off’ tribute to Bach and Handel. [Mendelssohn] conducted revival performances of Bach’s St Matthew Passion and Handel’s Israel in Egypt, thus renewing interest in the great masters from a century before, but then he went a step further by composing a 19th-century oratorio rooted in the Baroque model. The choruses alone show why this is such a great and important work. The opportunity to hear the great Eric Owens singing the title role makes it all the more compelling!”

Some longtime audience members would like to see MOB present the occasional Baroque opera, but McGovern says that’s unlikely. “I don’t see Baroque opera as a big priority. Our chorus is outstanding and oratorios, masses, and choral works will continue to be important.

“My first priority is to continue the great and distinctive work which Music of the Baroque has been delivering in recent years, devising strong programs that achieve a good balance between interesting, lesser-known repertoire and more popular works which bring in new audiences.

While continuing the same established approach to Baroque repertoire, McGovern says he would like to explore novel events to gain more new audience members, possibly including a “taster concert” offering highlights of the coming season. He’d also like to see occasional soloists/directors work with the ensemble, “offering other perspectives on our sound and giving our audiences some new experiences.”

Looking further down the road, McGovern believes that it is too early to be thinking about the status of Jane Glover as music director. Glover’s contract, set to expire after next season, was quietly extended through 2020 in March with no public announcement before McGovern arrived in Chicago.

“As I am new in the job, I am more focused on celebrating Jane’s 15th year this season as music director and working on plans for next season and the following.

“Jane Glover has done and continues to do excellent work, and Jane and Nicholas Kraemer together bring a wide variety of repertoire to life each season.  The quality of the chorus under William Jon Gray’s direction also makes Music of the Baroque special. This is a strong artistic team.”

As Music of the Baroque approaches its 50th anniversary season in 2020, McGovern hopes to encourage more people to invest in the organization’s mission and find new directors to strengthen MOB’s board.

“Although I have only been here for eight weeks, I have found Chicago to be a very open and welcoming city. People have been very willing to meet and to help, and I am intent on channeling all of this good will towards real results for Music of the Baroque.”

McGovern also wants to increase attendance at the Harris Theater, possibly by finding new thematic ideas for programs: “We achieve near-capacity audiences at the North Shore Center, but there is scope to bring more people in to our Harris Theater concerts. It’s a beautiful venue in the heart of downtown Chicago that offers great acoustics for our era of music. I also believe there are more opportunities to engage with our audience in new ways. This music may be 300 years old, but it is still full of life!”

Music of the Baroque opens its 47th season with  Jane Glover conducting Mendelssohn’s oratorio Elijah, featuring soloists Eric Owens, Susanna Phillips, Elizabeth DeShong, and William Burden. Performances are 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Harris Theater and 7:30 p.m. Sunday at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie.

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