Music of the Baroque brings out the joy and consolation of Bach’s “Easter Oratorio”

Tue Apr 12, 2022 at 3:26 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Johann Sebastian Bach’s Easter Oratorio was performed by Music of the Baroque Monday night at the Harris Theater.

The pastor of the First United Church in Oak Park recently announced that his church will mark the Easter season by encouraging parishioners to give up “whiteness” for Lent. Officially, the church’s recommended policy of “fasting from whiteness” meant that “in our worship services throughout Lent, we will not be using any music or liturgy written or composed by white people.”

Music of the Baroque, fortunately for Chicago audiences, has not jettisoned music by dead pale males. On Monday night at the Harris Theater, Dame Jane Glover led MOB in a smartly conceived Holy Week program with Bach’s Easter Oratorio as the main event.  

Retooled from a secular cantata for a nobleman’s birthday, the Easter Oratorio is a more intimate, less theatrical work that Bach’s Passions. In the oratorio’s scenario, Mary Magdalene (mezzo), Mary Jacobi (soprano) and the apostles Peter (tenor) and John (bass) come to the tomb of Jesus and ponder his resurrection—which has already happened. The music is more reflective than dramatic but rises to remarkable expressive heights in its solo arias.

Glover is a long-experienced hand in these Bach masterworks and on Monday night she led a superbly realized performance that balanced the festive moments and spiritual consolation with consummate skill.

Celebratory music frames the oratorio and Glover led the opening Sinfonia in a rousing rendition with aptly clarion trumpet playing by Barbara Butler, Tage Larsen and Channing Philbrick. The ensuing Adagio conveyed the interior qualities of the Easter season affectingly with Glover drawing string playing of great delicacy, highlighted by Anne Bach’s eloquent rendering of her ruminative oboe solo.

The vocal soloists are crucial to the success of any performance of BWV 249 and the quartet on this occasion proved nearly ideal.

The pair of arias for the two Marys were especially well served. Soprano Yulia Van Doren conveyed the hopeful quality of  “Seele, deine Spezereien” with a pure tone, graceful phrasing and focused expression; Mary Stolper’s obbligato flute solo inhabited the plaintive essence of the music.

In “Saget, saget mir geschwinde” Elizabeth DeShong put across the joyful anticipation of finding Jesus in the hereafter, wielding her ample, contralto-like mezzo with striking ease and agility in Bach’s coloratura lines.

The bass doesn’t get a solo aria in this work, which was doubly unfortunate since Michael Sumuel brought such majestic tone and patriarchal authority to his few opportunities, as with the penultimate recitative.

James Gilchrist, making his MOB debut, was not on the same level as his colleagues. The veteran British singer’s tenor sounded thin and uneven, his singing effortful in “Sanfte soll mein Todeskummer.”

Prepared by Benjamin Rivera, the MOB chorus brought polished corporate tone, flexibility and well blended vocalism, exhilaratingly so in the spiritual joy of the final chorus.

The concert led off with the Sinfonia in D major. (That is, after the Harris Theater’s obligatory “land acknowledgements” announcement about the venue sitting on Indian land laid a collective guilt trip on the audience to start the evening.)

This Sinfonia is a mystery work, likely the curtain-raiser for a lost cantata, and belatedly authenticated as written by Bach.

Even so, one remains somewhat dubious about the provenance. Superficially it sounds like Bach in festive mode with blazing timpani and brass, yet the piece lacks his invention and variety. Also the ceaseless solo violin obbligato—played capably if far too softly by Kathleen Brauer—feels uncharacteristic and even bizarre in its moto perpetuo note-spinning. That said, Glover led a rousing performance that got the evening off to a lively start with blazing trumpet work.

The rest of the first half proved less rewarding. While the music was chosen with typical care by Glover to set a mood of Lenten reflection, the performances rarely rose above the mundane.

“Komm, Jesu, Komm,” is typical of Bach’s spiritual texts, the singer longing for Jesus to release the weary body from earthly suffering to death and heavenly peace. While the MOB Chorus sang with polish and clarity, the blandly inexpressive performance had about as much nuance and spiritual depth as Molly on the Shore. 

Oddly, the weakest member of the Easter Oratorio quartet was tapped as soloist in the two other works.  James Gilchrist’s reedy tone and short-breathed singing brought little ethereal expression to Buxtehude’s Quemadmodum desiderat cervus nor Purcell’s “Evening Hymn”—unaided by the tenor’s restless and distracting body language. Collins Trier’s rock-solid double-bass ground in the Buxtehude was the most noteworthy aspect of the performance.

Music of the Baroque’s final season concerts are May 7 and 8 with Dame Jane Glover leading Michael Haydn’s Symphony No. 26 and Joseph Haydn’s The Creation. baroque.org 

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