Classical

Review: Music of the Baroque: No Animals—Or Music—Harmed in The Chase

Photo: Elliot Mandel

The five pieces in Music of the Baroque’s latest concert, titled The Chase, highlighted the rise of hunting as an organized sport for the European upper class in the 18th century, and how the music of the era reflected that trend. The thread connected a variety of compositions: an overture celebrating a German “hunting landgrave,” a cantata combining mythology and a rather obvious suck-up to a prince patron, some drama in excerpts from two operas, and a symphony with a rousing final movement justifying its subtitle La Chasse.

This delightful evening of orchestral and choral music featured a star turn by mezzo-soprano Allyson McHardy and fine work by fellow soloists Véronique Filloux (soprano), Ryan Townsend Strand (tenor) and Keven Keys (bass). A smaller orchestra than usual, lighter on strings and heavier on winds and “hunting horns,” enabled the chorus to project stronger than is sometimes the case in concerts held at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance. The concert benefited from the energetic conducting and entertaining descriptions of the pieces by Nicholas Kraemer, who stood at and sometimes played the harpsichord.

Vocalists Ryan Townsend Strand and Allyson McHardy, with conductor Nicholas Kraemer at the harpsichord. Photo: Elliot Mandel

Here is an overview of the individual pieces:

Overture in D Major, TWV 55:D21 by Georg Philipp Telemann: Telemann wrote this piece as a tribute to Ludwig VIII of Hesse-Darmstadt, the aforementioned “hunting landgrave.” French horns, often played in response to also prominently featured oboes, provided a hint of the hunt, though the piece reflected dancers more than men on horseback. The third movement, titled Rejouissance (Rejoicing), had an upbeat, dance-like quality, and the final two sections were menuets.

Cantata No. 208 (Hunt Cantata) by Johann Sebastian Bach: This piece is best known to history for its ninth passage, Sheep may safely graze in English. Bach, who spent most of his life as a court composer, wrote the Hunt Cantata for the birthday celebration of Duke Christian of Saxe-Weissenfels, a noted hunter. The time-tripping composition borrows from ancient mythology by featuring Diana, the Greek goddess of the hunt; Endymion, a Greek god who hunted; Pan, the Greek god of both music and shepherds; and Pales, a Roman god of sheep flocks. The piece opens with Endymion questioning whether Diana still loves him. The scene then shifts to 18th century Germany, as Diana declares her affections have shifted to “dear Christian,” who she must “with my loving kiss embrace and serve.”

That tone of what the program notes describe generously as “blatantly flattering” is maintained through the remainder of the piece, with Pan declaring that “a Prince is the Pan of his land,” while Pales (in the cantata’s most famous section) states, “Sheep may safely graze where a good shepherd watches over them.” The piece was an entertaining, though slightly creepy, romp.

Hunting Scene from Hippolyte et Aricie by Jean-Philippe Rameau: The mood shifted after the intermission with the performance of two scenes from the fourth act of this opera. Featuring a star turn by McHardy as the character Phèdre, the passage begins with an upbeat and triumphant hunting scene. But it turns dark as Thésée, king of Athens, returns from a business trip to the Underworld and mistakenly believes Hippolyte, his son from a previous marriage, has had an affair with Phèdre, his wife, and conjures a monster to destroy him (this is something that happens far more often in opera than in real life). Phèdre responds with a powerful lament in which she blames herself entirely for Hippolyte’s presumed demise.

Vocalist Véronique Filloux. Photo: Eliot Mandel

Aria “Va tacito e nascosto” from Giulio Cesare by George Frideric Handel: The briefest of the five pieces, which again featured McHardy, was an aria whose title translates to “The cunning hunter goes forth.” Referring to court intrigue in Cleopatra’s Egypt, Julius Caesar is the cunning hunter who goes forth “silently and stealthily, avidly searching out his prey.”

Symphony No. 73 in D Major (La Chasse) by Franz Joseph Haydn: Haydn’s amazing productivity during his 77-year lifetime included 106 symphonies, resulting in his being dubbed as the “father of the symphony.” Similar to the Telemann piece, most of Symphony No. 73 does not educe images of hunting in the listener; the middle two movements are dances. But the piece earns its subtitle in the fourth and final movement, in which racing strings and French horn blasts evoke men on horseback during the chase. Haydn sprung one of his surprises: a soft passage featuring woodwinds, sounding like a set-up for the usual rousing symphonic ending, but instead concludes the piece.

Music of the Baroque, having presented a virtual all-star lineup of the era’s composers, is next up with “Bach and the Italians.” This concert will be presented November 24 at the North Shore Center in Skokie and at the Harris Theater on November 25. Click here for more information.

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