Music of the Baroque planned a huge 2020-21 season. A celebration of the ensemble’s 50th anniversary that was to run from September to May before live audiences. The season was to include the massive St. Matthew Passion by Johann Sebastian Bach, George Frederic Handel’s Messiah and Water Music, Joseph Hadyn’s The Creation and more.
But within weeks after the announcement of the schedule late last February, the COVID-19 pandemic began to exercise its stranglehold on Chicago public life in general and live musical performance in particular. Music of the Baroque had no choice but to cancel its 50th anniversary splash—but the executives and musicians also refused to throw in the towel.
The result is a schedule of six monthly live-streamed concerts that launched on Sunday (January 24) with a performance of Antonio Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons. The usual orchestral setting of a Music of the Baroque concert was trimmed down to nine performers, socially distanced and wearing masks with the M.O.B.’s 50th anniversary logo, with most standing throughout the nearly hour-long rendition. (The concert is available, for a $25 charge, on-demand starting Wednesday.)
It was not the kind of live music experience to which we are used, and that we are longing to return. I watched the concert live on my television (streamed from my computer), 13 miles from the stage at Skokie’s North Shore Center for the Performing Arts. Conductor Dame Jane Glover appeared in a pre-concert video from her home in London; concertmaster Gina DiBello, whose violin carried Vivaldi’s often rapid-fire score, also directed the ensemble.
And it was marvelous.
Just watching musicians of this caliber playing live, even remotely, is a balm for the music-deprived. The Four Seasons is so familiar—most classical fans could whistle along to virtually every note, and even non-fans recognize famous phrases from soundtracks and commercials—that it might have drawn a ho-hum reaction on a normal schedule, but in the pinched environment of the pandemic, it was welcome as an old friend.
Much of the night’s success must be attributed to DiBello, a gem of the Chicago classical scene who has been M.O.B.’s concertmaster since 2016 while also performing first violin with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Her tone is always beautiful. Playing while standing, draped in a floor-length, flowing pink gown, DiBello was able to clearly exhibit the energy she puts into every note in this challenging piece.
I’ve said before that you never attend a Music of the Baroque concert without learning something. Sunday’s lesson was that when the piece was published in 1725, Vivaldi included sonnets about each of the seasons, beginning with Spring and running through Summer, Autumn and Winter.
And those sonnets—recited as a prelude to each movement by Christopher Kenney, a baritone who graduated recently from the Lyric Opera of Chicago’s Ryan Opera Center—illuminated what familiar passages were meant to represent, such as thunderstorms, lashing winds, the torpor of summer heat, slipping and falling on winter’s ice.
In a conversation with DiBello and Kenney live-streamed after the concert, M.O.B. General Manager Declan McGovern spoke what was on the minds of many when he said, “It’s not the same thing, but it’s a start.” Conductor Glover stated in her pre-concert talk that more widespread distribution of COVID-19 vaccines may enable more of the musicians to perform together on stage as the season advances.
In the meantime, we’ll just have to tune in, close our eyes and visualize a stage with a closely packed full orchestra playing before a full house of classical music lovers.
Music of the Baroque’s presentation of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons will be available for on-demand viewing beginning Wednesday. Tickets are $25 per household and can be accessed by clicking here. The next Music of the Baroque live-streamed concert, Double Trouble, will be performed live on Sunday, February 28, at 7:30pm and will feature pieces by Bach, Handel, Vivaldi and Arcangelo Corelli; tickets are $25 and can be purchased by clicking here, with $25 tickets for the on-demand replay beginning March 3 available here.