Review: Music of the Baroque Offers Four Grand Concertos for Double Trouble

The Music of the Baroque orchestra saw its plans for a spectacular 50th anniversary season crushed by the pandemic. To stay in touch with a loyal audience that in better times fills the seats in Chicago’s Harris Theater and Skokie’s North Shore Center for the Arts, the ensemble has created a more modest musical program of considerable social significance: It is staging monthly live-streamed concerts, available on demand after a short delay, in a truncated schedule that began in January and extends into June.

The second concert, presented live online on February 28 and available on demand since March 3, is titled Double Trouble — Bach, Vivaldi and More. The “double” refers to orchestra co-directors Kathleen Brauer and Kevin Case, violinists whose soloist talents took center stage. The program featured four grand concertos by a Baroque-era, all-star lineup: Arcangelo Corelli’s Concerto Grosso in F Major, op. 6, no. 2; Antonio Vivaldi’s Concerto for Two Violins in A Minor, RV 522; George Frederic Handel’s Concerto Grosso in E Minor, op. 6, no. 3, HWV 321; and Johann Sebastian Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins in D Major, BWV 1043.

There is reassuring familiarity even within the constraints of the format, when your “aisle seat” is your couch miles from the concert hall. M.O.B. never disappoints and almost always brings its A-game: You wouldn’t get away with calling yourself Music of the Baroque if you couldn’t handle Handel and if you didn’t get Bach. Each of the orchestra’s concerts is a learning experience, and during this latest concert, Executive Director Declan McGovern and Marketing & Communications Director Jen More alternated between pieces with notes about how Corelli was credited with inventing the concerto grosso form in the late 17th century, how Vivaldi took it to the next level a few years later, how Handel was influenced by the elder Corelli, and how Bach, better known for his prowess playing the organ, actually was hired as a violinist in his first paid post.

Violin solosts Kathleen Brauer (top of page) and Kevin Case were featured in Music of the Baroque’s livestreamed concert.

The challenge for the orchestra is whether livestreaming is live enough for music lovers who have grown weary over a year of sitting at home and staring at a screen. The music was lovely but the sound was as good as your Internet connection: Sometimes it was as lush as live, other times it sounded muddier, and the occasional techno-hiccups were nothing like the live experience. The musicians played beautifully but there were only 11, wearing masks and socially distanced as the vaccine-driven new normal only slowly emerges.

For those experiencing Zoom fatigue, it can feel pretty same old, same old. And there are those for whom the warmth and communal experience of the live concert is just irreplaceable.

My perspective? It’s just good to spend an hour or so a month with these old friends who I missed so much when COVID cut short the end of the 2019-20 season and the start of the 2020-21 season. It’s not the same but it is, sort of.

Online livecasts have their shortcomings, but those watching Music of the Baroque’s livestream got to view the players from some angles they rarely see during live performance.

And maybe being a little bit older helps in this situation. When I was a kid in the 1960s, classical music was common on the TV networks. The Bell Telephone Hour had its own orchestra on the NBC network, which earlier had its own orchestra led by legendary Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini. Ed Sullivan’s variety show on CBS is best known for hosting the U.S. TV debut of The Beatles in 1964, but virtually every major opera star of the era appeared on the “really big shew” and one of them, Roberta Peters, was Sullivan’s most frequent guest.

So give Music of the Baroque credit for being present at a time when most companies haven’t found the way to be, and try to catch a concert or two during the remainder of the season.

The recording of Double Trouble can be viewed on demand through April 3, with tickets on sale for $25 per household. The next Music of the Baroque concert, to be livestreamed on Monday, March 29, from the Harris Theater, is titled Barnatan Plays Mozart. The first concert of the season to be led by conductor Jane Glover features Israeli pianist Inon Barnatan performing Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 14 in E-flat Major, K. 449 and Symphony No. 29 in A Major, K. 201. Tickets for the livestream and for the on-demand recording available on April 1 are on sale for $25 per household.

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Bob Benenson

Bob Benenson is publisher/writer/photographer of Local Food Forum, a new newsletter that covers the broad sweep of the Chicago region’s food community. He is a longtime advocate for a better, healthier, more sustainable food system and is an avid home cook who gets most of his delicious ingredients from local farmers.