The talented players of the Music of the Baroque company have been troupers for sure during the New Abnormal of the pandemic.
Their planned 50th anniversary celebration was supposed to be filled with grandeur and appreciative live audiences. Denied this by the pandemic, the company pivoted to a series of monthly live-streamed concerts, beginning this past January, with programs scaled for smaller, socially distanced ensembles and their at-home viewership.
The latest of these took place this past Sunday, May 9. During that livecast, Music of the Baroque’s, Executive Director Declan McGovern said that the company’s 2021-22 schedule will be finalized by late June, and there have been indications that it will be on a grand scale, similar if not identical to the 50th Anniversary fest that was supposed to happen this year.
Perhaps it was an elevated sense of hope that made the “Plus Fours” concert of five concerto grossi masterworks seem so breezy. Or maybe it was because, as Principal Guest Conductor Nicholas Kraemer put it, these pieces — “Plus Fours” because each featured four violin soloists — are “easy listening” from the Baroque era. This concert was for settling back and putting your feet up, one of the advantages of watching a live concert from home.
Light does not mean lightweight, of course, when the composer lineup is George Frideric Handel, George Philipp Telemann, Pietro Antonio Locatelli, and Antonio Vivaldi. There were five pieces (including two by Handel) packed into a concert that lasted about 75 minutes, with each piece preceded by an informative discussion between Kraemer and McGovern. None of the arrangements had time to become ponderous, and in total they showed the wide range that the concerto grossi form encompasses.
The performance, which took place on the stage of the North Shore Music Center in suburban Skokie, began with Handel’s Concerto Grosso in F Major, op. 3, no. 4b. It was the only one of the five pieces to feature wind instruments, with oboes responding to the violin soloists; cellos, violas, bass, Kraemer’s harpsichord, and the strummed string theorbo filled out the stage, the closest to a full orchestra that these live streams have presented.
Telemann’s Concerto for 4 violins without bass in D Major followed and was something completely different. Telemann — one of history’s most prolific composers and more popular during the Baroque era than Johann Sebastian Bach — produced a piece for the soloists unaccompanied (in other formats, a string quartet), though written in the orchestral concerto grossi form. This was definitely easy listening as the performers glided through four very short movements, alternately playing together as one and individually repeating measures from first to fourth violin and back.
Sometimes the histories of the composers are as interesting as their pieces. Locatelli, whose Concerto Grosso in F Major, op. 4, no. 12, was (according to the program notes) a child violin prodigy in Italy who studied under Arcangelo Corelli, regarded as the originator of the concerto grosso. Renowned for his technical perfection as a violinist, Locatelli ultimately settled in Amsterdam and was extraordinary cautious about sharing his talents, never performing in public and barring other musicians from the house concerts in which he did perform.
His Concerto Grosso in F Major, in three movements (as became more fashionable than four movements later in the Baroque era), employed an all-strings ensemble that included a cello with the four violin soloists and also paired two of the violin soloists with two violas.
Handel’s music returned with his Concerto Grosso in F Major, op. 6, no. 2, HWV 320, the most historically significant piece of the evening. Handel toured Italy in his early years as a composer, studied Corelli, and is believed to have produced his Opus 6 as a reference to Corelli’s own famed Opus 6 that helped to popularize the form. Kraemer described Handel’s Opus 6 and Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos as the most important compilations of concerto grossi. The four-movement No. 2 begins with a pastoral Andante larghetto; the other three movements followed a familiar Allegro-Largo-Allegro pattern, though the final movement’s Allegro, ma non troppo had a fugue-like quality not seen in the other pieces.
The final piece — by Vivaldi, a composer frequently featured by Music of the Baroque — was his Concerto for 4 violins in B Minor, op. 3, no. 10, RV 580. Though again with a full string ensemble, this piece heavily featured the four soloists, with a brisk Allegro ending the evening on an upbeat note.
Because Music of the Baroque presented Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos just 13 days earlier (on April 26), fans have a rare opportunity to view them both on demand for $25 per household. Access to the Bach concert will end after May 29, but the Plus Fours concert will remain available until June 12.
The final live-streamed concert of Music of the Baroque’s 2021 season, titled Musica Sacra — Bach and Purcell — takes place Sunday, June 6. Tickets are $25 per household and are on sale now.