Music of the Baroque‘s COVID-shortened season of six monthly live-streamed concerts ended this month with its Musica Sacra – Bach & Purcell concert. The most important thing to note about the season was that it happened at all.
The company had designed a glorious schedule for the 2020-21 season with major works in celebration of its 50th anniversary year, but these big-laid plans were crushed under the weight of the pandemic that shut down live performances for 15 months. Yet unlike most classical troupes, which remained mostly or completely sidelined, Music of the Baroque powered through by launching the live-streamed events — also available on demand after the performances — that kept alive its connection to its audience.
The Musica Sacra concert was the most esoteric after a lineup mostly made up of familiar works by legends such as Johann Sebastian Bach, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, George Frideric Handel, Joseph Haydn and Antonio Vivaldi. Bach again was the featured composer but in his most reflective mode with a pair of liturgical cantatas, written for solo vocalists, that he wrote in his longtime role as music director (kappelmeister) of St. Thomas Lutheran Church in the German city of Leipzig. The Bach pieces were preceded by two very short instrumental In Nomine compositions by late 17th century English composer Henry Purcell.
While the previous five concerts were staged without audience in Chicago’s Harris Theater and Skokie’s North Shore Center for the Performing Arts — Music of the Baroque’s usual venues — the sacred music concert was performed on June 6 in a similarly empty Faith, Hope and Charity Church in north suburban Winnetka. The recording is available to be purchased on demand through July 9.
The program was conducted by Dame Jane Glover and performed with precision by Music of the Baroque’s smaller-than-average 18-member ensemble. Deeply religious individuals and/or those who are engrossed with liturgical music would likely find the selections moving. Other viewers would find the period’s contrasting religious emotions reflected in the two Bach pieces the most interesting part of the concert.
The first, Bach’s Cantata No. 82, speaks to two realities: that most people in 18th century Germany believed in a physical Heaven, and that some lived such miserable lives that they longed for death in order to enter eternity. The piece, with solo vocals by bass-baritone Michael Sumuel, is subtitled “Ich haben genug,” which translates roughly to “I have enough,” and the text makes it eminently clear that it is the thoughts of one who has had enough of life. “Here I must build up misery, but there, there I will see sweet peace, quiet rest,” reads one passage. The piece concludes with this aria: “I delight in my death, ah, if it were only present already! Then I will emerge from all the suffering that binds me to the world.”
The second Bach piece, Cantata No. 51, featured soprano Yulia Van Doren and could hardly have a more contrasting mood. This is religion as an uplifting force, a source of joy. Its subtitle is “Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen!” translated to ‘Exult God in every land!” And as in Cantana No. 82, the subtitle/opening verse defines the piece: “Exult in God in every land! Whatever creatures are contained in heaven and earth must raise up this praise, and now we shall likewise bring and offering to our God, since he has stood with us at all times during suffering and necessity.” The celebratory spirit was accented by Van Doren’s vocals interspersed with the clarion notes of Barbara Butler’s trumpet.
The final aria was composed of one word, “Alleluiah,” which also was an appropriate sendoff for Music of the Baroque’s most unusual season.
The concert was performed at the beginning of the week that ended with the official reopening of Chicago, ending the long dark period in Chicago’s cultural life. The schedule for a return to in-person performances in the 2021-22 season was announced by Glover at the end of the concert. Music of the Baroque returns to its traditional September start date with two familiar pieces by George Frideric Handel, Water Music Suite No. 2 and Music for the Royal Fireworks, and continues through May with highlights that include a Thanksgiving weekend performance of Handel’s Messiah and a return in December of the Holiday Brass & Choral Concerts performed on four consecutive nights in churches in and around Chicago.
The recording of the June 6 Musica Sacra can be purchased for streaming on-demand for $25 per household. Information about the 2021-22 season, including subscriptions that are now on sale, can be found on the Music of the Baroque website.