Review: Music of the Baroque’s Easter Oratorio Program Shines with a Few Bumps

The Music of the Baroque concert this week at the Harris Theater, with Johann Sebastian Bach’s Easter Oratorio as its featured piece, was excellent—I’ve never seen the ensemble give a disappointing program—but a bit uneven.

The concert, conducted by Music of the Baroque Music Director Dame Jane Glover, certainly ended strong with Easter Oratorio. The performance of the piece was both stirring—Bach included a lot of trumpet parts to hail the resurrection of Jesus—and breathtakingly beautiful, especially in the aria sung by soprano Yulia Van Doren accompanied only by Mary Stolper on the flute. Mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong and baritone Michael Sumuel, whose booming voice comes from deep inside his being, also shone in their solos.

Tenor James Gilchrest next to Brandon Acker and his unmistakable therebo. Photo by Bob Benenson

Tenor James Gilchrest certainly performed competently with a heavy workload. He stood alone as soloist for two pieces performed before the intermission—Dieterich Buxtehude’s Quemadmodum desiderate cervus (As the deer longs for springs of water) and Henry Purcell’s short and subtle An Evening Hymn, the evening’s only piece sung in English. He then joined the other three soloists for Easter Oratorio.

Yet his vocals did not seem to project as strongly as those by the other soloists, even as heard from a relatively close seat on the main floor. Not every tenor can be expected to sing with the operatic bombast of a Pavarotti, but Gilchrest’s voice seemed especially ethereal compared with his vocalist peers.

It should be said that the acoustics in the Harris, though overall very good, have not always been the friendliest to vocals. This was notable in the past on choral pieces, which at times seemed a little wan and challenged by the instrumentals.

That was not the case on Monday, however, for the chorus guest directed by Benjamin Rivera. Assisted by the four tall standing microphones that Music of the Baroque implemented for its choral pieces not long ago, the chorus excelled on Bach’s Komm, Jesu, Komm, accompanied only by viola, cello, harpsichord, bassoon and the ensemble’s now ever-present therebo, and in the Preis and Dank (Praise and Thanks) final movement of Easter Oratorio.

The orchestra’s evening got off to a bit of a bumpy start with the opening piece, Bach’s Sinfonia in D Major. This does not rank as one of Bach’s greatest hits, and it has a bit of a peculiar history: Musicologists are uncertain whether Bach intended it to stand alone or to be part of a larger piece, and there was even some debate whether Bach himself had written the piece (though most now believe he did).

Violinist and concertmaster Kathleen Brauer had the unenviable task of soloing on a score that required her to play throughout at a frenetic pace that made one almost expect The Flight of the Bumblebees to break out. The composition also seemed to pit her against the rest of the orchestra, creating a balance that seemed a little out of kilter.

Dame Jane Glover, the company’s music director, conducted the Easter Oratorio concert. Photo by Bob Benenson

The music was up to the ensemble’s par for the rest of the concert, and Brauer got her opportunity to shine paired with fellow violin soloist  Kevin Case on the Buxtehude piece. That was also the first of three pieces in which Glover conducted from the harpsichord, something that Nicholas Kraemer does when he sits in as principal guest conductor but that Glover rarely does.

Music of the Baroque now takes a break from Bach, whose The St. Matthew Passion is a highlight of the company’s 2022-23 schedule. The 2021-22 season wraps with a program titled The Brothers Hadyn, featuring compositions by Franz Joseph Hadyn and Michael Haydn.

Click here for tickets priced $35-$95 for the Sunday, May 8, performance at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie and click here for tickets priced $35-$95 for the Monday, May 9, performance at the Harris Theater.

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Bob Benenson

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