Review: Countertenor Mobley Hits the High Notes as Music of the Baroque Guest Soloist
Reginald Mobley is a world-renowned countertenor. If you did not know this in advance, you might be surprised when he begins to sing in crystalline high notes, in a range comparable to the mezzo-soprano or contralto in the female voice.
Mobley’s immense talent has him in high demand as a soloist from classical music companies such as Music of the Baroque. The ensemble not only featured him in its concerts November 20 (at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie) and November 21 (at the Harris Theater) but gave him top billing in a program titled “Reginald Mobley Sings.”
Mobley—who last performed with Music of the Baroque in May 2019—made just a cameo appearance in the first half of Monday’s concert, which was led by longtime primary guest conductor and harpsichordist Nicholas Kraemer.
Mobley stood at rear stage with the Music of the Baroque Chorus, directed by Andrew Megill, and provided the countertenor solos for 17th century composer Henry Purcell’s Welcome to all the Pleasures, a paean to the joys of music and to St. Cecilia, the patron saint of music.
The orchestra proceeded into Purcell’s Fantasia in Three Parts Upon a Ground, which highlighted the return of concertmaster Gina DiBello—one of Chicago’s most brilliant classical violinists—after a maternity leave. Performed by only six instruments (three violins, cello, harpsichord and the huge stringed instrument known as the therebo), the Fantasia is written in a style, popular at the time, that called to mind the more famous Canon in D Minor composed by Purcell contemporary Johann Pachelbel.
The Purcell set wrapped up with the composer’s sacred side, a choral performance of his brief but profound Hear My Prayer, O Lord. The chorus was in full voice, notable because some past performances at the Harris rear stage did not project with great impact into the audience.
The first half concluded with Johann Sebastian Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 in G Major, a well-played and familiar piece that paired DiBello on violin solo with the recorders of Patrick O’Malley and Lisette Kielson. Music of the Baroque is always serious about audience education, and Kraemer noted that the Brandenburg Concertos, staples for many orchestras in our modern era, were not even discovered until 1850, 100 years after Bach’s death.
The second half was an entirely different concert, with Mobley dominating the stage and receiving bravos from the appreciative audience after each piece.
His first song was the aria Cara Sposa from George Frideric Handel’s opera Rinaldo. His piercing voice carried the emotions of this tear-jerker, in which the title character mourns the disappearance of his beloved wife after she was swept away by a jealous sorceress. (Never fear, this one has a happy ending.)
The Handel track continued with the aria Fammi combattere from the opera Orlando. This time, the knightly title character pledges to do crazy things, even fight fierce monsters, to earn the love of the woman he desires (he fails).
The orchestra gave Mobley a breather with an instrumental suite that was incidental music for William Croft’s theatrical play with the odd title of The Comedy call’d the Funeral. The composition was a series of short airs and dances steeped in Scottish folk tradition, the purpose of which was to warm up the audience for the theater to come.
The formal program ended with Mobley singing three arias from Handel’s Belshazzar oratorio, a dynamic composition that has had the misfortune through history of being overshadowed by Handel’s immediately preceding work: his Messiah oratorio.
In the arias, Mobley performed as the prophet Daniel, who predicted the fall of Babylonia and its king Belshazzar; as a Persian soldier celebrating the fact that the Euphrates River had dried up, leaving Babylonia defenseless; and then as Daniel again thanking the Almighty for liberating his people. It was a tour de force for Mobley.
Mobley then returned to the stage for an encore of a very different sort. Mobley noted in remarks that the pandemic had provided time for many musicians to evaluate the lack of acknowledgement given to great composers and performers of color through much of the nation’s history. This led to Mobley’s collaboration with several artists on an album titled American Originals, made up of songs by Black and Latino composers.
Mobley sang a sentimental song from the album titled Dream Faces, in the voice of a man mourning his many acquaintances who had passed on, drawing one more round of bravos.
Music of the Baroque returns with one of its annual highlights: its series of four Holiday Brass and Choral Concerts. These will be presented on Thursday, December 15, at Grace Lutheran Church in River Forest (click here for tickets priced from $35 to $85); Friday, December 16, at St. Michael's Church in Old Town (click here for tickets priced from $35 to $100); Saturday, December 17, at Faith, Hope & Charity Church in Winnetka (click here for tickets priced from $40 to $105); and Sunday, December 18, at Alice Millar Chapel in Evanston (click here for tickets priced from $40 to $105) .
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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.