Review: Music of the Baroque Ends Season with Circle of Friends

It’s rare that I go out of my way to hear a particular piece of music, but that’s what I did Monday night when Music of the Baroque played their final concert of the season at Harris Theater. The work in question was Joseph Haydn’s Sinfonia Concertante for Violin, Oboe, Cello, and Bassoon, a wonderful work only rarely performed.

Haydn’s piece and three others by Mozart, Johann Vanhal, and Baron Carl Dittersdorf comprised a program called Circle of Friends. These four men are documented to have performed string quartets together in Vienna in the 1780s. The program provided some interesting contrasts of lesser-known composers and lesser-known music by famous composers. Under the direction of Dame Jane Glover, MOB gave a performance that was great in the first half, uneven in the second.

The concert opened with the Symphony in g-minor by Vanhal. The program description noted how this minor-key work had a big influence on the Sturm and Drang artistic movement prominent in the 1770s, and it certainly shares dramatic attributes of Haydn’s symphonies of that same era.

One distinctive feature of the Vanhal symphony is that it stayed in a minor key most of the time. Jane Glover and the MOB gave it a very ethereal feel, with the music seeming to undulate in waves. It added an eerie gloominess to the minor key, and it worked. The slow movement featured solos by violinist Gina DeBello and violist Elizabeth Hagen, which added the concertante feel of the other works on the program.

Gina DeBello, Paul Dwyer, Anne Bach, William Bach, and Jane Glover. Photo by Eric Snoza.

The Haydn was next, and what a pleasure it was! Written in the 1790s when Haydn was visiting London, the Sinfonia Concertante in B-flat major has the feel of a symphony with an expanded orchestra. In his catalogue and numbering system for Haydn’s music, Anthony van Hoboken even included it among the symphonies, giving it number 105.

The orchestra includes trumpets, flutes, and timpani, in addition to horns, oboes, and bassoons. Yet, working with a smaller string section than one typically sees, Glover was able to get a nice blend from all the instruments. The sound was clear and crisp, with nothing overpowering. 

The soloists really shone. DeBello on violin was joined by Paul Dwyer on cello, Anne Bach on oboe, and William Buchman on bassoon. Haydn constantly mixed things up in the score, with the soloists playing alone, in pairs, or as a full quartet. They brilliantly played off one another and the full orchestra.

I know I’m in a great space when I utter “wow” during a performance. Kudos to Music of the Baroque for programming an excellent piece by Haydn that is not performed nearly enough. It was great way to end the concert’s first half.

Unfortunately, the concert’s second half wasn’t quite as good. Part of the problem was the program, but the other was a less than great performance.

Elizabetrh Hagen, Collins Trier, Jane Glover. Photo by Eric Snoza.

Opening the second half was a fascinating opportunity to hear a concerto for viola and double bass, Dittersdorf’s Sinfonia Concertante in D-major. These two instruments are rarely found in a solo setting. Hearing them paired together was really cool.

Hagen on viola and Collins Trier on double bass offered a nice contrast. Especially interesting was the slow second movement, where the violins backed up the viola. With the rest of the orchestra resting, the double bass had a solo shot.

Musically this piece is not all that good. The opening themes spend a lot of time repeating the banal chord progression of I, IV, V-7, I. Moreover, the orchestra was not quite as sharp as in the earlier part of the concert. On the other hand, the finale is great, and MOB played it with aplomb. Altogether, it was an enjoyable spectacle.

The big disappointment was Mozart’s symphony no. 34 in C-major, K.338, a piece where Mozart’s genius doesn’t quite come forth. I cannot recall ever hearing it performed live. Typically, I welcome this situation. However, in a program where obscurity reigned supreme, a better choice would have been one of Mozart’s more familiar symphonies or, given the other works on the program, his masterful Sinfonia Concertante in E-flat major.

The performance was plagued by intonation problems in the second violins. This came up often, but especially in the slow second movement, where the violin sections predominate. There were too many instances where the consonances were not crisp and the sound did not gel. Shaking my head during a performance is never a good sign, and I did that a lot during the Mozart.

Fortunately, Music of the Baroque’s 2023-24 season starts in September with Mozart’s Requiem, an unrivaled masterpiece. Ticket information can be found here.

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Louis Harris
Louis Harris

A lover of music his whole life, Louis Harris has written extensively from the early days of punk and alternative rock. More recently he has focused on classical music, especially chamber ensembles. He has reviewed concerts, festivals, and recordings and has interviewed composers and performers. He has paid special attention to Chicago’s rich and robust contemporary art music scene. He occasionally writes poetry and has a published novel to his credit, 32 Variations on a Theme by Basil II in the Key of Washington, DC. He now lives on the north side of Chicago, which he considers to be the greatest city in the country, if not the world.