Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Off and Running in Chicago


Although the title suggests some comments on Chicago's disastrous marathon, I am actually referring to the debut season of Chicago's newest ensemble, the Baroque Band. This modest group of string players with exceptional harpsichordist David Schrader are committed to performing that most neglected of repertoire, Baroque orchestral music. They are a period instrument and performance orchestra, so there are lots of things to get used to. Admittedly, I had the most difficulty getting my ears to adjust to their tuning, which is supposed to be more in line with Baroque ideas about tuning, not 21st century ideas. So some of the performers sounded strangely off key, until you accept that they all are in a modern sense. They held their bows differently and the viola da gamba made a strong showing. The intimate ensemble performed in an intimate space, Symphony Center's Grainger Ballroom, which has to be the most beautiful location for such music. Since Baroque music was composed for performance either in opulent churches or estates, the Ballroom was a smart choice - the folding chairs were not.

The Baroque Band opened their inaugural season with a heavy focus on the music of Biber....Right, that guy. Anyway, four of the six works were his, and three of the four were meant as background music for an aristocrat's soiree. Nevertheless, some of the myriad movements were beautiful and inventive. The playing of the ensemble can be described as committed. The director/violinist, Garry Clarke, showed tremendous enthusiasm for the music and tried mightily to bring out the smart details in Biber's music. Since I never heard these pieces before, the unequal tuning also wasn't as disconcerting.

The other two pieces were the Brandenburg Concertos Nos. 3 and 6, the string concertos. I found the performance of the sixth to be rather plodding and combined with the unique tuning, the violas and gambas couldn't have sounded more unpleasant to my ears. In all fairness, the piece itself is rather plodding and the scoring, so darkly hued, can lead one astray. The performance concluded with a rousing and lively rendition of the Third, one of my favorites. The outer movements were sprightly and moved quickly. It was the opposite effect of the sixth. Since no inner movement was bequeathed to us from Herr Bach, Mr. Schrader performed a beautiful and completely satisfying small middle movement on the harpsichord. That was a highlight for me actually. In all the other pieces, the continuo figurations seemed well below what David Schrader could muster, so I was pleased that he got that short-lived opportunity to show what he can do.

All in all, a nice concert program. I am sure with continued support, the small group can make a name for itself in this town. Move over Music of the Baroque, although admittedly they perform Haydn and Mozart. Thank God Baroque Band is willing to give us our necessary dose of Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber.

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