Basically Bach

at Saint James Cathedral

May 18


at Saint Paul’s United Church of Christ

May 20

The greatest single pleasure of the blossoming of early-music groups in Chicago in recent years is that occasionally we get the opportunity to hear a long-neglected masterpiece. Such was the case when Basically Bach presented Handel’s Joshua, a dramatic biblical oratorio, which, as far as anyone could tell, was being heard for the first time in Chicago. Music of the Baroque has made presenting neglected Handel a primary mission, but how wonderful it was to have this work performed on the instruments and in the style intended by the composer.

The story takes up where another Handel oratorio, Israel in Egypt, leaves off, after Joshua has become Moses’s successor in leading the Israelites to the promised land. Most of the oratorio deals with the military campaigns that made the Israelites’ conquest of Palestine possible, the fundamental theme being that as long as the Israelites are faithful to Yahweh (or Jehovah), they will prevail over their enemies. The narrative is slow moving compared to Israel in Egypt, and many details are repeated–much as they are in the work’s scriptural source, the Book of Joshua. Yet the work is full of glorious music that is vintage Handel.

If I have one overall complaint about the Basically Bach performance of the work, it is that conductor and music director Daniel V. Robinson did not evoke much in the way of Handelian spirit or energy. There should be a bouncy liveliness to Handel that was largely missing from Robinson’s often heavy-handed approach. (One wonders what a master Handelian such as City Musick’s Elaine Scott Banks might do with this score.) Still, Robinson had done his homework and knew his material quite well. He managed to keep his forces together, even if they moved along much too slowly for my taste and often with a monotone sense of the work’s drama. Occasionally some string solo playing was out of tune, and Nancy Wilson, the orchestra’s usual concertmaster, was missing. Yet the overall string and wind sound was quite good, even if orchestral string trills were rarely uniform. The brasses in particular were of a far better quality than in most past period-instrument performances in Chicago, although there were still some tentative trumpet moments.

Robinson’s chorus has come along light years since I first heard it in 1985; it is far better balanced among the sections, and far greater attention is paid to tight ensembling and matching up individual voice timbres. Despite its pleasant sound, diction is still very poor, and without a printed text–which was generously provided–understanding the words would have been futile; in fact, sometimes it was futile even with the text. Perhaps one of the reasons Robinson wasn’t able to go any faster in some crucial sections was that when he tried, the chorus simply couldn’t keep up with him.

I’m not a big fan of tenor Frank Hoffmeister–who has an unfocused, gravelly sound to his voice–on a good night, and this was not a good night. He wasn’t projecting well in the lead role of Joshua, and he often strained and slurred his runs, especially as he ran out of steam near the work’s conclusion. I have heard him do much better.

Baritone James Weaver, in the bass role of the warrior Caleb, had good projection and diction and a consistently pleasing voice–though his lower notes were tentative, and his technique unable to encompass the individual notes of his runs. Caleb’s daughter Achsah was sung by soprano Carol Loverde, who is not exactly an early-music soprano but who nonetheless demonstrated considerable flair for Handel. She had impressive vocal control, as well as a pleasing, full-bodied timbre and excellent diction. Soprano Anne Mirrelle Monma sang the angel with effective style.

One of the main attractions of this premiere was the return of countertenor Steven Rickards as Othniel, a love interest for Achsah–both nonscriptural characters. Rickards’s once frequent appearances in town have become all too rare, so it was a great pleasure to hear his glorious voice again. With his smooth, lyrical approach, his full-bodied attacks, and his gorgeous timbre, he is probably our greatest American countertenor. True, he was straining by the end of scene ten and barely made it to the end of the oratorio, but that is a pacing problem that can be easily corrected through additional vocalizing. Or perhaps it was just a bad night. Hearing Rickards again, even not at his best, was an invigorating experience, and I hope we will be hearing much more of him.

I heard the Choral Ensemble of Chicago once five years ago, when it was known as the Chicago Chamber Choir. It performed an all-Bach concert in which the direction was so undefined and the quality of its voices so amateurish that the old master sounded like Schoenberg. I decided to go hear the group again last weekend since it was celebrating its 25th anniversary with a more contemporary program.

The chief attraction was the opening work, commissioned for the occasion from Chicago composer and recently retired journalist Dan Tucker, who demonstrated a real flair for choral writing a couple of seasons ago in a commissioned work for His Majestie’s Clerkes called The Dream of the Rood. I enjoyed that work enough that I wanted to see what Tucker would come up with for this group. It turned out to be a piece beyond the group’s capabilities, Alleluias of Six Poets, which included settings of texts from Thomas Merton, E.E. Cummings, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Walt Whitman, William Cavendish, and an unknown Zuni. Tucker managed to capture the spirit of his sources quite convincingly–a considerable feat. But he got little help from the Choral Ensemble, who offered a very dry, unfocused reading.

The problem with the group is that, though its founder and conductor George Estevez has considerable vision and programming ability, he is unable to communicate his vision to the chorus. The timbres within individual sections are not at all matched, nor is the group able to blend together very well–it becomes an unfocused wall of choral sound. Sopranos dominate, at various screeching levels. And diction is poor because the ensembling is so poor–consonants are never together. This makes the text virtually unintelligible. When the soloists could be heard, they were pleasing in an amateur sense. In fact the overall effect was about at the level of a community or church chorus–respectable by those standards, but pretty grisly by professional ones. The area the group does seem concerned about that works to its advantage is dynamic contrast, which was apparent in each of the three pieces performed.

Also on the program was Benjamin Britten’s Te Deum–which was given a far better performance than the Tucker, being less complicated and more superficial–and the Chicago premiere of a work by another 20th-century British composer, Arthur Bliss, his Pastoral: Lie Strewn the White Flocks, a fluffy, overlong, neo- Romantic work praising the return of spring. A small string orchestra was brought in for the Bliss, along with CSO flutist Walfrid Kujala, and both suffered from not having any solid direction. Estevez was concentrating on the choir, treating the instruments as if they were extended organ accompaniment. That made for a rudderless, coarse orchestral sound. And I can’t say what language mezzo-soprano Mary Mattfeld was trying to sing her solo bits in, but it couldn’t have been English.