Block Gallery, January 23

What do we know about the Baroque era in music? If we listen only to the repertoire served up by mainstream orchestras and performers, we come away with the impression that there were a few towering figures who singlehandedly contributed to the increasingly ornamental, complex, and secular forms of music that gradually became entrenched in Western Europe from roughly 1600 to 1750. To be sure, Bach and Handel revolutionized old genres and techniques, invented new ones, and profoundly influenced generations of composers. A notch or two below them in greatness were composers such as Corelli, Vivaldi, Telemann, Buxtehude, and Purcell, who helped blaze the trail. But period-instrument outfits such as the Chicago Baroque Ensemble show us that working alongside those pioneers was a legion of fascinating musicians who propagated and popularized the newfangled ideas.

Sonatas by two of these composers were featured in the season opener of the CBE, a solid member of the city’s early-music triumvirate (the other two being the Newberry Consort and the Orpheus Band). Both Francesco Maria Veracini (1690-1768) and Pietro Locatelli (1695-1764) were exceptional violinists and were supposedly pupils of Corelli. In their youth they traveled up and down their native Italy, making frequent stops in Rome, which at the time was still the musical capital of the world. After compiling thick resumes, the two musicians, who might have been acquaintances, settled in the northern countries, no doubt billing themselves as the latest sensations from Italy.

Veracini chose burgeoning London. In all likelihood, this colorful Florentine–who, according to a program note, was once so crazed by his prolonged study of music and alchemy that he leapt from a third-story window–regaled the dour British with exhibitionist pieces based on tricks he’d learned in Rome. The Sonata in D Major for Violin and Cello (op. 2 no. 1)–played by the CBE’s Christopher Verrette and John Mark Rozendaal, with harpsichord continuo from Stephen Alltop–is in the mold of the chamber sonatas for which Corelli was celebrated. It has six contrasting sections and of course provides plenty of virtuosic passages for the soloists. Veracini’s fondness for contrapuntalism is also evident, though subdued. The sonata is really a playful and pleasant divertimento–so pleasant, in fact, that one wonders why an English critic at the time deemed Veracini’s music too wild and flighty. If there were any complaints, it should have been leveled against the monotonous stretches that betray the vanity of an ace performer who writes his own music. (There’s a similarly self-indulgent streak in Paganini and Kreisler.)

The performance by the CBE’s trio–especially by Verrette–was graceful, lilting, and thoroughly charming. The intonation of the baroque strings–warmer, lighter, yet whinier than their modern counterparts–had a laid-back feel that could have been dull in a hall larger than the intimate Block Gallery. Small wonder that by Mozart’s time forward-looking composers were asking for broader dynamite in string and keyboard instruments.

Locatelli ended up in Amsterdam, where he established a concert series for the city’s gifted amateurs. His Sonata in D Major (op. 2 no. 5) might have been composed for one of those occasions, featuring him on the violin. Later, perhaps at the request of a flutist, the violin part was transposed for the newly fashionable flute. This sonata is closer in structure to the classical style, with a largo sandwiched between two faster movements, but its overall tone is still slight–it’s an elegant delectation meant to amuse but not engage busy burghers. Flutist Anita Miller-Rieder, with accompaniment by Rozendaal and Alltop, delivered an amiable performance enlivened by sweet flutters.

Entertaining as they are, these display vehicles pale in comparison with the two vocal compositions on the program. But then Handel and Alessandro Scarlatti (1660-1725) were more original and daring. Scarlatti, founder of the Neapolitan school of opera and patriarch of a famous clan, wrote his pastoral ode Quella pace gradita (“That Wondrous Peace”) at a time when he belonged to the Arcadian Academy in Rome. An elite social and literary club of a few artists and many dilettantes, the Arcadians were nature lovers and political dreamers dedicated to the restoration of pastoral poetry. They were infatuated, as Rozendaal notes in his helpful commentary, with the notion of a pristine utopia populated by frolicsome shepherds and shepherdesses. It’s to this sylvan haven that the ode’s lovelorn narrator retreats. Soprano Patrice Michaels Bedi was the soloist. Though she was recovering from the flu, she turned the simple, commonplace text into an ardent lament that ended in hope.

Handel arrived in Rome in 1706, already a minor celebrity for his operas, lionized by the Medicis and other nobles. He was feted by the Arcadians and wrote cantatas and oratorios that were really operas in disguise–opera was then under a papal ban. He had a knack for finding dramatically engrossing subjects. The cantata O numi eterni, also known as La Lucretia, deals with rape and vengeance in ancient Rome: Lucretia, a virtuous wife, was raped by Tarquin, the king’s son, and after furiously denouncing him she committed suicide. The tragic incident incited a revolt that put an end to the monarchy and ushered in the republican reign.

Handel’s fellow Arcadians looked at it as a lesson to tyrants everywhere, but Handel seemed more interested in the gamut of emotions expressed by the heroine as she beseeches the gods and her countrymen to avenge her. His secular cantata is theatrical to the core. And Bedi, with eloquent support from the CBE’s players, made it a coloratura showcase, limning a proud, defiant, yet tenderly pleading Lucretia. Her voice was pinched in some of the florid, fluttery passages, but it negotiated the lower runs with ease, enhancing the sense of melodrama. Let’s hope other obscure Handel cantatas will soon receive this kind of thoughtful revival.