at Orchestra Hall

February 20


at Pick-Staiger Concert Hall

February 26

The world of live musical performance is full of surprises. It’s a question not only of big names turning in disappointing performances, but also of the rare treat when a little-known performer (or group of performers) comes to town and really knocks your socks off. Recently I had both kinds of experience back-to-back.

Chamber Music Chicago sponsored the Chicago debut of the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists, directed by their founder, John Eliot Gardiner. Although Gardiner is celebrating the 25th anniversary of the founding of his choir, only in the last few years has his name become widely known; he’s ridden on the coattails of the recent fascination with period instrument performances. But despite their reputation, and despite the CMC advertising blitz labeling them “the world’s greatest early-music ensemble,” Gardiner’s two groups made clear that what he is doing has little to do with the current revolution in early-music performance.

Handel’s oratorio Israel in Egypt seemed the perfect vehicle for the two groups. Unlike many other Handel oratorios, this one demands little solo singing; it consists almost entirely of choruses.

The libretto is entirely scriptural. The first part consists of texts taken exclusively from the Book of Exodus, describing in very broad fashion the Israelites’ enslavement by the Egyptians, their cry to Yahweh, his reply in the person of Moses, and the various plagues that fall upon Egypt. The narrative here is so sketchy that anyone not familiar with the biblical story would be helpless to follow the action. The second part holds together better: in effect it’s a setting of the famous epic poem found in the Book of Deuteronomy known as “The Song of the Sea,” the earliest biblical text concerning the exodus from Egypt; so it incorporates the same story as the first part but tells it in a more triumphant manner.

Handel originally conceived the work in three parts, like most of his other oratorios, but he never discovered a thoroughly satisfactory way to work this out. In one performing edition he incorporated an earlier funeral anthem (for Queen Caroline) as the prologue, changing its words and calling it “The Lamentations of the Israelites for the Death of Joseph.” He later abandoned that idea, feeling that the transposition didn’t work very well. Gardiner has taken a compromise approach to the problem: he performs only the overture to the funeral anthem, transposing the opening notes of Israel in Egypt’s first recitative to match the tonality of the overture. In effect then the funeral ode’s overture becomes the overture to the entire work.

The strings of the English Baroque Soloists were absolutely first-rate, producing a gorgeous tone free of the intonation and pitch problems so common among period-string performers, but it must be said that the winds were second-rate. Their sound was breathy, and they had many pitch and intonation problems. Furthermore the trumpets and timpani in the fully orchestrated sections were harsh-sounding.

It is true that the Monteverdi Choir produces wonderful vocal colors, but this is achieved across a limited dynamic range: from loud to very loud. It should also be said that it is achieved at the expense of clear enunciation and clarity. In short, the choral lines are garbled and unfocused, the singers apparently concentrating on projection and timbre. In fact the choir sings so loudly (no small feat for only 29 singers) that the orchestra proved no match for them; the choir won out every time.

Gardiner’s conducting of the work was certainly high-spirited, but I found his slow tempi (very un-Handelian) and his distorted balances distracting and disappointing. The organ was overpowering, and the winds were almost inaudible when they were playing with the strings and chorus. There seemed little if any connection between the choral lines and the corresponding wind lines, a connection that is essential if the beauty and clarity of Handel are to be fully expressed.

As the work of individual soloists and of the various sections emerged, many vocal problems were revealed. The altos (oddly, given Gardiner’s claim to be historically informed, he uses men and women–Handel used male altos and boy sopranos) were seated in two groups at opposite ends of the stage, and could not manage to stay together. The bass section had trouble reaching, let alone sustaining, its low notes, particularly in the chorus “And the blast of his nostrils . . .” Soloists were straining to be heard and often screeching to reach notes; one solo soprano, ironically enough, was singing sharp and breathy as she sang, “Thou didst blow a mighty wind”; need I say more?

No doubt part of the reason for these defects was that the choir is used to singing and recording in very large, resonant European spaces. Orchestra Hall, whose acoustics are so notoriously dry, is not very forgiving. Chamber Music Chicago is usually a master at bringing us out-of-town performers who can do things that Chicago-area performers can’t or won’t do, but this was one case when I would much rather have heard one of our own early-music groups. (Still, if CMC hadn’t brought them to town, hype and all, I wouldn’t have known that.)

Although I had heard of the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, I had never heard them perform live. But I knew of their [heir rather unusual approach, which made them seem worth investigating when they performed at Northwestern University’s Pick-Staiger Concert Hall. Founded in 1972 by cellist Julian Fifer, this New York-based orchestra has followed the standard European orchestral model: it’s entirely self-governing. The members all vote on decisions rather than have an outside conductor or music director or manager dictate repertoire, programming, rehearsal techniques, and interpretation. The 26-member orchestra rehearses and performs without a conductor and alternates section leaders. On the surface it sounds a deliciously disastrous idea.

The first half of their program was all Mozart–music that was written before the advent of the stand-up conductor, although Mozart is rarely performed without a conductor these days. The opening piece was the Divertimento no. 1 in E-flat, K. 113, a brilliant work Mozart penned when he was 15. The playing here was incredible, despite the lack of a conductor, the string ensembling was flawlessly executed, never heavy or weighed down, and they managed to avoid romantic excesses. And, on modern instruments! Equally rare was the fact that all of the winds were clearly audible and perfectly balanced against the strings. I know of no conductor who could have achieved better balances, and in fact the majority couldn’t do nearly as well. So what’s the secret? Every performer, down to a person, was concentrating very carefully on listening to the others.

Pianist Alfred Brendel joined the group for the second work, the Mozart Piano Concerto no. 19 in F, K. 459, in a performance that truly rates as one of the finest of a Mozart concerto I’ve heard. The piece was revealed in all its sparkling clarity, every phrase and nuance clearly audible. A Mozart piano concerto is usually performed these days as the showcase for a soloist, but Brendel and Orpheus were equal partners, clearly manifesting the partnership Mozart created for orchestra and piano. The balance of piano and orchestral texture was extraordinary–Brendel held back his sound masterfully so that it was just under the orchestra when appropriate, and both piano and orchestra had a unified sense of phrasing, poetry, and lyricism. A memorable performance that would be difficult to improve on, so convincing that it totally transcended any need for a more historically accurate approach.

The second half of the concert began with some private family music from the Wagner household, Siegfried Idyll, which Wagner wrote as a birthday/Christmas present for his wife Cosima the year after her divorce from conductor Hans von Bulow. At the time of the divorce Wagner and Cosima had already had two children together, which von Bulow had recognized as his own, but Cosima finally left von Bulow to marry her longtime lover. Cosima (who was Franz Liszt’s daughter) introduced the custom of presenting household performances of Wagner’s music on his birthday, and then Wagner began elaborating on this idea and wrote a special piece for Cosima, the strains of which awakened her on Christmas morning.

The Orpheus performance was credible, but it lacked the really luscious, romantic string sound that makes the piece most effective. As annoying as I find it when performers introduce this sound when the music doesn’t call for it, there are times when it is absolutely called for. Unfortunately the playing here was not executed with the same smoothness and homogeneity that illuminated the Mozart performances. There was little tension building to the piece’s climax, which revealed some weak horn playing. It seems that, although it is possible to play Wagner without a conductor, the music is much better served with one–there’s someone to shape the architecture of the work, allow for dynamic shape and contrast. These were fairly crude in this performance; when the ensemble tried to play very softly, for example, they lost sound and body.

The Schoenberg Chamber Symphony no. 1, op. 9, that concluded the program was a daring, revolutionary work in its time–it caused a miniature riot when it was first performed in Vienna over 80 years ago. The culmination of Schoenberg’s romantic period, the work opposes tonality and atonality, all the while remaining quite traditional in form. Here again, it seems, a conductor would have helped. Although the work was very well executed–miraculously so, considering its complexity and the lack of a conductor–the group seemed largely to be playing unrelated pitches rather than organized notes, skimming the surface of the piece rather than penetrating its deeper meaning. At least for 19th- and 20th-century music, conductors are still, it would seem, a necessary evil.