Baroque Band delights

By M.L. RANTALA
Classical Music Critic

Neither snow nor cold kept the Augustana Lutheran Church from hosting a large crowd Saturday night. Baroque Band has that kind of audience.

Englishman Ian Watson was the guest director and harpsichordist for a program titled “Under the Influence,” which featured a fascinating collection of baroque gems. Conducting from the harpsichord, Watson proved to be a superlative interpreter, performer and leader, creating the kind of glorious music to warm a winter heart.

The evening began with Vivaldi’s Sinfonia “Il coro de la muse.” This set the standard for the night, with artfully brisk pacing, bright sound and a readiness to find the wit in the music.

Joan Plana, Baroque Band’s concertmaster, was another key element to the success of the performance. His playing was virtuosic and insightful, his violin able to laugh or cry as required, all while his connection to the other players was obviously integral to the splendid performance. His superb playing as at the heart of the success of Charles Avison’s Concerto Grosso in D Minor.

There was a polished shine to Francesco Durante’s Concerto a cinque in A Major with the opening presto rendered at a charming gallop while the middle movement heard Watson create haunting music, slowly drawn. This sunny work was followed by a darker, more brooding one, the Concerto Grosso in E Minor by Francesco Geminiani. The counterpoint was intriguing and the slow sections were packed with nuance and subtlety. Plana was almost manic during some rapid portions, even while keeping tight hold of the rhythm. The pulsing dynamics Watson created were magical. It seemed but a blink of an eye, but the intermission was already upon us.

After the break, the band took up Albinoni’s Sinfonia in G Major, permitting Watson to display crisp keyboard work. The violins had intonation problems in the adagio, but these gave way to fine ensemble work for the final allegro, with staggered entrances offering different members of the ensemble a chance to strut.

I loved the opening to Locatelli’s Concerto Grosso in D Major, where small wave-like phrases rapidly became a flood of joyous sound. The andante built to a memorable conclusion, with the music creating something akin to a long-drawn deep breath which was held until the perfect moment. The following exhalation was inevitable and the audience itself seemed breathless waiting for it.

The concert closed with Geminiani’s La Folia, where Watson created big contrasts, the lower strings provided deep support, and the harpsichord embroidered everything. The work was a Fun-Pak of variety.

The audience loved the results, and came to their feet when Watson made his second curtain call.

During the intermission, I had a chance to chat briefly with David Schrader, a member of the Baroque Band’s board of directors, its program annotator and in-house harpsichordist. He provided one of his own harpsichords for Watson’s performance, an American instrument constructed in the 1970s for which he had a special stand made by a custom furniture maker. The stand has legs much taller than usual, so that the performer can comfortably stand while playing. This, Schrader noted, makes conducting while playing much easier.

I was sitting in nearly the center of the room, and straight on the instrument seemed quite small (it turns out to be about four-and-a-half octaves), but its sound was gorgeous and full. Strung entirely in brass, Schrader believes the harpsichord “penetrates better than the instrument at Orchestra Hall.” It certainly sounded great Saturday.

It’s also worth noting that a long-time supporter of Baroque Band has recently joined its board of directors. Valerie Solti, who remained active in the music world after the death of her husband Sir Georg, must surely be a wonderful addition to the Baroque Band family.

The Band’s next Hyde Park performance is Sat., Mar. 22 at 7:30, again at Augustana, 5500 S. Woodlawn Ave. David Schrader returns to the keyboard and he himself will direct a program entitled “Their Master’s Voice” which will include a performance of Bach’s Triple Concerto. For details, visit BaroqueBand.org.