English Concert kicks off the UC Presents series with style and intimacy

October 16, 2011

Conductor Harry Bicket led members of the English Concert in a Baroque program Friday night at Mandel Hall.

It’s been a good week for Baroque music in Chicago. Dame Emma Kirkby helped to launch Baroque Band’s fifth season in style and on Friday night the University of Chicago Presents series kicked off its season with an appearance by the English Concert at Mandel Hall.

Founded by Trevor Pinnock in 1973, the period-instrument chamber orchestra won acclaim for a series of recordings in the late 1970s and 1980s. Pinnock left the ensemble in 2003 and following four years helmed by violinist-conductor Andrew Manze, current music director Harry Bicket took the English Concert reins in 2007.

Last heard in Chicago this past March leading the Lyric Opera’s performances of Handel’s Hercules, Bicket is a sure and stylish Baroque hand and directed his colleagues with grace and aplomb in a nicely varied program that avoided the usual greatest hits. The dozen-member traveling version of the group on its current national tour is only about two-thirds of the English Concert roster but provided enough instrumental variety for the intimate and pleasing program.

Two suites from Purcell stage works framed the program. The opening collection from King Arthur offered a fine calling card for Bicket’s neatly pointed direction. Some fleeting blandness in the dance-inflected sections was averted by the piquant timbres of the period oboes and bassoon. The closing suite from Purcell’s The Fairy Queen offered a more vital and contrasted sampler with Bicket and the strings bringing lyric intimacy to the gentler sections and the trumpets adding clarion punch to the full ensemble.

Much of the program served to spotlight the Concert’s gifted members. Vivaldi’s Sonata in D minor, La Folia — heard with just a quintet of string players and Bicket — led off with what sounded like an extempore slow introduction by theorbo player William Carter, nicely shaded and expressive. Bicket provided percussion with his rhythmic raps on the harpsichord and the fizzing outer movements offered some dazzling bravura playing by violinist Matthew Truscott and cellist Joseph Crouch.

After the omnipresent Four Seasons, Vivaldi’s Concerto for Two Trumpets is one of his most popular concertante works. Here the performance of soloists Mark Bennett and Michael Harrison was somewhat less consistent with a few scrappy moments amid their otherwise fluent advocacy on the trombone-like period trumpets.

Georg Philipp Telemann remains the most strangely underperformed of the great Baroque composers and Bicket’s inclusion of two Telemann works provided some of the evening’s highlights.

Three excerpts from Book II of Telemann’s Tafelmusik closed the first half in spirited fashion with lively interplay between oboes and trumpets. And in Telemann’s Viola Concerto in G major Alfonso Leal del Ojo proved a sturdy soloist playing with dusky tone and elegant expression in the Andante.

An encore from Handel’s Water Music offered the right lively finale to an evening that made a fine opener to what looks like a superb season at Mandel Hall.

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