CSO musicians champion the experience of playing Baroque-era music

Baroque repertoire usually requires a smaller ensemble, as was the case for this June 2018 concert by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, led by Giovanni Antonini, in works by Vivaldi, Bach and Boccherini.

Todd Rosenberg Photography

For the third and final concerts of his winter residency Jan. 27-29 with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Music Director Riccardo Muti will make a rare excursion into the Baroque repertoire, leading concertos by Antonio Vivaldi and George Frideric Handel’s Water Music, Suite No. 1.

But through a quirk in scheduling, a few CSO musicians who perform regularly with the Chicago-based Music of the Baroque as members or soloists will not be among the players featured in this program.

The players include William Buchman, assistant principal bassoon, one of five principals of Music of the Baroque. He will not be onstage because only the CSO’s principal bassoon will be needed. But Buchman is making plans to be in the audience to hear Muti and his colleagues in action.

“I think it is fantastic,” Buchman said of the program. “I’m really interested to see what Maestro Muti does with it, because I’ve only seen him conduct Bach when he did the B Minor Mass [in 2013] and Vivaldi when he did the Piccolo Concerto in C Major [in 2019]. I haven’t heard him do a lot of that similar kind of music, so I’m curious about what his approach is.”

For Buchman and his fellow early music virtuosos, performing with the Music of the Baroque takes them into 17th- and 18th-century artistic realms that they have little opportunity to explore with the CSO, which mostly showcases post-Baroque works by composers ranging from Ludwig van Beethoven and Felix Mendelssohn to Dmitri Shostakovich and Jessie Montgomery.

“We get to do huge amounts of repertoire that the Chicago Symphony doesn’t program for whatever reasons,” Buchman said of Music of the Baroque. “It’s done with this smaller group that has lot of experience playing in Baroque style, which is also something the Chicago Symphony doesn’t have as much of.”

Through much of the 20th century, Baroque music was played in largely the same way as later Romantic music by Brahms or Tchaikovsky. In the 1960s and ’70s, groups such as the Academy of Ancient Music in Great Britain launched a revolution by attempting to perform early music in a manner as close as possible to how it would have been heard at the time it was composed.

That typically meant smaller, more intimate ensembles, different tuning norms and of course, a move to historically appropriate instruments. For the strings, it required, among other things, a switch from steel to gut strings, using a different style of bow that was held in a looser manner and performing with little or no vibrato. The result was a lighter, leaner and more organic sound that, perhaps ironically, seemed more contemporary to many ears.

While Music of the Baroque continues to play on modern instruments, it has adopted many of the performance practices of a period-instrument ensemble. Indeed, on those rare occasions when the CSO has played Baroque music in recent years, it has hired conductors with historically informed sensibilities.

In December 2015, for example, French-Canadian conductor Bernard Labadie, former longtime music director of the Les Violins du Roy in Quebec, led the CSO in Handel’s Messiah, and he spoke of his planned period approach to the work in an interview before the concerts. Labadie sought a lighter, more transparent sound with considerably less vibrato and brisker tempos. “It’s not sound only,” he said. “It’s a lot more than that. It’s the whole concept of articulations, bowings, all these intricacies of a language, which is quite different from their usual language. And great orchestras like the Chicago Symphony love to indulge in that. It’s a challenge for them to speak in a different language within a very short period of time.” 

Trumpeter Tage Larsen has performed a half dozen or so times with the Music of the Baroque since he joined the CSO in 2002. Most recently, he made his solo debut with the group Sept. 19-20 in Telemann’s Concerto No. 1 for Three Trumpets. “It’s such a thrill to be able to play Baroque music,” Larsen said. “There is so much wonderful Baroque music written for trumpet by composers like Bach, Telemann, Handel and Biber. And it’s a thrill to play with my former teacher, Barbara Butler, who is a longtime member of the group [and co-principal trumpet].”

Much of the Baroque repertoire is ideally played on a piccolo trumpet, an instrument he never has a chance to play in the CSO. “My position in the orchestra is fourth [trumpet],” he said, “which is typically lower parts, so being able to play on a piccolo trumpet in the higher registers is always a challenge but also a lot of fun.”

Oto Carrillo, who joined the CSO’s horn section in 2000, started playing with the Music of the Baroque as a substitute about 20 years ago at the invitation of his former teacher Jon Boen, who was then the group’s principal horn. When Boen, who continues to be principal horn of the Lyric Opera of Chicago Orchestra, left Music of the Baroque in 2018, Carrillo took over the position.

“To be honest, I still feel like I’m struggling with the [Baroque] style just because I come from a completely different background, so I think it’s challenging and it makes me a better player,” he said. “The players are really amazing, especially the ones who have been there a while, and it’s great to follow them.”

Echoing Buchman and Larsen, Carrillo said the Music of the Baroque also gives him a chance to play important horn parts he would never play otherwise, such as a major solo in the Quoniam tu solus sanctus section of the B Minor Mass. “That was a big thrill,” he said. “It’s something I would never have gotten to do in the CSO, because I’m not the principal horn.”

CSO musicians who are also members of the Music of the Baroque sometimes have scheduling conflicts between the two ensembles that keep them from appearing on certain concerts. Carrillo, for example, will not be able to perform in The Chevalier, a music-theater work that Music of the Baroque is presenting in three locations around Chicago, including Feb. 20 at Symphony Center, under the auspices of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association. It examines the life and work of Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges (1745-1799), the first known classical composer of African ancestry.

But such overlaps are unusual, because Music of the Baroque tries to accommodate the schedules of its musicians from the CSO and Lyric Opera. “They do a really good job,” Carrillo said, “of not conflicting the services of those two big groups.” 

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