British-born conductor Dame Jane Glover has been an important figure on Chicago’s music scene for more than 20 years. Opera lovers remember the vibrant productions of Monteverdi and Mozart operas she and stage director Diane Paulus created for Chicago Opera Theater between 2000 and 2012. A renowned Baroque music scholar, she is celebrating her 20th anniversary as music director of Chicago’s Music of the Baroque, where she combines deep scholarship with a buoyant, joyful presence on the podium.
Glover has conducted major orchestras in Europe, as well as the New York Philharmonic and the Philadelphia and Cleveland orchestras. Her opera house credits include London’s Royal Opera, the Glyndebourne Festival and the Staatsoper Berlin. At the Metropolitan Opera in December, she wrapped up Christmastime performances of a condensed, family-friendly version of Mozart’s The Magic Flute, directed by Julie Taymor.
But until this season, Glover had never conducted the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. It’s been a long time coming, but on March 17 and 19, she makes her CSO debut with a program of Mozart, Haydn and Handel. Before that, Symphony Center audiences can catch a glimpse of her work with Music of the Baroque in a special concert Feb. 20 co-presented by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association. She will lead three actors, violin soloist Brendon Elliott and an MOB chamber ensemble in a program titled The Chevalier, a concert version of a 2019 play by Bill Barclay combining spoken word and music. It tells the story of Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, a distinguished 18th-century Afro-French composer, virtuoso violinist and conductor, who moved in the same circles as Mozart. (CSO Music Director Riccardo Muti opened the orchestra’s current season with a program including Bologne's overture to L’Amant anonyme [The Anonymous Lover].)
Glover is based in London, and she knows Barclay from his work as music director of Shakespeare’s Globe from 2012 to 2019.
“Bill Barclay is actually a good friend of mine,” said Glover, whose posts in London have included artistic director of the London Mozart Players and director of opera at the Royal Academy of Music. “He’s American, but I knew him when he was music director at the Globe. We’re also both involved in a project to rebuild the Teatro San Cassiano in Venice, where opera became public for the first time ever. Declan [McGovern, Music of the Baroque’s executive director] had spotted The Chevalier. He brought it to me, and I said, ‘Yes, yes, yes! Of course, we should do it.’ It’s a subject that’s absolutely worth exploring.”
Barclay wrote two versions of The Chevalier, the first a full-length play with 16 actors and 16 musicians, all in costumes onstage and commissioned by the Boston Symphony. The concert version, scored for reduced forces, runs under 90 minutes. “You will hear the story of this young man in Paris in the 1780s, a brilliant musician and also a brilliant fencer,” she said. “We play bits of music to illustrate the story, mostly Bologne’s music.”
With its themes of raclal equity and diversity, The Chevalier has struck a chord in the classical music world. “This project of Bill’s is going all over the place,” said Glover. “He’s really doing a great service for this chap. A number of people are looking at [Bologne’s] operas. He’s certainly not Mozart, but who is? He’s certainly up there with people like Cimarosa and Michael Haydn. His music deserves to be played.”
Music of the Baroque usually performs its downtown concerts at the Harris Theater, but that venue wasn’t available for The Chevalier, Glover said. “We wanted to do it in the heart of the city, in the Loop. This is not niche-audience-seeking at all. This is a good story that everyone should hear. It’s wonderful that the CSO has lent its considerable arm to the project. The CSO put their shoulder to our wheel. It’s a wonderful collaboration.”
As with most performing artists, Glover’s life was completely upended when the COVID-19 pandemic abruptly shuttered concert halls and theaters for months beginning in March 2020.
“It’s been a roller coaster,” she said with a weary laugh. A few months later, in December 2020, a high point arrived when she was named to Queen Elizabeth’s 2021 New Year Honors list for her services to music. Becoming a newly minted Dame Commander of the British Empire, she said at the time, added “a little spring in my step.”
A lively writer and author of acclaimed books about Mozart and Haydn, Glover put the pandemic’s enforced seclusion to good use by starting work on a third volume. “It’s a bit of unfinished Mozart business,” she said. “It’s due in June, and I’m about two-thirds done. It’s kept me sane.”
She tested positive for the virus in December and missed three Magic Flute performances at the Met, though she described her bout as no worse than a bad cold. Before arriving in Chicago for The Chevalier, Glover will be in Houston conducting another Magic Flute, a full-length production originally scheduled for winter 2020. Directed by Barrie Kosky, it is the same production that Lyric Opera of Chicago audiences saw in November.
With concert life starting up once again, however fitfully, Glover said, “I find there is such joy and gratitude for the music,” among both audiences and performers. But pandemic restrictions do have their drawbacks. “It’s horrible conducting in a mask,” she said. “One feels one has lost a certain amount of eloquence in gesture and expression. On the other hand, conducting in a mask is so much better than not conducting at all.”
Pandemic restrictions were factored into Glover’s March 17 and 19 CSO program. “Normally when I go to big symphony orchestras, I love to do the bigger repertoire,” she said. “But of course, these are straitened times. When we were planning this, it was always going to be half the orchestra with people spread out.”
The program — Haydn’s Symphony No. 71, Handel’s Organ Concerto No. 4 in F Major and Mozart’s Oboe Concerto and Symphony No. 29 — includes several of her favorite pieces. “The Handel organ concertos aren’t often done, and they really are great music,” she said. “Handel wrote his organ concertos for himself to play. So I think there’s a lot of personal statement in the organ concertos. I don’t do them often enough. We never do them at MOB, and we should. I’ve never worked with our brilliant organist, Paul Jacobs, but I’m very excited because he’s simply amazing.”
In his first solo performance since joining the CSO, Principal Oboe William Welter will be the soloist in the Mozart concerto. As a former oboist, Glover knows Mozart’s concerto well. “I’ve literally known all my life,” she said. ‘I used to play it in my oboe-playing days, and I just adore it.”
Mozart’s Symphony No. 29 also holds special meaning for Glover. “For me, it’s the piece that marks Mozart’s absolute transition from the genius whiz kid to the genius grown up. It’s that completely unself-conscious, effortless brilliance which can make you laugh and cry in the same moment with the simplest, the wittiest of gestures.”
Of her long-anticipated bow at Orchestra Hall, she said, “I’m thrilled to be making my CSO debut. It’s an orchestra I’ve admired all my life. Whenever I’m in Chicago, I tend to go to whatever they’re serving up. It’s a joy to hear them make music, and I cannot wait to be part of it. I know quite a lot of the players by now, of course, because they play for Music of the Baroque. So I hope there will be some friendly faces among them,” she said with a chuckle. “I’m so excited finally to be doing this.”