This Baroque isn't broke

There are certain types of music that seem geared to the holiday season.  I am not sure you can have a Grunge Christmas or an Emo holiday season, or if you would even want to.  But the sounds of Baroque music seem tailor made for this time of year.

The University of Maryland celebrated the holidays with a “Festive Baroque” concert last weekend, and it was half true.  The second half featured one of the liveliest Baroque works in the repertory and perfect for this time of year.  It is both one of the most famous and most obscure works.

That’s because the “Magnificat” by J. S. Bach exists in two versions.  The original version had some extra portions dealing specifically with the Christmas season, and the revision removed several of these passages.  There were a few additional changes in instrumentation and transposing keys, but they are essentially the same work, derived from Mary’s hymn of praise from the open chapter of the Gospel of Luke.

Yet for all our love of Bach, the original version is rarely performed, and that was the version presented last weekend by the UMD Chamber Singers and the Festive Baroque Chamber Orchestra.  For most people it is the same work they are familiar with, just a little longer.

And Maryland gave a lively rendition of this piece.  The Chorus was in good form under the director of Kenneth Slowik, making that famous opening energetic and joyous and keeping the melodic lines clear in all that dense counterpoint.  The chorus was generally sprightly throughout, while the soloists often took the more introspective aspects of the text.  Indeed alto Mairin Srygley and tenor Matthew Hill did a great job with the sparingly somber duet “Et Misericordia.”

But the overall mood of this short and compact work was robust and joyous.  Bach being Bach, the added texts were well handled but the composer wisely retained the best music in both versions of this choral work, with the final chorus ending the concert on a brilliant note.

The Magnificat was the second half of the program, but the first half was very different.  The Overture in D Major by Georg Philipp Telemann was a strange, hybrid piece.  It was partly a concerto for viola de gamba and strings, and partly a suite consisting of the opening overture and then a series of dances. 

The trick here is that most works for this instrument are now played on a cello, but soloist/conductor Slowik performed on a real viola de gamba.  It looked like a cello but with the neck resembling a guitar fret more than a regular orchestral instrument.

The Telemann work gave Slowik plenty of opportunities to shine, even though it wasn’t really a concerto.  The Courante had an extended central section (a “double” or trio) where the soloist had running figures with support of pizzicato strings in the orchestra.  The unusual second movement “La Trompette” had the soloist performing fanfare like passages at rapid speed.  The other movements were more traditional dances, but even in the stately Sarabande and the lively final Gigue had moments where the soloist got to shine in the spotlight.

The following work was the Bach concerto for violin and oboe.  The orchestra, under the baton of Slowik, gave good support to violin soloist James Stern and oboist Mark Hill.  The outer movements gave the soloists plenty of swift passages to show off their technical skills.  The centerpiece was the slow movement – an extended duet between violin and oboe while the rest of the orchestra supported the soloists with mostly pizzicato notes as the background.

These were both good Baroque works and the Maryland Festive Baroque Orchestra did a fine job with them.  The lively and colorful Magnificat provided a stark contrast to the generally gray tones of the strings and oboe that dominated the first half.  Perhaps a reminder that Christmas is both the liveliness of “Jungle Bells,” but it is also the more somber and reflective aspects of  “Silent Night.”

The fall season at University of Maryland is rapidly coming to an end, but there is plenty on tap at the Clarice Smith Center starting in late January.   Some of the upcoming highlights include Laurie Anderson with the Kronos Quartet on February 1 and 2, Bill T Jones and Arnie Zane Dance Company’s take on Stravinsky’s infamous Rite of Spring  on February 8 and 9, and an evening with Bradford Marsalis on February 14,

For more information on the University season, call (301) 405- 2787 or go online to

3 stars                  

David Cannon

Mocovox Entertainment Critic

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