Baroque Band Aims To Secure Place In Chicago

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Baroque Band was ounded in Chicago in 2007 by British violinist Garry Clarke.  (Photos courtesy of Baroque Band)
The period-instrument ensemble Baroque Band was founded in Chicago in 2007 by British violinist Garry Clarke.
(Baroque Band photos courtesy of Baroque Band)
By Kyle MacMillan

CHICAGO — Chicago boasts a burgeoning baroque opera company and a nearly three-decade-old chamber ensemble that specializes in Renaissance and medieval music, but it has struggled to maintain a period-instrument orchestra. The City Musick, Basically Bach, and the Chicago Baroque Ensemble all began with considerable promise in the 1980s and ’90s, and each folded for varying reasons after 10 years or so.

Violinist Garry Clarke is artistic director of Baroque Band.
Violinist Garry Clarke is artistic director of Baroque Band.

Striving to buck that history is Baroque Band, founded in 2007 by British violinist Garry Clarke, whose extensive resume includes performances with such noted groups as the Academy of Ancient Music and Les Arts Florissants. The group’s reach has grown to include four sets of performances in three venues across Chicago, two recordings on the Chicago-based Cedille label, and limited touring, including trips this season to Ashland, Oregon, and Logan, Utah. At the same time, the quality of the Band’s playing has steadily improved over its eight-year history.

Richard Graef, who serves as assistant principal flutist of the Chicago Symphony and also performs regularly on baroque flute, appeared as a soloist with the group in March 2014 and is a fan. Unlike early period-instrument ensembles that were sometimes so caught up in historical accuracy and scholarly precepts that their playing was stuffy and staid, he said, Baroque Band brings a vital, expressive approach to its music-making.

“I was very impressed,” he said, “with the knowledge and artistic abilities of the players in the group. They have found a consensus of style which is enjoyable. People love listening to it, and yet it is, in my judgment, very correct performance practice for the 18th century. I think it’s wonderful.”

Violinist Jeri-Lou Zike is a veteran Chicago early musician.
Violinist Jeri-Lou Zike is a veteran Chicago early musician.

The group mostly lived up to Graef’s high praise on May 29 in the first of the closing set of three concerts of the 2014-15 season before an audience of about 150. The performance took place in the accommodating acoustics of the 550-seat Nichols Concert Hall, a converted 1912 Greek Revival church in the Chicago suburb of Evanston.

Titled Water Works, the program paired a complete version of George Frideric Handel’s famed Water Music (the movements arranged in an order devised by Clarke) with Georg Philipp Telemann’s less frequently heard Wassermusik – Hamburger Ebb und Fluth. The latter was written in 1723 for the 100th anniversary of the College of the Admiralty in Hamburg, Germany.

Augmented to 24 players for this concert, including stand-outs Sung Lee of Chicago and Sian Ricketts of Cleveland, who doubled on oboe and recorder, the orchestra played with admirable zest and purpose, smartly conveying the distinctive spirit of each section of the two works. The group has an organic, well-balanced sound that took on an appealingly earthy timbre when the two oboes and bassoon were center stage. The only knock on the performance was the sometimes wobbly intonation of the horns.

After arriving in Chicago in 2006, Clarke spent the first six months scoping out the local music scene and quickly discovered that the collapse of the earlier period-instrument orchestras had left a vacuum. He decided to try and fill it. Clarke felt emboldened by a recent success he had scored while living in Washington, D.C. A vocal quartet asked him to put together a back-up ensemble for a concert, and the makeshift group wound up receiving critical plaudits in The Washington Post. Off the top of his head, he called it Baroque Band, and he decided to keep the name for his Chicago undertaking.

Joan Plana holds concermaster posts in Chicago and New York. (Sonia Tapiolas)
Joan Plana plays concertmaster in Chicago and NY. (Sonia Tapiolas)

Veteran musicians like violinist Jeri-Lou ZikeVeteran, who had played in the Chicago orchestras that collapsed, were thrilled. “It was really refreshing to know, ‘Hey, we’re going to all play period instruments again together’,” she said. Showing how serious he was, Clarke had already set up a photo shoot for marketing purposes before the ensemble even played its first note. “That’s kind of how we all learned of Garry Clarke and his ideas,” said Zike. “He had big visions, big dreams, and we were totally on board for that.”

While such players as Zike and harpsichordist David Schrader have been members of Baroque Band from the beginning, some of the personnel has inevitably turned over, with Clarke endeavoring to upgrade the quality of musicians as positions have come open. “It’s like any kind of ensemble — it’s a matter of several years before it will turn into what you want it to,” Schrader said. While the bulk of the group’s core string ensemble of 14 players continue to be Chicago residents, three commute for the concerts, including New York-based concertmaster Joan Plana, who holds the same position with the New York Society of Ancient Music. Clarke, who now primarily conducts and rarely performs on the violin, adds other musicians from Chicago and beyond as the ensemble’s repertoire demands.

A hallmark of the group has been its clever, sometimes pop-culture-tinged themes for its season series and individual concerts. A recent season, dubbed Angels and Demons, featured a program titled Charlie’s Angels, with Clarke even going so far as to have three of the musicians depicted on a concert poster in the famed pose of the three female detectives in the classic 1970s television show. But in that case, the attention-grabbing title slyly applied to the music of the court of Charles II.

The just-announced 2015-16 season, The Rivals, includes a program in which the orchestra pits the harpsichord and fortepiano against each other and another in which it examines the three composers who vied for the musical post at St. Thomas Church in Leipzig, Germany, that Johann Sebastian Bach ultimately landed. “What I’ve always tried to do is contemporize it,” Clarke said. “I wanted people to know how great this music was in a really hip, cool way. And I think the titles of the programs, just putting a humorous twist on some of them, can help to do that.”

Baroque Band has tripled its subscription base since forming in 2007.
Baroque Band has tripled its subscription base since forming in 2007.

Water Works was perhaps a little less imaginative than some of Clarke’s thematic outings, but it was fascinating on May 29 to hear Telemann’s Water Music, with its overture and nine evocative dances bearing the names of mythological gods and goddesses of the sea. While Handel’s and Telemann’s watery takes possess obvious differences, including variances in instrumentation, the structure and subject matter of these works were similar enough to raise the question as to whether it wasn’t too much of a good thing.

Although Baroque Band is regularly reviewed in the Chicago Tribune and has managed to boost its subscription base from 78 in 2007-08 to more than 200 today, it still exerts a comparatively limited footprint on the city’s music scene. Period-instrument groups in general appeal to a small slice of listeners, no matter where they are located, because of the specialized nature of the music they perform.

In Chicago, smaller classical groups of any kind operate in the long shadow of the Chicago Symphony and Lyric Opera of Chicago — international heavy-hitters in their respective fields — and period-instrument ensembles have had to struggle with entrenched tastes. “Baroque music, original instruments is a whole different feeling, a different spirit, and it has taken awhile,” Graef said. “This is a Mahler-Bruckner town. We’ve always liked that sort of thing.”

It is also hard not to wonder how much of a marketing and box-office challenge is posed by the similarly named Music of the Baroque, a much larger and better-established group led by internationally acclaimed conductor Jane Glover. Clarke does not see the group as competition, because it performs on modern instruments and because it often veers into later repertoire from the Classical period, as it did earlier in late March and early April with a program devoted to Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven. “I don’t think it is an issue. I think we have developed a different brand name aside from what they are,” he said.

Baroque Band has recorded overtures by Maurice Greene.
Baroque Band has recorded overtures by Maurice Greene.

The artistic director has big ambitions for Baroque Band, including additional concerts, expanded educational programs, and more touring. “I think there is a huge potential,” he said. “I certainly have a pile of stuff I want to do a mile high.” He would like to see the group attain a national reputation and Chicago become a period-music center like Boston and San Francisco. “Of course, we’re 40 years behind on all that, so we can’t expect to do that instantly,” he said.

To accomplish such growth, Clarke acknowledges that the group must significantly bolster its annual budget of $180,000, a modest amount it has been able to sustain by paying him a stipend rather than a salary and by staffing its office each year with two interns from Great Britain, who work for the group as part of a university study-abroad program. Just this season, it added a managing director — its only salaried position.

Graef believes Chicago’s period-music scene would take a big step forward if one of the city’s music schools began a degree program devoted to historical performance,  just as New York’s Juilliard School and other institutions have done. Clarke, Schrader, and Graef teach at Roosevelt University’s Chicago College of Performing Arts, and Graef would like to see that school introduce such an offering.

Whatever direction Baroque Band takes, Zike, who also serves as concertmaster for the baroque-focused Haymarket Opera Company, is confident there is a big future in Chicago for period music. “I know there is an audience for it,” she said. “There’s a love of it, and there is a desire for it.”

Water Works will be performed again on June 3 at the Symphony Center Grainger Ballroom. For tickets, click here.

Kyle MacMillan recently marked his 25th anniversary as a music critic and reporter. After serving 11 years as fine arts critic for the Denver Post, he is now a freelance journalist in Chicago, where he contributes regularly to the Chicago Sun-Times and writes for such national publications as Opera News and The Wall Street Journal.