Chorus shines royally in Music of the Baroque program

Even with the wind chill hovering around -35 degrees Monday night, the Harris Theater was impressively filled for Music of the Baroque’s concert, led by Jane Glover.

Mozart always pulls the crowds in Chicago, and the chance to mark the composer’s 258th birthday with his “Coronation” Mass no doubt encouraged hardy downtown concertgoers to venture forth. But the rest of Glover’s cleverly devised royals program was equally diverting, offering two of Handel’s Coronation Anthems, and Haydn’s Symphony No. 85, “La Reine.”

Notwithstanding its later, spurious title, Mozart’s “Coronation” Mass in C major, K.317, is shrouded in mystery. Its concision indicates it was written in the composer’s Salzburg years, yet despite the work’s brevity, the mass is resourceful and wide-ranging, scored for large orchestra.

Jane Glover conducted the mass with her usual idiomatic skill in this repertory. With notably clear textures, Glover found a dexterous balance between refinement and vigor, with tempos fleet yet never breathless. The orchestra was in exceptional form with concertmaster du jour Kathleen Brauer leading with especially fine playing.

Yet the most impressive element Monday was the first-class contribution of the chorus. The improvement that chorus director William Jon Gray has brought about in the vocal ensemble has been remarkable, with the singers showing bracing agility in the fast fugal sections and delivering a mighty and well-blended sound far beyond their numbers in the brilliant sections.

The performance was let down slightly by an uneven quartet of soloists, all drawn from the chorus. Soprano Sarah Gartshore sang with rich tone and expressive feeling, with her solo in the Agnus Dei a high point. Keven Keys anchored at the low end with a strong, firmly focused bass. The middle voices proved less sturdy with Daniel Shirley’s tenor wavery and the mezzo of Angela Young Smucker unevenly projected.

Haydn’s Symphony No. 85 gained its nickname, “La Reine” by supposedly being a favorite of the ill-fated queen Marie Antoinette.  The work is considered the most French of the composer’s “Paris” symphonies, due to its dotted rhythms and a minuet based on a popular French air.

Glover led an alert, meticulously balanced performance with fine dynamic detailing that allowed the wind lines full, well, rein. Still, energetic and well prepared as it was, the performance felt a bit efficient and deadpan, missing an essential wit and the kind of playful, impish humor that Nicholas Kraemer brings out so delightfully in Haydn.

The concert was framed by two of Handel’s Coronation Anthems, which, unlike the Mozart mass, really were played at a coronation as Glover observed in her historically informed, user-friendly introductory comments.

Anthem No. 3, The King Shall Rejoice, opened the evening in aptly festive fashion, with stellar choral singing and outstanding, clarion trumpet playing by Barbara Butler and Charles Geyer, Glover eliciting a resounding coda while keeping the music in scale.

Handel’s fourth and final anthem, My Heart is Inditing, was equally exciting, the quartet solos more consistent with the singers placed back among their choral colleagues. Glover brought out the pastoral expression of the Andante sections as surely as the exuberance of the celebratory final chorus.

Nicholas Kraemer will lead Music of the Baroque in a Bach and Handel program March 2 and 3. baroque.org.