In the late 1960s, Music of the Baroque founder and conductor laureate Thomas Wikman was a voice teacher and choir director at St. Paul & the Redeemer Episcopal Church in Hyde Park who began programming a cappella Renaissance choral music concerts on Sunday afternoons. Wikman wanted to perform Bach, which required him to go outside of the resources of the parish and have an orchestra as well. The first concerts using the Music of the Baroque moniker were in 1972.
The late Lucille Ollendorff, who taught French literature and Greek philosophy at the University of Chicago, used to love to tell the story of how she had attended a 1974 Music of the Baroque performance of Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion” and was so moved that she felt compelled to attend a performance by Sir Georg Solti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus two weeks later. If the then-struggling MOB could so move her, she reasoned, surely Solti and company would take her into the stratosphere. During the intermission, a disappointed Ollendorff had a chance encounter with Wikman, whom she had never met and who was also in attendance. “I have to tell you,” said Ollendorf, “your performance did so much more for me than this one is doing. Do you need any help?”
After Wikman’s emphatic “Yes!” Ollendorff immediately volunteered to help “spread the word” about Music of the Baroque, raise additional funding and even suggested forming a board of directors, within which she was unanimously voted its president before becoming the first general manager in 1978. Under her active tenure, Ollendorff helped launch the group’s sold-out debut at Lincoln Center in New York and oversaw its appearance as the first ensemble to perform at the newly renovated Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., and even the group’s command performance at a White House state dinner.
There were geographical expansions out north and west from their Hyde Park base into carefully chosen, acoustically superb and architecturally inspiring churches, successful recording projects, and countless professional premieres of important works, including a staple of Handel oratorios and operas which had never been heard in Chicago.
Tragically, the vivacious and personable Ollendorff was killed in a freak car accident along Lake Shore Drive in 1987, on her way home from attending a Music of the Baroque performance.
Wikman would remain through the group’s thirtieth anniversary in 2001, the year of his final performances of “St. Matthew Passion.”
Meanwhile, British conductor and musicologist Dame Jane Glover had been conducting early music operas at Chicago Opera Theater.
“The first thing I did in Chicago—and indeed for COT—was their ‘Orfeo’ and that was September of 2000,” Glover recalls. “Monteverdi. Brian Dickie [then Chicago Opera Theater general director] brought me over to do that and I did lots of stuff for COT after that.” Indeed, Glover celebrated that history with a return for performances of Britten’s “Albert Herring” just last month.
Had Glover been aware of Music of the Baroque before that? “Yes, because Brian said to me, ‘You know, they’re looking for somebody,’ and he put my name forward. I then met Karen Fishman, who was then running it. We had lunch and they asked me to be part of a search and I went to a concert before I took part in a season of auditions. I enjoyed my ‘innings’ very much with MOB. And then they offered me the job, which was thrilling and amazing. And I love it as much as ever. I love it more and more.” Glover has signed on for another three seasons through the 2025-26 season, which would mark her twenty-third season as music director.
“Every time you come to an organization you know well, you don’t have to start again. I spend a lot of my time going all over the place guesting with orchestras and opera companies. If you’re going somewhere for the first time, you start with a blank sheet of paper and you build your relationship. With the MOB musicians, I can walk into the room and they can walk into the room and within five minutes, we’ve found each other and found our sound. I know what they can do, they understand me very well. I think we have a wonderful rapport. The group has evolved quite a lot over the last twenty years. Obviously, there’s been some departures and arrivals. We lost, of course, our wonderful and revered concertmaster Elliott Golub, who retired and sadly passed just a few years ago. But his spirit certainly lives on. We’ve had great concertmasters since then, first Robert Waters and now the great Gina DiBello, who, as you know, is in the CSO. They continued that great tradition that Elliott established. There’s a certain amount of coming and going but I think the core spirit is very much still there. And that’s the same for the chorus. I’m so proud of our chorus. To be honest, I think it’s the best chamber choir in the United States. It’s just wonderful. The last thing I did with them is ‘Jeptha,’ the Handel oratorio last fall. It was recorded and it’s good enough to release. And we’re about to do the ‘St. Matthew Passion,’ which is even bigger than ‘Jeptha.’
“We haven’t done ‘St. Matthew’ for fifteen years largely because it’s very big and very expensive. It has two of everything: two orchestras, two choruses, six soloists. It’s monumental. We were going to do it for our fiftieth anniversary but that was delayed due to the pandemic. But here it is, and I’m just so excited that we’re doing it again. It has to be, does it not, the pinnacle of Baroque music? One of the pinnacles of all music, in fact. Because of the size of it and the scale of it, it is a relative rarity for us and there is great excitement that we’re about to do it again. The first performance has already sold out. As one puts down those first notes of that first chorus, one is aware that one is stepping onto the foothills of Everest.”
One difference between those early performances and doing it these days is a theater space rather than a church. “What one can be assured of is that the audience is more comfortable than sitting on wooden pews for three-and-a-half hours!” says Glover. “And we can display supertitles which means that without a great deal of effort, the audience can follow the narrative if they’re not fluent in German.”
In the early days of Music of the Baroque, the “St. Matthew Passion” would be annually alternated with the “St. John Passion,” which will be performed next season. “That’s what we’re trying to do, of course, and record them: the Big Four. We’ve done the ‘Mass in B minor’ just before the pandemic, ‘St. Matthew’ coming now, ‘St. John’ next year. And we’ll do the ‘Christmas Oratorio’ as well. They are, after all, sort of the shining pinnacles of our repertory and we should keep doing them. It’s also what our audiences want to hear. And indeed, the ‘Magnificat,’ which we’re going to open next season with, and the Mozart ‘Requiem.’ That’s a blockbuster program. I think it’s a great way to open our season. The ‘Magnificat’ is all about birth, it’s the Virgin Mary’s prayer. And the ‘Requiem’ is about death. It’s a program that covers the whole gamut of life.”
One vestige of Thomas Wikman’s original vision of performing programs in neighborhood churches are the Holiday Brass and Choral concerts. “Those are so important to us,” says Glover. “I have such respect for everything Tom achieved. I inherited an absolutely wonderful organization which has changed subtly since I took it over—not because of me, particularly—but we moved away from the church thing. When the Harris was built, it was a wonderful downtown venue for us which fits us perfectly. Although we retained our church audience in Evanston for some time after that, they felt they couldn’t have us any longer and we moved out to Skokie to the North Shore Center. So, we do play entirely in concert halls except for the Brass and Choral stuff. In the pandemic, we did some streaming from churches which was lovely. Obviously there are certain pieces, if we do them, it’s so much more relevant to have sacred music of the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth century played in churches rather than brick concert halls. And when we do the Monteverdi ‘Vespers of 1610’ which we’ve done once in my time and I am very much contemplating doing again, I wouldn’t want to do that in a concert hall. I think you have to simulate the acoustics of St. Mark’s in Venice which is what Monteverdi had in mind. With all the best will in the world, you can’t recreate that in the Harris Theater.”
From the beginning of those Brass and Choral concerts, already the boundaries of what was considered Baroque was being broadened. “Very much,” agrees Glover. “But the audiences seem to love it, whatever we do. They get more and more popular, actually. Last Christmas, they sold out. We’re adding one this year because they’re so popular. That’s a tradition of Tom’s that we gladly continue because it’s a very important part of the holiday season in the Chicago area. People flock to it. After the pandemic, they came back in droves, which is so thrilling for us.”
There was already the sense in the early days of going beyond Baroque and the thought of coming more into the Classical era. How would Glover portray it? Baroque as the anchor repertoire but going pre-Baroque and post-Baroque as well? How far backwards and forward?
“It’s interesting. I feel that the heart of our repertory is certainly eighteenth century. The first half of the eighteenth century dominated by Bach and Handel and the second half by Mozart and Haydn. The dividing line between them is so narrow. Handel died in 1759 by which time Mozart was three years old. And Haydn was already in long trousers. Haydn and Mozart both heard Handel performances when they were in London. The two generations, of course, never met each other. But there was a huge regard, respect and admiration for the Bach and Handel compositions from Haydn and Mozart. Particularly in Mozart’s case, he re-orchestrated ‘Messiah’ and ‘Acis and Galatea’ and other oratorios of Handel which shows the respect he had for these slightly older generations.
“We also play seventeenth-century music but the fact that we are a modern-instrument organization as opposed to a period-instrument organization, this is something I do feel quite strongly about. Monteverdi, for instance: I would never do on modern instruments. A piece from 1610 is quite early for us. And certainly anything earlier I would always prefer to play on period instruments because it really is very different, however classy the performers are at making the closest possible sounds to period instruments, it still isn’t the same thing. When you need instruments like cornets and sackbuts, to put anything other than period string instruments next to them feels lopsided. It just is. The balance is wrong, the sonority is wrong, the texture and so on. I think the turning point really is Vivaldi, Corelli, the late seventeenth-century, early eighteenth-century Italians. I’m very willing to play those on either period instruments or modern instruments.”
How far past the eighteenth century does Music of the Baroque dare go? “We have played Beethoven, we have even played Mendelssohn,” says Glover. “There’s a case for playing ‘Elijah,’ frankly, because Mendelssohn was such a Bach scholar.
“We did commission a piece for our fiftieth anniversary by Stacy Garrop, a fabulous composer, wrote a companion piece to the ‘Music for the Royal Fireworks’ called ‘Spectacle of Light.’ The audiences loved it, the players loved it. It’s something I’m very proud of, actually.
“You may have noticed that in my early days with Music of the Baroque, I wanted to play all sorts of near-classical and near-Baroque stuff as well. And I programmed some Stravinsky and Britten and this kind of thing and we got slammed! I wasn’t about to do that again. ‘This is Music of the Baroque, I need to hear Baroque music, I didn’t come to hear Stravinsky.’ We have to listen to our audience. I completely respect that. I play Stravinsky, Prokofiev and Britten with other organizations. And I do. Indeed, I just did Britten with Chicago Opera Theater, which was so much fun.
“Music of the Baroque can absolutely preserve its hallowed ground. And I’m very very happy to be in there with them. This is our hallowed ground. This is our territory and we rejoice in it.”
“St. Matthew Passion,” April 2, 7:30pm, North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, Skokie (sold out) and 7:30 pm, April 3, Harris Theater, 205 East Randolph, baroque.org.
Dennis Polkow is an award-winning veteran journalist, critic, author, broadcaster and educator. He made his stage debut at age five, was a child art prodigy and began playing keyboards in clubs at the age of fourteen. He holds degrees in music theory, composition, religious studies and philosophy from DePaul University in Chicago. Polkow spent his early years performing and recording in rock and jazz bands while concertizing as a classical pianist, organist and harpsichordist and composing, arranging and producing for other artists. As a scholar, Polkow has published and lectured extensively and taught at several colleges and universities in various departments. As an actor, narrator and consultant, Polkow has been involved with numerous films, plays, broadcasts and documentaries. As a journalist, Polkow helped co-create the experiential Chicago Musicale and Spotlight, the award-winning tabloid arts and entertainment section of the Press Publications chain of newspapers, which he later edited. He also created and ran the nationally recognized journalism program at Oakton College and was faculty advisor to its award-winning student newspaper; many former students went on to major media careers, including Channel Awesome’s the Nostalgia Critic. Polkow’s research, interviews, features, reviews and commentaries have appeared across national and international media and he has corresponded from the Middle East, Asia and Africa for the Chicago Tribune. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org