The Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists are among the most venerable and veteran institutions in classical music. As is the legendary British conductor who founded and has led both for their entire multi-decade existence: Sir John Eliot Gardiner.
In August, however, Gardiner allegedly struck a singer who exited the stage on the wrong side after a performance in France of Berlioz’s epic “Les Troyens.” Gardiner immediately withdrew from the remaining performances, apologized unconditionally and canceled all conducting engagements for the rest of the year. That included the tour that was to have brought Gardiner and the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists to the Harris Theater October 20 and 21.
Thanks to associate conductor Dinis Sousa taking over the Berlioz performances, the results were reportedly so triumphant that the fall tour, which looked like it might be in jeopardy without Gardiner, is going ahead with Sousa conducting. Only one venue decided to cancel. But Harris Theater is going ahead with both concerts with the forces and repertoire as announced: Bach’s “Mass in B minor” and Handel’s “L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato.”
Although these will be the first concerts Sousa conducts in Chicago, he came with Gardiner and the choir and soloists in late February and early March of 2020 for a memorable Beethoven 250 symphony cycle at Harris, just days before the pandemic.
“I recall John Eliot talking about this in the general rehearsal in Chicago,” says the Portuguese British Sousa. “There was already a sense that something was about to happen and that we didn’t know what we were going back to in the U.K. a few days later. That was my first time in Chicago. I love the venue and I love Chicago. I didn’t know what to expect but it is a very impressive city.”
Sousa was there as associate conductor in case he was needed. “I’ve done that and worked with John Eliot for a long time and we’ve known each other for many years. I had conducted the English Baroque Soloists once, in South America. But in general, these are groups that were founded by John Eliot and he’s been at the helm of them from the beginning. When they created this job for me, it initially was as assistant conductor, which was a few years ago, and then they made me associate conductor. I think initially it was to have someone who understands the groups, who understands John Eliot and can work with him to help throughout the projects. Of course, to cover, if needed. But it was more than that because there was a really strong connection that I developed with him and with the groups. When I became associate conductor, it was also a way of recognizing that.
“Of course, the whole thing with ‘The Trojans’ is surreal for me in a way. When it all happened, to be honest, actually, I had no time to think. In a way, that’s a good thing because you just do it, whatever instinct kicks in. And the music for me, did that. And of course, I had been there for all of the rehearsal process and was very supported by everyone involved. It was an extremely beautiful coming together of the groups. Everybody was supportive: the cast, choir, orchestra, offstage staff, promoters; everybody was behind us. And that was really meaningful and made it even more special as an experience for me. It meant that I didn’t have to think because I felt so supported. It’s the sort of thing where if you look back—or forward—it could be daunting, doing ‘The Trojans’ at all these major European festivals. It’s a huge thing. So I can’t underplay it because it really is massive. But it felt like the only thing that I could do was just to do it, without trying to make it sound simple.
“And now, of course, it’s different. There’s more time involved. But it’s a huge honor to be able to somehow enable this to keep going. I’ve been a part of these groups for so long. And they’ve been such a huge part of my life. I know every player very well. I know every singer. So to be able to now do this is a huge privilege. And it feels like it was the right thing to do then, and now. Of course, it’s very different stuff and I cannot wait to come to America with these two deeply contrasting masterpieces. It’s just a huge joy to be able to do this.”
Does Sousa recall his initial exposure to Gardiner and his groups whether on recordings or in live performance?
“Interestingly, but perhaps not surprisingly, my first really strong memory of a recording by John Eliot Gardiner with the English Baroque Soloists and the Monteverdi Choir was the ‘Mass in B minor.’ My dad had this CD collection—not a vast one—but my parents liked classical music. I didn’t know this piece and I put it on the CD player and I sat down on the sofa and pressed play. The Kyrie started. My jaw dropped.
“I remember today the feeling I had from listening to that Kyrie in my parents’ living room because it started with that huge cry. Once the fugue starts, you’re on this journey that straightaway you know—I knew anyway—without knowing the rest of the piece. I just had this feeling that this had to be the greatest piece that I had ever come across. I mean, it’s completely unparalleled. A very dramatic opening but once it starts, it takes you by the hand, ‘Come with me.’ That was such a moment for me when I was a kid, a teenager, to encounter this piece in that Archiv recording. It really marked me. How is it possible that someone could write this? I still am baffled. The more you know the piece, the more you wonder.
“I do find in conducting something like this that you really have to manage that side of things. Of course, you’re in the middle of it and it’s so moving and so powerful, but you still have a job to do. You have to somehow be moved by it in a way that you can still help the musicians to channel that emotion into great music-making. It’s different from the experience of just listening. With conducting, you’re listening all the time but you have to channel that into something that is giving back to the musicians in a way that they’re giving to you. It’s a very quick and intense action-reaction thing happening.
“The thing I am always baffled by is, despite it being completely perfect and absolutely unbelievably well conceived and structured and carried out, ‘Mass in B minor’ feels so personal. It’s such human music. It never feels like we can’t connect to it. It’s incredibly touching, moving and profoundly stirring. When I start it again, every page, every movement of it, it’s as if his doubts are our doubts. He makes it so universal. You feel so small next to it.”
As iconic as the Bach piece is, Handel’s “L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato” is not as well known. Despite the Italian title, the work is in English.
“It’s a very unusual piece,” says Sousa. “Two poems set against each other trying to create something like a series of paintings to go with Milton’s poetry. Very imaginative and always contrasting. I imagine [this] Handel [piece] is unfamiliar to a lot of people as it’s not performed very often. It’s about life in happiness and joy and the good things of the world versus the more melancholic, thoughtful inward way of life. And these two things are presented against each other.
“What Handel does is depict the different things that are being referred to. It’s very descriptive music. There’s a lot of references to nature. Some of it preempts Haydn’s ‘The Seasons’ and ‘The Creation.’ When you reach the end of the melancholic argument, it’s so beautiful and so moving. There are real moments of intimacy and loneliness. It concludes that we should live in moderation and find a good way between both of those styles. It’s a huge discovery for a lot of people. And to hear something live for the first time and to experience something in the moment, it might as well be a world premiere. It’s a world premiere for you. An opportunity to hear great music for the first time in a concert is very exciting and enticing. What this piece does is take you on this sort of ups and downs of these two very different moods. And it’s so varied. It’s constantly engaging with your senses. The spiritual nature of the ‘Mass in B minor’ is quite contrasting to the more philosophical and character-fullness of the Handel.”
The Berlioz performances were done after experiencing a lot of rehearsals with Gardiner but that opportunity isn’t available for this tour. Did Sousa have the feeling that he should be conferring with Gardiner about these pieces or best to let him be at this point?
“I’m definitely letting him be because he’s taking time off and I’m respecting that. John Eliot is a really good friend of mine who’s been so supportive of my career. He is my mentor and the most important musical figure I’ve had. It’s amazing to be able to do this. And these groups are a testament to his incredible musical vision; they carry it. We all know how these things work. People go for the name. We’re lucky in a way with the success we’ve had with ‘The Trojans.’ The whole thing was an amazing project and went extremely well. In terms of familiarity and experience with the eighteenth-century styles that will be heard in Chicago, these groups are world-leading in their expertise and knowledge.”
“Bach + Handel” is at Harris Theater at Millennium Park, 205 East Randolph, October 20–21, 7:30pm. Tickets $20–$105 here.
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: email@example.com