When I was young, I often wondered what it would be like if an angel came down to earth. I mused that, if such an angel came, she would be a pretty, middle-aged lady with a slender figure, blonde hair, and, most importantly, a gorgeous, ethereal voice. Yesterday at the Music Institute of Chicago, I almost believed that such an angel had indeed come down from heaven when internationally-acclaimed soprano Lucy Crowe – the shining star of the Lyric Opera of Chicago’s production of Handel’s Hercules – joined Baroque Band for an enchanting, memorable evening of historically-informed Baroque performance. Guest directed by English Consort Director Harry Bicket, who masterfully led the Lyric orchestra in Hercules, this concert proved the ultimate encore for both Bicket and Crowe following their operatic triumph at the Lyric.

Bicket proved the major driving force behind the concert’s overall energy. Throughout the program, he energetically directed from the harpsichord, constantly altering between playing and vigorously conducting. Bicket maintained constant and consummate control over the entire ensemble, utilizing frequent yet gentle eye contact, vigorously gesturing with his arms, and enthusiastically thundering his hands on the harpsichord, sometimes to the point of hearing clicks rather than notes emanating from the instrument. Indeed, Bicket’s contribution greatly enhanced the basso continuo section of the ensemble, leading to a massive rhythmical bass that would impress today’s typical, rock-inclined American crowd. Although Bicket’s energy proved more subtle at the start of the concert, he gradually became more intense to the point that ignoring him was impossible. In fact, I often found myself paying more attention to Bicket rather than the performers; he seemed to be the soloist and main performers in himself.

In turn, the ensemble members and guest soloists enthusiastically performed all their lines, articulating with utmost care and masterfully shaping their lines with historical conventions always in mind. As a whole, the program was highly variated, slowly building up to Crowe’s climatic appearance in terms of difficulty and intensity. The concert opened with Corelli’s Concerto Grosso Op. 6, No.9 with Baroque Band director Garry Clarke and Baroque Band member/Baroque violinist Wendy Harton Benner as the dueling soloists. The most subtle number of the program, the piece served as an excellent, light “appetizer” for the ensuing numbers. Clarke and Benner articulated most delicately, rendering Corelli’s strains with utmost care and historical accuracy while never losing the “bite” in using their Baroque bows and bringing out the distinguishing characteristics of the Italian Baroque style.

The lively tone of the concert greatly accelerated with the ensuing program selection, Bach’s lively Orchestral Suite in B Minor for solo flute, strings, and continuo. Often overplayed to the point of losing its freshness, this famous piece assumed an invigoratingly fresh and perky interpretation with the ensemble in conjunction with traverso (Baroque flute) player Leighann Daihl. Though the traverso’s soft, gentle timbre was often overpowered by the strings in the tutti sections, Daihl was always heard during her solos thanks to the ensemble’s decision to only use one of the string players from each section during these solos. During the entire duration of the piece, Daihl’s clean, historically-informed playing sparkled and shone as she deftly executed all her virtuosic runs, tongued with the most delicate deftness and inegal (the unequal playing of equally-written notes) , and tenderly rendered all more elegant movements. She delicately executed all dance rhythms, ensuring that the downbeat of the first bar was always heard for all appropriate dances and altering the accent to the second beat during the Sarabande – the dance’s key stylistic component. All in all, the ensemble and Daihl under Bicket’s direction lilted and leaped through Bach’s timeless music, culminating in a spunky “Badinerie” that drew thunderous, enthusiastic applause from audience members.

The culmination of the entire program, however, occurred during the second half of the program, when Crowe joined Bicket and the rest of the ensemble for an entire hour of Handel. Clad in a regal, sparkling navy blue dress with a train, Crowe proceeded to give flawless and glorious renditions of Cleopatra’s arias from Handel’s Julius Caesar following the ensemble’s chosen prelude, the Overture and Ballet music from the composer’s opera Ariodante. As in her Hercules appearance, Crowe sparkled and shone musically, emotionally, and cosmetically. Her light, crystal-clear, and agile Baroque voice soared and skipped through Handel’s eternal lines, never once neglecting line and Baroque singing principles. In line with the Doctrine of the Affections, Crowe’s facial expressions accurately mirrored the corresponding mood of each aria. Anguish, coquettishness, and even mirthful joy were only a few of the many rich gradients composing the vivid spectrum of displayed emotions which played upon Crowe’s angelic face. For the finishing touches, Crowe’s fluently elegant and tasteful Baroque gesturing aided in reinforcing each prevailing emotion. Her masterful execution of both Baroque vocal technique/interpretation and the Doctrine of the Affections definitely succeeded in moving the audience, who proceeded in inundating her with enthusiastic, non-stopped cheers and applause following her performance. Hence, for an encore, Crowe proceeded to give a moving, heartfelt rendition of one of Handel’s famous arias, “Lascia Ch’io Pianga” from Rinaldo. In the end, I walked away even more fulfilled than I had felt following Hercules, more invigorated not only towards my studies in historically informed performance and Baroque singing, and even more invigorated about attending my own voice lesson the next day. Indeed, when I now sing the line "Seraphic melody to make ..." in Handel's "So Shall the Lute and Harp Awake", I shall forever remember Crowe and her glorious Handellian singing -- truly a "seraphic melody to make."