When the pandemic hit and concert halls were shuttered, most classical music organizations were forced to develop new virtual avenues for reaching their audiences. Some of them did so grudgingly while others seemed to lean into the challenge, using it as an occasion to rethink who it is they serve — and how they do the serving.
Boston Baroque happily fell into the latter category. Prior to the pandemic, this longstanding period-instrument ensemble (founded in 1973 by Martin Pearlman) had never live-streamed a single concert, and was dependent on its extensive recording catalog to reach listeners outside of Boston.
For the current season, the group has migrated from its home in Jordan Hall over to the technologically advanced Calderwood Studio at GBH. From there, it has been offering genuinely hybrid programs, attentive to the experience of an in-person audience yet also live-streamed at a level of quality and visual polish that would be impossible in a traditional venue.
And the impact? The group’s streams are now reaching viewers in 17 countries across five continents, according to a spokesperson. The organization has also changed how it thinks about the shelf-life of its concerts — instead of disappearing without a trace after the final chord, performances can now be experienced on demand potentially for years into the future.
All of this has yielded a new business model, as proceeds from its new digital channels suddenly make up 30 percent of the entire organization’s revenue. Needless to say, there is no going back. While the group hopes to return to performing in the acoustically superior Jordan Hall next season, it will also continue its new hybrid series at GBH.
The newer model was on view this weekend as Boston Baroque gave three performances at Calderwood Studio. On Saturday night, Perlman chose to open with Mykola Lysenko’s “Prayer for Ukraine,” leading the chorus and orchestra in an understatedly moving account of this hymn from 1885. Vivaldi’s ever-popular “Gloria” followed in a zesty and rhythmically buoyant performance that featured lovely contributions from three soloists drawn from the chorus (Kelley Hollis, Olivia Miller, and Carrie Cheron).
The evening’s main dish was Handel’s delightful “Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day,” written in 1739 and based (like his more frequently heard “Alexander’s Feast”) on one of John Dryden’s celebrated paeans to the power of music.
In this case, Dryden describes “heav’nly harmony” as the universe’s prime creative force, transforming “a heap of jarring atoms” into the world as we know it. The poem then spotlights individual instruments (with Handel of course following suit): “the trumpet’s loud clangor” calling us to arms; the flute channeling “the woes of lovers”; the “sharp violins” scaling the “height of passion”; and the celestial organ that makes angels confuse earth for heaven.
Elena Villalón decanted the soprano solos with abundant care, presence, and tonal luster. And Rufus Müller’s tenor solos were eloquent, sweet-toned, and flexible. Under Pearlman’s direction, both the chorus and the orchestra performed with grace and chamber music-like transparency.
After all those months without live music, listeners both in-person and at home were no doubt primed to appreciate this Ode’s praise for the art form’s elemental power, which in Dryden’s telling extends all the way until “the last and dreadful hour.” As the chorus sings dramatically to close the work: “The dead shall live, the living die,/ And music shall untune the sky.”
At Calderwood Studio at GBH, March 19
(Available on demand for 30 days at https://baroque.boston/vivaldi-gloria-2022)
Jeremy Eichler can be reached at email@example.com, or follow him on Twitter @Jeremy_Eichler.