Baroque Band, Xavier Sabata join forces for ‘Mad Men’ program

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BY KYLE MACMILLAN | FOR SUN-TIMES MEDIA

Baroque music is often viewed as pretty and pleasant. But Garry Clarke, artistic director of Chicago’s Baroque Band, believes that it is so much more.

That’s why he gave his period-instrument ensemble’s 2014-2015 season the theme, “Riotous Baroque,” and labeled its opening series of concerts (Sept. 28, Oct. 1-2), “Mad Men,” playing off the title of the popular AMC television series.

“It’s meant to show how vibrant and alive and grotesque and insane the music can be — all the really whacky elements of baroque,” Clarke said.

While the program will feature other works, the main attraction will be the mad scenes from two operas that draw on the same source — the 16th-century epic poem “Orlando Furioso” by Ludovico Ariosto. Its title character is a nephew and loyal knight of King Charlemagne.

‘Mad Men’ Baroque Band and countertenor Xavier Sabata When: 7:30 p.m. Sept. 28 Where: Music Institute of Chicago, 1490 Chicago Ave., Evanston When: 7:30 p.m. Oct. 1 Where: Grainger Ballroom, Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan When: 7:30 p.m. Oct. 2 Where: Augustana Lutheran Church, 5500 S. Woodlawn Tickets: $17-$39 Info: baroqueband.org

The most famous of the two works is George Frideric Handel’s “Orlando,” which premiered in 1733 in London. Antonio Vivaldi’s lesser-recognized version, titled “Orlando furioso,” debuted six years earlier in Venice.

To sing the role of Orlando, Clarke turned to Spanish countertenor Xavier Sabata, who is well-known in Europe but has not worked in the United States since 2009. He is making his Chicago debut with these concerts.

Sabata, 38, who studied music starting when he was 9, began his career as actor. But about 10 years ago, he made the switch to opera after taking part in Le Jardin des Voix, an elite training program under the auspices of conductor William Christie and the esteemed baroque ensemble, Les Arts Florissants.

“I owe a lot of things to Bill, because he was the first one who took my hand and said, ‘Come, I’ll show you around,’ and I’m thankful for that,” Sabata said, who continues to perform regularly with the group.

The countertenor (a highly trained falsetto) might be best known for his recording, “Bad Guys,” which is based on a recital program that he first presented in December 2011 in Halle, Germany, which not coincidently is the birthplace of Handel, a celebrated baroque composer. The album features arias by the ‘bad guys’ in operas like “Ariodante,” “Tamerlano” and “Giulio Cesare.”

“Lots of countertenors have been doing albums, singing arias by Handel,” Sabata said, “and I wanted to do something that was more interesting for me and had a theatrical energy. I had done several bad guys in opera productions, and I just decided, ‘Why not put them all together for a recital?’”

The concert went over so well that the Aparte label agreed to record it. The resulting album, released in 2013, has proven successful, gaining a five-star review from The Guardian, a respected London newspaper.

The singer still regularly performs his “Bad Guys” program and has no plans to abandon it. “I was talking yesterday with my agent,” he said, “and I said, ‘I have feeling that this is a program that will follow me the whole of my career.’”

Although the idea of “bad guys” might not seem that far from “mad men,” Sabata sees a significant distinction between people who succumb to their moral weaknesses and those who lose their senses.

“In madness or craziness, something else happens,” he said. “It’s a way to find an exit, a way out from somewhere, to escape from reality. I find that’s very interesting as well.”

Kyle Macmillan is a local freelance writer.

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