Note: Due to the COVID-19 heath crisis, this concert run has been canceled. Tickets may be exchanged for other CSO/SCP concerts or refunded. More options and additional information can be found at cso.org or by calling Symphony Center at (312) 294-3000. 

Nicholas Kraemer never imagined himself as a conductor when he was growing up. In fact, he wasn’t even planning a career in music at first. “I wanted to be a harpsichord player from about the age of 19, and before that, I wanted to be an actor.”

But the London-based Kraemer changed career paths and gained international recognition particularly for his work in repertoire composed in the Baroque era — 1600 to 1750 — and slightly later music by such Classical-era composers as Franz Joseph Haydn. He will put that expertise to work March 26-28, when he returns to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, leading the ensemble in a program of Bach, Handel and Purcell, with guest soprano Amanda Forsythe and countertenor Iestyn Davies

While studying at the Guildhall School of Music, Kraemer he fell in love with the harpsichord and the idea of playing continuo, the accompaniment that supplies the bass line and harmonic support in Baroque music. “Being a continuo player is a fantastic skill, and I still think that,” he said. “And I wanted to play with the best groups in the world, and within two to three years of leaving college, I was with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields.”

He gradually began directing a few works from the keyboard, and that led to some small-scale conducting engagements. What Kraemer calls his “road-to-Damascus moment” came when he studied briefly at the Schola Cantorum in Basel, Switzerland. He attended a concert in Geneva featuring the Leonhardt-Consort, an ensemble led by famed Dutch harpsichordist and conductor Gustav Leonhardt, a pioneer in the period-instrument movement. The crusade, which caught fire in the 1970s with the establishment of such popular groups as the Academy of Ancient Music, advocated a return to performance styles as close as possible to those at the time when 17th- and 18th-century and earlier works were written. That approach meant, among other things, employing original instruments, including violins with gut strings, and striving for a lighter, more transparent sound.

What Kraemer recalls from that Geneva concert is a “light-sprung” sound, rhythmic textures and forward-moving phrasing. “Bach with a smile,” he said. “It’s affected me ever since.”

Although the conductor has led other period-instrument ensembles, including the now-disbanded Raglan Baroque Players, which he formed in 1978, he has specialized in bringing a period sensibility to ensembles that perform on modern instruments. “That’s what I do, and I guess I just got good at it,” he said. “It’s never going to sound the same, but I think I’ve found a way to make it acceptable to myself, and if it’s acceptable to myself, I reckon that other people will like it, too.”

Kraemer came to the attention of the Chicago Symphony after his 2002 appointment as principal guest conductor of Music of the Baroque, a Chicago-based chamber ensemble headed by noted conductor Jane Glover. He has led two previous programs with the CSO — one that included Handel’s Water Music and another that included works by Haydn and Telemann as well as Richard Strauss’ Metamorphosen, which was written at the end of World War II. In each case, Kraemer led a chamber-sized ensemble of symphony musicians; that will be the case again with this latest appearance, when leading from the harpsichord for most of the program, he will conduct a group of about 30 players.

With the CSO, he will conduct the six works the way he would with the Music of the Baroque or any other ensemble. “Apart from the fact that I know the Music of the Baroque really well, there is no difference of approach, because it is music-led,” he said. “So I’ll always approach the project from the music rather than from the players.”

Whether in Chicago or elsewhere, Kraemer believes he is doing some of the best conducting of his career. He is preparing harder than ever, and he doesn’t worry anymore about what other people think of his interpretations. “Only now – the last five or six years – have I really felt that,” he said. “It’s a revelation, actually. It means that I enjoy what I do much more than I did.”

A version of this article appeared previously on Sounds and Stories.

TOP: Nicholas Kraemer will lead the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in a Bach, Handel and Purcell program March 26-28. | ©Todd Rosenberg Photography