Music of the Baroque breathes new live into holiday program

Building on the template set in place by Music of the Baroque founder Thomas S. Wikman when he inaugurated these Christmas concerts some 35 years ago now, the “Holiday Brass and Choral Concerts” weave a tapestry of High Renaissance and early Baroque pieces alternatingly performed by brass and chorus, sometimes separately, sometimes together.

Although Music of the Baroque’s new chorus master William Jon Gray took the post last year and actually conducted his first set of MOB’s annual “Holiday and Choral Concerts” last season, those performances fell somewhat under the radar given the group also presented Bach’s monumental “Christmas Oratorio” last year as well.

Since Wikman personally coached the singers of what he always called his “choir of soloists,” the performance level was quite high during those years but had declined slightly since his departure. Music director Jane Glover even gave the series a boost by conducting her thus far only appearances at these annual concerts two years ago.

It was obvious from the opening performance of this year’s concerts Thursday night at Grace Lutheran Church in west suburban River Forest that Gray is taking these concerts very seriously, and not simply as routine holiday fare.

What added a whole new level of excitement to the concerts is the inclusion of some carefully chosen modern repertoire that fit in with the general format and style of these concerts, acting as palate cleansers between large blocks of early music.

Particularly effective was the Gloria from Daniel Pinkham’s Christmas Cantata that ended the first part of the program, a jubilant tour de force for all forces involved that achieved an almost breathless climax to the hour that preceded it that began with plainchant and moved through thematically from Advent themes of waiting, hope and staying vigilant to the Annunciation, magnificently represented by the original “Virga Jesse” flourit section of Bach’s Magnificat.

The performance of Heinrich Schütz’s tender Sei gegrüsset, Maria with its stunning blend of one voice into the other as unbroken vocal call and response representing the angel of the Annunciation and Mary’s acceptance of her redemptive role was a particular highlight, countertenor Joseph Schlesinger and soprano Kimberly McCord perfectly complementing one another.

Morten Lauridsen’s contemporary setting of O magnum mysterium featured nicely sculpted phrases. Other contemporary highlights included Stephen Paulus’ Pilgrim’s Hymn, Herbert Howells’ A Spotless Rose and Elizabeth Poston’s Jesus Christ the Apple Tree all exquisitely rendered.

What was fascinating is that even old chestnuts that have been part of this program for years were breathed new life and vitality by more carefully focused singing and nuanced conducting.

As always, the brass interludes added an element of solemnity and jubilation, as did the exquisite continuo that was often provided by organist David Schrader and cellist Barbara Haffner.