Alltop is the conductor who saved Christmas for Music of the Baroque

By Tim Sawyier, Chicago Classical Review
December 16, 2023

When Music of the Baroque’s founder Thomas Wikman inaugurated the group’s holiday concerts in 1979, he chose as venues four Chicago-area churches that met his exacting acoustical standards. Wikman passed away in October, but Friday night MOB’s annual Holiday Brass and Choral Concerts continued at St. Michael Church in Old Town, one of the original settings Wikman selected 44 years ago.

The concerts are usually led by the MOB Chorus Director, currently Andrew Megill, and William Jon Gray before him. Megill was taken ill earlier this week and is recovering well from a medical procedure.

MOB organist Stephen Alltop—also the director of the Elmhurst Symphony Orchestra and the Apollo Chorus—stepped in to lead the performances. Megill’s presence was still felt in the thoughtfully curated program and stellar choral preparation.
Music of the Baroque truly enjoys luxury casting with Alltop at the organ. An enormously versatile musician, he effortlessly stepped into the leadership role, conducting from the box organ and leading Megill’s program with fluency and poise that made the last-minute substitution an afterthought. His keyboard interpolations between numbers were spontaneous and inventive, providing flow and cohesion to the program.

The first half centered on the text “Hodie Christus Natus est” (“Today is Christ Born”). An anonymous 10th-century setting began the evening with the MOB Chorus chanting from the back of the sanctuary before processing up the aisles. Treatments of the chant by Gabrieli, Sweelinck, Byrd, and Poulenc followed, a compelling assortment that conveyed a spiritual continuity between the Renaissance and the 20th century. Two selections of Christmas Vespers from 17th-century Mexico closed the first half, extending this sense of faithful unification across the globe.

The chorus was luminous throughout the night. They sang with fine balance and a glowing collective timbre that easily filled St. Michael’s sanctuary. It was easy to see why Wikman was drawn to the space.

As always the choral selections were punctuated with Renaissance brass music by a consort of four trumpets and four trombones, led by MOB’s venerable principal trumpet Barbara Butler. Assembled from across the country, this octet was in fine form this year, playing with a burnished group tone and fluent technique in works of Gabrieli, Vierdanck, Marini, Victoria, and Scheidt.

The second half featured three works of 20th-century British composers. James MacMillan’s “O Radiant Dawn” captures the piercing morning light with austere harmonies and angular textures, while Cecilia’s McDowall’s “Of a Rose” uses purer sonorities that seemed to channel the music of earlier eras also on the program. Will Todd’s “My Lord Has Come” felt warmly consoling in the sensitive treatment by Alltop and the chorus.

Two more Christmas Vespers settings by the Venetian giants Monteverdi and Gabrieli followed, their intricate polyphony evoking the ornate interior of Venice’s San Marco Basilica, where both were music directors. These featured an accomplished solo vocal quartet of soprano Hannah Dixon McConnell, alto Lauren Randolph, tenor Matthew Cummings, and bass Kevin Krasinski. McConnell’s nimbly florid contributions in Monteverdi’s “Confitebor tibi Domine” were an evening highlight.

The evening closed in MOB’s customary fashion with the Solemn Tone “Te Deum laudamus,” with three chorus members on hand chimes, and finally Michael Praetorious’ treatment of “Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen,” sending the appreciative audience into this year’s balmy December evening with another Chicago musical ritual sustained and enjoyed.