Christmas Was a Blooming Rose at Two Classical Brass Concerts

By Bob Benenson, Third Coast Review
December 24, 2019

The holiday concerts presented by Music of the Baroque and Chicago Philharmonic had a few things in common. Both performances were a pleasure to attend. They both featured brass instruments. Both performed the familiar Christmas melody Es ist ein Ros’ esprungen (translated in English to “Lo, how a rose e’er blooming”) in the original version attributed to early 17th century German composer Michael Praetorius. The Philharmonic brass quintet coupled it with Johannes Brahms’ version, composed in the late 19th century.

There was a dramatic contrast between the programs, though. The Music of the Baroque concert at St. Michael’s Catholic Church in Old Town on December 20 was an all-encompassing experience, taking the audience back centuries to a time when most of the lasting music composed was sacred music. The Chicago Philharmonic concert, an entertainment staged at the City Winery on December 22, focused on familiar seasonal classics that sent the audience into the warm West Loop Sunday afternoon with a nice Christmas buzz.

Music of the Baroque utilized all of St. Michael’s Church as its stage (the concert, with spirited guest conducting by Patrick Dupré Quigley, was also performed on December 19 at Grace Lutheran Church in River Forest and on December 21 and 22 at Divine Word Chapel in Northbrook). The performance opened with three trumpets in the rear balcony playing Capriccio a 3 cornetti by 17th century German composer Johann Vierdanck. Male voices from the chorus performed Puer natus est, a Gregorian chant from the 13th century, from the loft also in the rear of the church. The women of the chorus, singing from the altar, performed a nativity hymn, composed in the 12th century by St. Hildegarde of Bingen, described in the program notes as “one of Western music’s oldest attributed pieces.”

This was obviously a set list that you would never hear on a 24/7 Christmas music radio station. It rather was a concert for those of us in the “All I Want For Christmas Is Beautiful Sacred Music From the Early 17th Century” crowd.

Much of the first half of the program was music composed by unfamiliar Spanish composers. Two of these pieces, titled Xicochi conetzintle and Hanacpachap cussicuinin, were written in the indigenous languages of Mexico and Peru, products of the Spanish conquest of South America. Only one piece in the concert, titled Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day with author unattributed, was sung in English. There were only two melodies familiar in the broader canon of today’s Christmas music: the early 14th century German piece titled In dulci jubilo and “covered” in English under titles such as Good Christian Men Rejoice, and the aforementioned Eis ist ein Ros’ entsprugen.

This also was the concert for those who have always wanted to share the stage with the performers, as for much of the concert, the church aisles were the stage. At junctures, the men of the chorus performed on one side of the church while the women performed on the other; at others, the brass players took to the aisles. It was a warm bath of beautiful antiquity, spiritually uplifting even for one who normally sees the inside of a church only for a concert.

Christmas cheer, rather than solemnity, was the point of Chicago Philharmonic’s Sunday brunch concert at City Winery on Chicago’s Restaurant Row. The quintet — Matthew Lee and David Inmon on trumpet, Greg Flint on horn, Reed Capshaw on trombone and Charles Schuchat on tuba — played a set that covered more than a dozen traditional carols. Some of these, while not as old as antiquity, have been played for centuries: George Frederic Handel’s Joy to the World and Hallelujah Chorus, Germany’s O come, O come Emanuel, England’s Holly and the Ivy, Ireland’s Wexford Carol, and Carol of the Bells (who knew it was written in Ukraine?), no mean trick considering there were no bells.

The mid-section was a medley of songs that were not Jingle Bells, but nonetheless were about dashing through the snow on a sleigh. Sergei Prokofiev’s three-horse Troika from Russia was followed by the chuckles-inducing Schlittenfarht (literally “sleigh ride” in German), written by Leopold Mozart, which was paired with a dance by his more famous son Wolfgang Amadeus. Finally, Sleigh Ride by American composer Leroy Anderson, with a trumpet providing the familiar horse whinny at the end.

That blooming rose led to a mellow finale that included Angels We Have Heard on High, Silent Night, and Vincent Guaraldi’s Christmas Time is Here from the TV cartoon A Charlie Brown Christmas (one of the most seasonally resonant and musically significant Christmas tunes of the modern era). After the Hallelujah Chorus, the quintet played an appropriate encore of We Wish You a Merry Christmas. Only a Scrooge or a Grinch could have failed to have fun.

Music of the Baroque returns to more familiar environs — the Harris Theater on January 25, the North Shore Center in Skokie on January 26 — with a program that includes soloist Alison Balsom playing Joseph Haydn’s Trumpet Concerto in E Flat. (Tickets $10-85 at Harris, $25-85 in Skokie). Chicago Philharmonic’s next concert is March 1 at Skokie’s North Shore Center, featuring Mozart’s Divertimento in D Major and accompanied by Visceral Dance Chicago.