Megill hits his stride with MOB’s holiday program

By Tim Sawyier, Chicago Classical Review
December 17, 2022

The past few years have been a period of transition for Music of the Baroque’s annual Holiday Brass and Choral Concerts, a tradition dating back to 1979.

Longtime MOB chorus director William Jon Gray led these yuletide performances for ages, but retired in 2019 and passed away earlier this year. Patrick Dupré Quigley, artistic director of Seraphic Fire, made an auspicious MOB debut leading the holiday concerts in 2019, though the following year Covid completely zeroed out concert calendars, with MOB’s holiday offerings no exception.

Last season the concerts made a cautious return under Andrew Megill, longtime faculty of Westminster Choir College and currently director of choral activities at the University of Illinois. The results were bleak, with masks muddying the singing and a host of other issues (not necessarily surprising, given the totality of circumstances).

In the interim, Megill has been appointed the new director of the MOB Chorus, and was on hand Friday night at St. Michael Church in Old Town for a second turn at the holiday helm, which definitely got the popular series back on track.

One aspect of the holiday concerts that has not changed over the years is their closing number: Michael Praetorius’ setting of “Est ist ein Ros’ entsprungen.” The text conveys the Christmas mystery through the metaphor of a rose blooming in winter, and Megill centered this year’s MOB program around selections that use similar floral imagery, including multiple settings of the hymn itself.

Megill appeared much more comfortable in his new choral director role, curating this intelligent program but now leading with greater conviction and sensitivity. He drew balanced, refined singing from the choir members, for an engaging evening of holiday fare ranging over several centuries.

In contrast to years past, Megill opted to have a core quartet of vocalists from the chorus take on the occasional solo duties: soprano Susan Nelson, alto Allison Selby Cook, tenor Paul Hunter (a late substitution for an ailing Matthew Cummings), and baritone Kevin Krasinski. These four singers were excellent throughout the performance, moving in and out of the larger ensemble and at times singing as a small ensemble antiphonally separated from their colleagues, including in the opening selection of “Lo, how a rose e’ever blooming” by Jan Sandström, and in Britten’s early “A Hymn to the Virgin.”

Krasinki’s full baritone shone in the close harmonies of Herbert Howells’ familiar carol “A Spotless Rose,” and Cook’s dark, burnished alto made Monteverdi’s solo setting of “Ego flos campi” (“I am the rose of Sharon”) from the Song of Songs a highlight of the evening.

It was a treat to hear such curios as Hugo Distler’s setting of the rose hymn. Distler committed suicide at the age of 34 in Nazi Germany, but one would know nothing of his later despair from this lapidary arrangement. Mendelssohn’s Weihnachten was a condensed, euphoric statement of the Christmas good news, and another unexpected discovery.

The brass ensemble assembled for the occasion, with MOB trumpet stalwart Barbara Butler at its head, sounded like their old selves Friday night, playing with gleaming timbres in selections of Scheidt, Gabrieli, and Susato. It was somewhat questionable to open the second half with the latter’s complete Suite from La Danserye, as this extended work disrupted the flow of the evening. Even so it was still welcome to hear Susato’s terpsichorean confection in its entirety.

As ever, the evening closed with the Praetorious “Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen.” Having heard so many other treatments of the same and similar material throughout the evening, it felt like one heard this familiar setting anew, which seemed to reflect coming back to the same Christmas story and rituals year after year, finding oneself changed by time and experience.

The Holiday Brass and Choral Concerts will be repeated 2 p.m. Saturday at Saints Faith, Hope, & Charity Catholic Church in Winnetka, and 2 p.m. Sunday at Alice Millar Chapel in Evanston.