Music of the Baroque creates a stunning winter rose
December 19, 2022
December always comes with lots of holiday concerts to choose from. The most delightful Christmas concert I’ve attended in some time took place last Friday night, Dec. 16 in St. Michael Church in the Old Town neighborhood. The program, Music of the Baroque (MOB), offered a full evening of celebratory music under the tagline “inspiring music in beautiful spaces” and the concert certainly included both those things, all led by MOB’s new chorus director, Andrew Megill.
It has become customary for these MOB holiday concerts to conclude with the Christmas hymn “Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen” (“Lo, how a rose e’er blooming” is how it is traditionally rendered in English). It dates from before the 17th century and its most common form is the one composed by Michael Praetorius 1609, with captivating harmonization.
Megill’s program was in part a meditation on “Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen” that allowed listeners to hear this hymn in several different forms throughout the evening. The concert opened with the 1990 arrangement by Swedish composer Jan Sandström, which has become a staple in Swedish holiday concerts. Sandström has created a sort of deconstruction of the Praetorius setting that captures the wonder and majesty of the original but adds an amazing luminescence.
Sandström took this simple hymn and then divided it into two major parts. A four part choir sings the melody and another choir, this one divided into eight parts, sings an accompaniment that is wordless, either with humming or vocalizing a vowel. The music is slowed to a glacial pace with the second choir members each singing extremely long notes, often unchanging even as the melody progresses. This creates little waves of dissonance and marvelous waves of overtones.
The two choirs sang not from the front of the church, but from somewhere in the back. (St. Michael is huge, so they might have sung from the center.) To get the full effect, I did not turn around, but rather let the music simply flow over me, as I assume Megill intended. The effect was ethereal, and the soaring soprano sounds gentle and angelic. The middle voices brought delicate structure and the basses grounded it with assurance.
This performance of the Sandström “Ros” alone was one of the highlights of 2022 for me. The music was both familiar and new and rendered in such an exciting way that it made you stop and think about all the elements of the work that are exposed in this sinuous, slow moving celebration.
Megill seemed at home with his singers and they responded with gleaming singing and mostly good balance. Members of the MOB chorus also served as soloists when needed and soprano Susan Nelson, alto Allison Selby Cook, tenor Paul Hunter and bass Kevin Krasinski all did fine work.
Choral works by Palestrina, Bach and Monteverdi were combined with more contemporary pieces, creating a large choral tapestry of Christmas and devotional music.
All this was interspersed with vigorous brass music, bright and exciting. Music by Samuel Scheidt marked the first entrance of the trumpets and trombones, with lots of punch and counterpoint. Principal trumpet Barbara Butler led the way with clarity and assurance. They had their big moment with the Suite form “La Danserye” by Tielman Susato, showing off their polished ensemble skills.
Megill created a very generous program — a full two hours, including the brief intermission. At a time when many programmers are offering scant 90 minute, intermissionless concerts, this felt like true holiday generosity. At the same time, not everything seemed to fit together naturally. I adore Juan Gutiérrez de Padilla’s mass “Missa Ego flos campi” which was performed in its entirety in the second half of the program, but I didn’t think it fit with the rest of the evening’s sound. Similarly, the very modern sounding “Virga Jesse” by Bruckner — marvelously performed — seemed out of place when immediately followed by an excerpt from Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, blaring brightly with brass. But these are quibbles. This was a large concert and the fact that there was a vast array of music also means that there was likely something for everyone somewhere along the line.
The tendency of Megill to want to move his singers around was a distraction that grew as the concert proceeded. Singers mostly performed from the center front of the church. But the soloists (often creating a semi-choir) moved about regularly, at one point behind the chorus and with their backs to us. At another point the entire chorus formed a long line at the front, and at another moved to form two long lines along the side of the church. It was dizzying and without benefit.
The large Catholic church was not packed, but it most certainly was very well attended indeed, and the seating was comfortable and most sensibly organized. This concert was performed four times throughout the Chicago area, and I’m delighted to know that there are hundreds of folks who experience such a lovely and inspired holiday event. If you missed it, put Music of the Baroque on your calendar for next December. If you can’t wait that long, visit Baroque.org for upcoming MOB concerts, including Bach’s St. Matthew Passion in April led by the estimable Jane Glover.