Music of the Baroque roves widely in holiday program

By Lawrence A. Johnson, Chicago Classical Review
December 15, 2018

At the ten-day mark before Christmas, holiday concerts in Chicago are as multitudinous and differentiated as snowflakes. But how many events are there where one can hear a 16th-century work by Mateo Flecha the Elder?

If you’re seeking “Jingle Bells” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” Music of the Baroque’s annual Brass and Choral holiday program probably isn’t your thing. But for smart, historically discerning, and geographically varied repertoire that doesn’t shy away from the season’s religious essence, it’s hard to beat MOB’s traditional event.

The ensemble’s Christmas concerts are often at their best when programmed and directed by William Jon Gray. Such was the case with Friday night’s performance at St. Michael’s Church in Old Town, with MOB’s chorus director leading a venturesome program that nimbly spanned five centuries between the festive brass opener and the traditional closing music by Michael Praetorius.

The evening got off to a shaky start with some rugged trumpet playing in Samuel Scheidt’s Canzon cornetto a 4, played from the back choir loft. Subsequent Gabrieli canzoni went better, though the brass playing could have been better blended and with more rhythmic incisiveness. One of the four trumpets seemed to be having an off night.

The reliable MOB chorus got the evening proper started in style with Jan Sweelinck’s “Hodie Christus natus est,” their spirited singing of the buoyant melody fully conveying the text’s joyous spirit. The medieval English carol “Nowel syng we bothe alle and summe” was just as lively in its quirky extended counterpoint against the cantus firmus. The chorus brought ample Yankee fervor to William Billings’ “Shiloh: The Shepherd’s Carol,” put across with hearty verve.

Though less well known than other Ave Maria settings by Schubert and Bach/Gounod, Robert Parsons’s 16th-century rendering offers a lovely, lilting melody and distinctive polyphonic style; the sopranos soared high and pure amid the overlapping voices.

More variable was the homely American hymn “I shall be satisfied,” which failed to live up to its title, one of the less inspired settings by the prolific Anonymous. Also Pierre Fournier’s transcription for cello and organ of the opening chorale of Bach’s cantata “Ich ruf’ zu fir, Herr Jesu Christ” (BWV 177) proved soporific at a very slow tempo, unaided by pitchy cello intonation.

Dmitri Bortniansky wrote a remarkable thirty-five Choral Concertos (or Sacred Concertos), and it was an inspired idea to program one of these complete works. Cast in ripieno style, No. 6 “Slava vo vishnih Bohu” is less audacious than some of the Ukrainian composer’s efforts in the genre. Still, the singers delivered a full-throated echt-Slavic feeling, not least in the final section with the women’s voices tolling like Eastern Orthodox church bells.

The first half ended in a festive manner with singers and brass joining forces for Guillaume Bouzignac’s Noe, Noel! Pastores, cantata Domino. In this dialogue motet, the French Baroque composer juxtaposes a call-and-response, with the chorus as shepherds and the soloist as Gabriel. Soprano Katelyn Lee was an aptly celestial presence as the guiding angel, singing with radiant purity from the raised pulpit.

Gray’s program brought more wide-ranging selections after intermission. Highlights included an exuberant performance of Mateo Flecha’s setting of the villancico “Riu, riu, chiu” with baritone Keven Keys as soloist. Likewise Juan Gutierrez de Padilla’s negrilla, “A siolo flasiquiyo,” served up a rousing bit of folkish secular music, with characters inspired by African storytelling.

But the MOB chorus was at its finest in the more reverential music. Monteverdi’s sacred madrigal “Adoramus te, Christe” was beautifully expressive, the shape-shifting textures finely blended and rendered with rich choral tone. Mikolaj Zielenski’s “In Epiphania Domini” was likewise lovely, cast in a polychordal Venetian style.

The traditional closer was Praetorius’s “Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen,” with the men and women singers stationed on opposite side aisles enclosing the audience. Gray led a rapt and glowing performance, which sent audience members out, warmed and fortified, into the bleak midwinter chill.

The program will be repeated 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at Divine Word Chapel in Northbrook.