Music of the Baroque’s brass and chorus excel in holiday fare

By Tim Sawyier, Chicago Classical Review
December 16, 2017

Music of the Baroque offered its annual Holiday Brass and Choral Concert at St. Michael’s Church in Old Town on Friday night. Under the direction of MOB Chorus director William Jon Gray, the evening was an intelligently selected survey of both new and familiar Christmas-related fare that spanned close to a thousand years of Western musical history.

The evening began with Michael Praetorious’s “Vom Himmel hoch” played by the MOB trumpeters from the St. Michael’s organ loft. The burnished tones of co-principals Barbara Butler and Charles Geyer set a high bar for brass playing that was maintained throughout the concert. The entire program was punctuated with late-16th- and early-17th-century works for brass by Gabrieli, Schein, and Scheidt, and the octet of MOB brass players (four trumpets and four trombones) consistently delivered these with refined balance and a gleaming collective timbre.

The evening’s brass playing was matched by equally rarified singing from the MOB Chorus. In 20th-century settings by Stephen Paulus, Patrick Hawes, and Will Todd they achieved a welcoming sonority that seemed to match the general warmth of the Christmas season. The chorus’s stylish renditions of such Christmas standbys as “Veni, veni Emmanuel” and “Ding, Dong Merrily on High” made a strong case for additional hearings of these most familiar songs.

Given the MOB Chorus’s ostensible specialty in early music, it came as little surprise that the singers seemed equally at home in Renaissance polyphony. Selections of des Prez, de Lassus, Victoria, and Handl received sophisticated treatment, with Gray sensitively calibrating this music’s complex counterpoint. His approach was generally unfussy and non-interventionist, which seemed to allow the singers and brass players a certain comfort that could be felt in the ease and graciousness of their performances.

Vocal soloists drawn from the chorus’s ranks were consistently capable. Bahareh Poureslami stirringly soared over her colleagues in Hawes’ “Prayer to a Guardian Angel” and Susan Nelson delivered her solo in the traditional Basque “Gabriel’s Message” with aplomb. There were ensemble issues in Handel’s “There Were Shepherds/But Lo, the Angel” from Messiah, a function of having soprano Hannah Dixon McConnell perform from a pulpit at some distance from the players on stage, but the soloist herself was not derailed by this decision.

Cellist Barbara Haffner and organist Mark Shuldiner provided solid continuo grounding throughout the performance. They also offered Pierre Fournier’s arrangement for cello and keyboard of Bach’s “Nun komm’, der Heiden Heiland,” with Haffer giving a plaintive rendition of the solo line. The pair’s work in a “Ballet” from Praetorious’s Terpsichore was equally stylish.

For the final selections of the evening the MOB Chorus spread out down the church aisles, with women on one side and men on the other. The resulting antiphony came off to great effect in the works that have ended the MOB Holiday Brass and Choral Concerts for years: the chant “Te Deum laudamus” and Praetorious’s “Es ist en Ros’ entsprungen.” These were beautiful in an earnest, unaffected manner, with Gray maintaining his ensemble’s cohesion despite the physical distance between its members. The closing lines of the Praetorious—“To show God’s love aright/ she bore us a Savior/ when half spent was the night”—sent the audience into the frigid evening on an apt note of reflection on the origins of this festive season.

The MOB Holiday Brass and Choral Concerts will be repeated 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at the Divine Word Chapel in Northbrook.