On a snowy night, Music of the Baroque sings the Christmas season

By Lawrence A. Johnson, Chicago Classical Review
December 17, 2016

One could hardly have set the scene more evocatively for Music of the Baroque’s annual brass and choral program Friday night. Walking through the heavy snowfall from the Sedgwick Brown Line stop to St. Michael’s Church, one even glimpsed a horse and carriage departing down Cleveland Street.

Paul Agnew was in charge of the proceedings this year. The British tenor-turned-conductor titled his program “The Great Mystery,” painting the Christmas narrative from Advent through to the Nativity with music spanning several centuries.

MOB chorus master William Jon Gray set a new standard for these popular holiday programs in recent years, presenting dizzyingly eclectic and wide-ranging selections of ancient, Baroque and contemporary sacred music, performed with great feeling and expressive depth.

By comparison, Agnew’s program felt short on enterprise, focused largely on the familiar, traditional and reliably tonal. There were also some odd choices. Why perform Morten Lauridsen’s O magnum mysterium–one of the most beautiful of contemporary choral settings–in a nonvocal arrangement for brass?

Still, the English conductor elicited spirited and polished performances from the MOB Chorus, directing the singers with clear emphatic gestures. And the visuals of the church’s majestic interior added to the evening’s esthetic pleasures. 

Stage management was often effective. Soprano Susan Nelson sang a raptly sensitive solo in the first verse of John Jacob Niles’ “I Wonder as I Wander” while walking up the center aisle, with the chorus’s women and men performing the ensuing verses as they entered on the left and right, respectively.

There were a few novelties, such as Guillaume Bouzigbac’s  Noé, Noé! Pastores, cantate Domino. The 16th-century dialogue motet is almost operatic in its call and response  between soloist and chorus. Perched angel-like in the high pulpit, soprano Katelyn Lee sang clearly and the rapid exchanges with the chorus were well directed by Agnew.

There was no lack of vitality in the joyous selections. Peter Wishart’s “Alleluya, A New World is Come on Hand” proved especially lively with the men and women singers alternating antiphonal verses. And with brass and chorus together, Heinrich Schütz’s “Hodie Christus natus est” conveyed the spiritual joy of the season, aided by sturdy solo contributions by tenor Brendon Marsh and bass Stephen Richardson.

Yet while the performances were committed and responsive under Agnew’s direction, the spiritual intimacy of the music often felt skated over. Dynamics were straitened and leaned toward the loud side with barely a pianissimo heard all evening (apart from John Tavener’s lovely “O, Do Not Move”). Too many works received coolly efficient readings that verged on blandness. In such fail-safe masterworks as Victoria’s O magnum mysterium, the singing was clean and well blended, yet one wouldn’t know the music is about anything except the notes. Even the traditional closer of Praetorius’s “Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen” failed to touch the heart.

As usual, the brass playing was exceptional, clarion in tone and performed with a fine sheen with the players elegantly virtuosic in canzones by Gabrieli and Samuel Scheidt.  Brass and voices joined forces for a resplendent performance of Gabrieli’s Magnificat a 17. 

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