Review: Christmas Concert Puts Fresh Bloom on Music of the Baroque Chorus and New Director

By Bob Benenson, Third Coast Review
December 19, 2022

Music of the Baroque‘s Holiday Brass & Chorale Concert, staged over four days in four Chicago-area churches, is the biggest annual star turn for the ensemble’s chorus. And the performance at Chicago’s St. Michael Catholic Church Friday (December 16) upheld the reputation of Andrew Megill as one of the world’s leading choral conductors.

Megill joined the Music of the Baroque team in April. The chorus was featured in two of Music of the Baroque’s first three programs of the 2022-23 season, but they have no spotlight bigger than the Holiday Brass & Choral Concert.

It is not clear whether Megill’s skilled conducting was the difference maker, or if the narrow confines of the church enabled the voices of the chorus to project better than in the large concert halls in which Music of the Baroque normally performs. But to these ears they have never sounded better.

This actually is the second consecutive year in which Megill conducted the Holiday Brass & Choral Concerts. As a guest conductor in 2021, he had not yet established the rapport he now has with the chorus. The program, with a number of pieces derived from a variety of national cultures and less-familiar composers, was well performed but a little less engaging than the norm.
Megill built this year’s program around the strong thematic thread of “A Rose in Winter.” The program reflected the imagery of Jesus as a rose blooming in Mary’s womb that held a powerful hold on choral composers from the Middle Ages through the Baroque period. Aiding the flow of the concert was the request that the audience withhold applause until the end of each half of the concert. This has been MOB’s common practice for this annual event.
The program opened with the first of four interpretations of “Es ist ein Ros’ entsprugen (Lo, how a rose e’er blooming)”. The setting of Friday evening’s concert at St. Michael Catholic Church in Chicago’s Old Town neighborhood lends itself to an immersive experience, and the members of the chorus, from the rear of the church, sang an interpretation by modern composer Jan Sandström that soared over the heads of the audience.

As the singers walked down the aisles to the altar/stage, the audience was introduced to the small ensemble of instrumentalists, performing “Canzon cornetto à 4” by Baroque era composer Samuel Schmidt. It was mostly brass—four trumpets, including that of always-brilliant principal Barbara Butler, a cornet, and three trombones—along with an organ and, for a couple of numbers in the second half, a tambourine and drum.

The flower theme returned with choral performances of “There is no rose of switch virtu,” a 15th century carol, and “A Spotless Rose” by 20th century composer Herbert Howell. A little later in the program came two 16th century versions of “Sicut lilium inter spinas (A Lily Among the Thorns)”. The second interpretation of ““Es ist ein Ros’ entsprugen,” by 20th century composer Hugo Distler, featured Stephen Alltop on organ with the chorus singing only the first of the two verses.

The first half of the program also highlighted works by four of the pantheon of classical music greats: Felix Mendelssohn (“Weihnachten”), Benjamin Britten (“A Hymn to the Virgin”), Anton Bruckner (“Virga Jesse”); and Johann Sebastian Bach (a selection from Christmas Oratorio).

The brass players, accompanied by tambourine and drums, got the second half of the concert off to a rousing start with Suite from La Danserye, a collection of dances by 16th century composer Tielman Susato (the only piece in the program that was not specifically sacred music).

The third version of “Es ist ein Ros’ entsprugen,” by Baroque composer Melchior Vulpius, was different from the rest, with more counterpoint among the singers.

There were more floral themes (“I am the Rose of Sharon, I am the lily of valley”) with two versions of Ego flos campi, the first by Claudio Monteverdi, the second by Raffaella Aleotti. These were followed by lilting Spanish rhythms in Riu, riu, chiu by Mateo Flecha the Elder. Despite a name similar to two earlier pieces, Missa Ego flos campi by Baroque era Spanish composer Juan Gutiérrez de Padilla was a wholly liturgical piece that took the chorus through a Kyrie, Gloria, Sanctus and Benedictus, and Agnus Dei.

What followed would alone have been worth the price of admission. The chorus’ solemn intonation of the Te Deum laudamus from the Roman Catholic mass was accompanied by three bellringers, Jan Jarvis, Kevin Krasinski and Susan Nelson. It is something rarely seen, and it was mesmerizing.

The concert concluded with Michael Praetorius’ enduring version of “Es ist ein Ros’ entsprugen,” the one that still is in the Christmas music canon more than 500 years later. It was a lovely sendoff into the cold pre-winter night.

Music of the Baroque returns next month with Montero Plays Mozart, featuring Venezuelan pianist Gabriela Montero. The two concerts are in reverse of their usual order, with Chicago’s Harris Theater going first on Saturday, January 21 (click here to purchase tickets priced from $25 to $100), followed by the Sunday, January 22 concert at Skokie’s North Shore Center for the Performing Arts (click here for tickets priced from $35-$100). Both concerts have 7:30 p.m. start times.