Review: Music of the Baroque’s Immersive Holiday Brass and Choral Concert

By Bob Benenson, Third Coast Review
December 22, 2021

If you have never attended one of Music of the Baroque’s Holiday Brass and Choral Concerts, you owe it to yourself to mark your December 2022 calendar to ensure that you add this to your Yuletide music plans.

The lineup of pieces performed in these programs changes from year to year. But there is a consistent thread: an immersion in the traditions of Christmastime music, performed not on concert stages but rather in churches in Chicago and its suburbs. I attended the fourth and final concert Sunday at the Alice Millar Chapel on the campus of Northwestern University in Evanston.

You do not have to be religious to be swept up in the beauty, power and history of sacred music that extends centuries before and after the Baroque era in which this orchestra specializes. There was clarity in the small ensemble of 10 instruments, mostly brass (four trumpets and four trombones, with only an organ and cello as accompaniment). While not often used in Music of the Baroque’s concerts, microphones helped project the voices of the 26-member chorus. Tying it all together was guest conductor Andrew Megill, one of the most celebrated choral conductors of this era.

This year’s Holiday Brass concert was not quite as surround-sound as it was in 2019, the first I attended. At that concert at St. Michael’s Church, the brass consort descended from the altar stage into the aisles and played directly above the heads of the audience to astounding effect. Last Sunday’s concert had the instrumentalists mostly sitting in the front of the altar with the chorus behind, framed by the inter-denominational chapel’s huge modernist stained glass window.

But the chapel’s other spaces were utilized. The chorus made its first appearance singing from the back of the chapel, a space later filled by brass players (including principal trumpet Barbara Butler) for 17th century composer Johann Vierdanck’s Capriccio á 2 Cornetti. Late in the program, the chorus took to the side aisles, surrendering the stage to handbell players Jan Jarvis, Ryan Townsend and Emily Yiannias for the lengthy, chanted Te Deum laudamus.

The program had four segments, each of which had two consistent threads. In each, the chorus sang an interpretation of the medieval chant "O magnum mysterium", sourced from 16th century Tomás Luis de Victoria of Spain, 16th century William Byrd of England, 20th century Francis Poulenc of France, and American Morton Lauridsen of our modern era.

For the musicians, the continuum was a series of brass-led instrumentals composed by Giovanni Gabrielli, who composed in the late 16th and early 17th centuries.

Most of the songs were in Latin, but other traditions got their due: Polish ("W zlobie lezy", which translates to “He lies in a manger”); Czech ("Hajej, nynej", which implores the baby Jesus to “Sleep, nap”); Spanish (the lively "Salga el torillo hosquillo!" Or "Let the little wild bull out!", which curiously uses bullfighting as a metaphor for the Christmas story); English (the familiar "Ding Dong! merrily on high"); and German (the beautiful "Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen", or "Lo, how a rose is e’er blooming", which closed the program with a tune that is also a familiar piece of traditional Christmas music).

Asked at the beginning of the performance to hold all applause to the end of the program’s two halves, the audience showed great restraint, but let loose with a long and well-deserved standing ovation at the conclusion.