Chicago Classical Review »» Rough Edges, Muted Chants Dilute Holiday Joy With MOB

Andrew Megill conducted the Music of the Baroque’s Holiday Brass and Choral concert Friday night at St. Michael’s Church.

After a complete hiatus during the pandemic winter of 2020, holiday musical traditions are back this season, with Nutcrackersand Messiahs to have, at least for those with vaccination cards.

Music from the annual Baroque holiday brass and choir concerts also made a cautious comeback, although unfortunately this year’s traditional holiday schedule did not bring much Christmas cheer.

Longtime MOB conductor William Jon Gray, who conducted these concerts for years, retired in May 2019. In that year’s vacation program, Patrick Dupré Quigley made a memorable debut at MOB.

Andrew Megill, director of choral activities at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, was in charge of this second Gray-less outing after last year’s hiatus. He also prepared the choir in previous MOB programs.

Megill put on a captivating program, heard in the second of four performances on Friday night at St. Michael’s Church in the Old Town. Four musical ensembles were based on lines from “O Magnum Mysterium”, the age-old song sung at midnight on Christmas Day. Each included an interpretation of this song itself, by Victoria, Byrd, Poulenc and Morten Lauridsen. Hearing how composers from such disparate eras and places put the same ancient words was a moving reminder of the persistence and unifying aspects of the Christmas mystery.

Sadly, the good news ends with Megill’s sensitive programming. The local regulations in force made the masked choir sing through the night, and the results on the occasion were grim. The lyrics were still indistinguishable and the dynamics oscillated in a generalized mid range, the sound never really opening up or never fading without weakening. The pitch in the high registers from section to section was compromised and a generalized vocal soup prevailed.

The very live acoustics of St. Michael’s Church did not help matters, but this issue has been dealt with competently in recent years. Other local choirs, especially the one in Grant Park, were not so hampered by the masked vocals, but on Friday night the effect on the MOB singers was noticeable and pervasive. What compensation could have been made in terms of balance and wording had not come from Megill, whose leadership was competent but superficial.

There were some exceptions to the general impression of indifference. Soprano Susan Nelson sang her solo in the Czech rocking song “Hajej, nynej” with a warm and inviting tone, on a sound bed of support from her colleagues. 17e“Salga el torillo hosquillo!” From the last century Spaniard Diego José de Salazar likens the nativity to a bullfight, a most unexpected juxtaposition that ended the first half with a memorable exclamation point. Any opportunity to hear Poulenc’s sacred music is welcome, even if his “O magnum mysterium” lacked the Gallic undertone required on Friday evening.

As always, the MOB Holiday Concert was punctuated by selections of Renaissance brass, with offerings from Gabrieli, Schütz and Speer interspersed with choral offerings. Unlike in years past, these were superficially appealing at best on Friday nights. The balance, tone, and attention to other such vital details weren’t consistent enough to elevate this performance above routine.

The always reliable Barbara Butler was an elegant trumpet leader at the head of the brass octet, but her colleagues were not., and Megill appeared out of her element at the head of this repertoire.

Vierdanck’s ‘Capriccio á 2 Cornetti’ kicked off the second half in a shocking fashion, with breathtaking false play cascading down from the choir stand. Praetorius ‘traditional solemn closing numbers “Te Deum laudamus” and “Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen” seemed more of a relief than a consolation at the end of the evening.

The holiday brass and choir concerts will be repeated at 2 p.m. on Saturday at Saints Faith, Hope and Charity Catholic Church in Winnetka and at 2 p.m. on Sunday at Alice Millar Chapel in Evanston.

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