Festive music shines brightest in Music of the Baroque’s Christmas program

Fri Dec 18, 2009 at 5:21 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

“Nativity” by Bernardino Fasolo, 1526.

Jane Glover is now in her seventh season leading Music of the Baroque, yet this year is the first time the English conductor has taken the helm at the ensemble’s popular brass and choral Christmas concerts.

Glover and Music of the Baroque opened their holiday program at Grace Lutheran Church in River Forest Thursday night, with a discerning mix of medieval chant, carols, and Renaissance polyphony, spiced by music for brass ensemble by Praetorius, and four distinct settings of O magnum mysterium as the leitmotiv.

Things got off to a less-than-stellar start with Johann Vierdanck’s Capriccio for two cornets (here arranged for trumpets), which was, frankly, a mess. The ensuing choral entrance processional of the chant Veni veni Emmanuel and Puer natus in Bethlehem quickly got things on track, the MOB Chorus singing well with admirable intonation, no mean feat when traversing the vast church and ascending several irregular steps to take their positions.

Music of the Baroque’s Chorus has, apparently, had its ups and downs in recent years, and the ensemble is in the hunt for a new chorus director with this season an extended audition period for candidates. This holiday program marks the turn of Erick Lichte, founding member of Cantus and its artistic director for nearly a decade.

Lichte obtained solid, professional results but this appears to be a chorus in transition, with some upgrading needed. There is a lack of luster and purity in the high voices, and, while the men appear to have more body and cohesion, the overall sonority sounds rather grainy and tired, lacking gleam and glowing tone.

That said, Glover showed a skillful hand with the program directing incisive, rhythmically buoyant performances in this wide-ranging program.

Less manifest was a sense of the music’s spiritual solace. Victoria’s pastoral O magnum mysterium and Tallis’s Videte miraculum were lithe and well sung, but taken too fleetly by Glover, slighting the music’s expressive possibilities. Likewise Coventry Carol received a literal rendering that missed the haunting, otherworldly quality. Oddly, the most challenging work, Peter Maxwell Davies’ O magnum mysterium setting, showed the singers at their finest, the choir handling the gentle dissonances and pitch bending with aplomb.

Jane Glover

The program emphasized the festive side of Christmas rather than spiritual rumination, and in that regard was largely successful. The most vigorous music came off best, with Glover and the singers bringing an infectious swing to Buxtehude’s lively Das neugeborne Kindelein, pointing the striking contrasts of Schutz’s Jachuzet dem Herren and delivering a jaunty lift to Gabrieli’s O magnum mysterium with its artful writing for divided choirs.

Of the chorus members in the spotlight as soloists, bass-baritone Douglas Anderson brought some welcome juice and vitality to Angelus ad virgenem as did Nina Heebink in the lively medieval villancico, Riu, riu chiu. Anderson, Jeffrey Horvath, Jan Jarvis and Todd von Felker also provided the requisite hearty, sea-shanty swagger to The Boar’s Head Carol.

Opening fanfare apart, the brass playing was all would expect of these fine players, with Glover leading characterful and exuberant dances from Praetorius’s Terpsichore and other works. Barbara Butler contributed some staggering trumpet playing, thrown off with high-gloss polish and huge panache.

Accompanied by bells, the men and women of the chorus separately ascended the opposing choral lofts for the antiphonal final works, Te Deum laudamus by the prolific Anonymous and an audience-participation closer of O Come, All Ye Faithful.

The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Friday at St. Michael’s Church in Chicago, and 3 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday at Divine Word Chapel in Techny. www.baroque.org; 312-551-1415

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