Gray finds fifty shades of Christmas in MOB’s holiday program

Sat Dec 20, 2014 at 2:18 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

"Angel Musician 2" by Melozzo da Forli.
“Angel Musician 2” by Melozzo da Forli.

Amid the snowflake-like abundance of seasonal concert offerings, one can always count on Music of the Baroque’s annual Brass and Choral program to offer intelligent holiday programming a cut above the standard carols and crossover piffle.

This year’s lineup, heard Friday night at St. Michael’s Church in Old Town, proved even more rewarding than usual. MOB choral director William Jon Gray dug deep and wide for a thematic, uncommonly thoughtful program that drew on a dizzying range, from some of the earliest notated music to Sweelinck and Thomas Weelkes to several contemporary composers. The results proved as intellectually bracing as they were musically enjoyable.

With each of the eight sections performed without interruption or applause (as requested in the program) the evening traversed the centuries breezily and seamlessly with superb vocalism from the chorus, clarion playing from the brass ensemble and fine continuo and obbligato work from cellist Barbara Haffner and organist Robert McConnell.

The epic frame of reference and wide timbral contrast was apparent in the opening “Prologue” set. From the back balcony, the antiphonal brass fanfares of Gabrieli’s Canzon primi toni a 8 opened the evening, sounding with weighty resplendence in the vast, ornate space. The ethereal voices of the MOB Chorus’s sopranos provided a quick aural reset with the ethereal balm of Victoria’s Duo Seraphim. Brash martial rhythms broke the spell with the drums and brass of the Toccata from Monteverdi’s Orfeo, ending with the lively rejociing of the Versicle and Response sections from the same composer’s 1610 Vespers.

And so it went. In the “Yearning” section, soprano Hannah Dixon McConnell and mezzo Amanda Koopman gracefully blended for a Veni, veni, Emanuel hymn setting from the 13th century by Anonymous. We immediately vaulted eight centuries to Threshold of Night by the gifted young contemporary Irish composer Tarik O’Regan. The setting displayed close text painting and choral invention amid its astringent harmonies, and received a sensitive performance well controlled by Gray. Two baleful Bach excerpts were followed by another modern work, Jean Berger’s melodious yet challenging psalm setting The Eyes Of All Wait Upon Thee.

Other highlights included James MacMillan’s “O Radiant Dawn” from his Strathclyde Motets, a substantial antiphon that shows the Scottish composer’s ability to mix Renaissance elements within a modern idiom. Palestrina’s Alma Redemptoris Mater and Victoria’s O magnum mysterium received lovely, glowing renderings  while the hearty shanty-like Jolly Shepherd and the carol Past Three O’Clock provided earthy contrast.

The traditional final works of these MOB programs made their effect—the handbell-accompanied Solemn Tone Te Deum Ladaumus and a rapt rendering of Praetorius’s Er ist ein Ros entsprungen closed a rich and satisfying musical feast.

The program will be repeated 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at Divine Word Chapel in Techny.; 312-551-1414.

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