With a conductor sub, Music of the Baroque makes its joyous seasonal sound 

Sat Dec 19, 2015 at 11:15 am

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Steven Fox conducted Music of the Baroque's holiday program Friday night at St. Michael's Church.
Steven Fox conducted Music of the Baroque’s holiday program Friday night at St. Michael’s Church.

The holiday brass and choral show must go on. 

During rehearsals for last month’s concerts of Handel’s Judas Maccabaeus, Music of the Baroque choral director William Jon Gray was suddenly stricken and rushed to the hospital. Fortunately, after emergency heart surgery, Gray is on the mend and expected to be back on the job for the ensemble’s next choral program, says executive director Karen Fishman.

So this year’s popular brass and choral concerts fell to Steven Fox, who led Music of the Baroque’s holiday program Friday night at St. Michael’s Church in Old Town.

Artistic director of the Clarion Orchestra and Clarion Choir in New York, Fox is the founder of Musica Antiqua St. Petersburg, Russia’s first period-instrument ensemble. He also logged time as an associate conductor at New York City Opera and assistant conductor for the Met’s Lindemann Young Artists program.

Fox acquitted himself well, directing the musicians with clear, coaxing gestures, and the excellent MOB chorus provided their usual polished and responsive performances

Still, a certain generalized quality surfaced intermittently and one missed the deeper expression and wider range of dynamics and coloring that Gray draws from his singers in these seasonal events. The program, slightly modified by Fox, was less compelling than Gray’s usual thoughtful intermingling of the old and contemporary.

Yet the pleasures were greater than the fleeting lapses. Fox’s time spent in Russia was palpable in the Ave Maria (“Bogoroditse Dyevo”) from Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil, rendered with expressive power and weight. Likewise, the men of the chorus brought imposing sonority to Pavel Chesnokov’s “Spasyeniye sodyelal,” with a febrile Slavic sound from the tenors, and Fox drawing finely shaded dynamics.

Two excerpts from lesser-known 20th century American composers made a strong impression, making one want to hear more of their works. The concluding Gloria section from Daniel Pinkham’s Christmas Cantata artfully segues from echt-Renaissance polyphony to jaunty modern syncopations and a soaring, triumphant coda, and received rich, full-blooded choral singing under Fox’s direction.

Also intriguing was Welcome All Wonders by Richard Wayne Dirksen. The Freeport, Illinois native was a fixture at Washington’s National Cathedral as organist and choir director for a half-century (1942-1991). This unusual setting for soprano, chorus, organ and brass ensemble blends angular harmonies with an unapologetic theatricality. With fine solo singing by soprano Rosalind Lee, Fox led a sumptuous performance  that built to a rousing Vistavison climax.

Other vocal highlights included a concentrated reading of Poulenc’s O magnum mysterium, Fox underlining the harmonic asperity against the ethereal high sopranos. And the traditional finale made its usual eloquent impact with a glowing rendering of Praetorius’s Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen.

The brass was especially inspired Friday, with boldly projected playing and gleaming tone.  The players conveyed the festive air and stately ceremony of Gabrieli canzones, showed nimble articulation in dances from Danserye by Tielman Susato, and brought sonorous elegance to Georg Daniel Speer’s Sonata for Four Trombones and Brass Continuo.

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

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