Rough edges, muted singing dilute the holiday cheer with MOB

Sat Dec 18, 2021 at 10:13 am

By Tim Sawyier

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

After a complete hiatus during 2020’s pandemic winter, musical holiday traditions are back this season, with Nutcrackers and Messiahs to be had—at least for those with vaccine cards. 

Music of the Baroque’s annual Holiday Brass and Choral Concerts have likewise made a cautious return, though, unfortunately, this year’s traditional holiday program did not bring much yuletide cheer.

MOB’s longtime chorus director William Jon Gray, who helmed these concerts for years, retired in May of 2019. In that year’s holiday program, Patrick Dupré Quigley made a memorable MOB debut.

Andrew Megill, director of choral activities at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, had the reins for this second outing without Gray after last year’s pause. He has also prepared the chorus in previous MOB programs.

Megill curated an engaging program, heard in the second of four performances Friday night at St. Michael Church in Old Town. Four sets of music were based on lines from “O Magnum Mysterium,” the centuries-old chant sung at midnight on Christmas. Each included a rendering of that chant itself, from Victoria, Byrd, Poulenc, and Morten Lauridsen. Hearing how composers of such disparate times and places set the same ancient words was a moving reminder of the persistence and unifying aspects of the Christmas mystery.

Unfortunately, the good news ends with Megill’s sensitive programming. Ongoing local regulations had the chorus singing in masks throughout the night, and the results on this occasion were grim. Lyrics were consistently indistinguishable, and dynamics hovered in a generalized middle range, with the sound never truly opening up or fading away without faltering. Pitch in the high registers across sections was compromised, and a generalized vocal soupiness prevailed.

The very live acoustic in St. Michael Church did not help matters, but that issue has been handled capably in years past. Other local choruses, particularly Grant Park’s, have not been so impeded by masked singing, but Friday night the effect on the MOB singers was apparent and ubiquitous. What compensation might have been made in terms of balance and phrasing was not forthcoming from Megill, whose leadership was proficient but perfunctory.

There were a few exceptions to the overall indifferent impression. Soprano Susan Nelson sang her solo in the Czech rocking carol “Hajej, nynej” with a warm, inviting tone, over a supportive sonic bed from her colleagues. 17th-century Spaniard Diego José de Salazar’s “Salga el torillo hosquillo!” likens the nativity to a bullfight, a most unexpected juxtaposition that ended the first half with a memorable exclamation mark. Any opportunity to hear Poulenc’s sacred music is a welcome one, though his “O magnum mysterium” lacked the requisite Gallic nuance on Friday night.

As always, the MOB Holiday Concert was punctuated by Renaissance brass selections, with offerings from Gabrieli, Schütz, and Speer interspersed with the choral offerings. Unlike in years past, these were at best superficially appealing on Friday night. Balance, pitch, and attention to other such vital details were not consistent enough to lift these performances above the routine.

The always reliable Barbara Butler was a stylish leader on trumpet at the head of the brass octet on hand, but such was not the case with her colleagues, and Megill appeared out of his element leading this repertoire.

Vierdanck’s “Capriccio á 2 Cornetti” opened the second half in jarring fashion, with hair-raisingly out of tune playing cascading down from the choir loft. The traditional closing numbers of the Solemn Tone “Te Deum laudamus” and Praetorius’ “Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen” felt more like relief than consolation at the end of the evening.

The Holiday Brass and Choral Concerts will be repeated 2 p.m.  Saturday at Saints Faith, Hope, & Charity Catholic Church in Winnetka, and 2 p.m. Sunday at Alice Millar Chapel in Evanston.

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