Music of the Baroque serves up a generous and wide-ranging Christmas program

William Jon Gray conducted Music of the Baroque in their annual holiday program Thursday night in River Forest.

Holiday musical events usually revel in the familiar, and are aimed squarely at reinforcement of cherished nostalgia. For area choral enthusiasts, Music of the Baroque’s annual “Holiday Brass and Choral” concerts have always aimed far higher. Sacred themes and a celebratory spirit aren’t neglected, but the artists present programs that are far more than a simple rehash of the tried-and-true. There are plenty of venues for carol singing, Messiah listening, and Nutcracker watching, but for those looking for a dollop of discovery in their nostalgia nog, these highly anticipated MOB affairs provide ample sustenance.

Choral director William Jon Gray curated a generous program of works of almost dizzying variety Thursday night at Grace Lutheran Church in River Forest. Representing seven centuries and 22 composers, some of these names rarely see the light of day outside of academic dissertations. This variety was balanced by a rigorous ten-part thematic subdivision, providing a framework that projects the Christmas story as a metaphysical journey from light to dark.

This rigor was no doubt of considerable value to Gray and his forces, and may have helped the audience contemplate the larger philosophical and spiritual issues even as they absorbed the evening’s many immediate pleasures. Most of the works chosen were deserving of Gray’s scrutiny, and the overriding impression was of a highly polished and perfectly choreographed event, with every musical detail worked through with unflinching exactitude.

Johann Hermann Schein’s Canzon á 6 was a delightful, colorful scamper of brass and vocal interplay, while Louis-Claude Daquin’s Noël XII deftly alternated verses of choral and instrumental subgroups. Monteverdi’s Beatus vir was the most substantive work of the evening, with superb solo turns by soprano Josefien Stoppelenburg, mezzo Amanda Koopman, tenors Brendon Ray Marsh and Stephen Noon, baritone Keven Keys and bass Ryan O’Mealey.

The only two chestnuts in this mammoth program were Britten’s A Hymn to the Virgin and Mateo Flecha’s Ríu, río, chíu. The former was given a luminous and heartfelt reading, but the latter was a bit more cautious and buttoned down than the best performances, even with Keys’ stout incantations.

It was impressive to hear every phrase released with unanimous and polished precision, but sometimes these efforts came at the expense of natural lyricism and textual flow. This was more common in earlier works like R. L. Pearsall’s arrangement of a 13th-century In dulci jubilo, sung with a restricted expressive range and squared-off phrasing.

Among the newer pieces, the quality of the music was variable. The harmonies in Harold Darke’s In the Bleak Midwinter seemed clichéd in comparison to the next work, John Tavener’s simple but hauntingly astringent The Lamb. The only flaw in Arvo Pärt’s gripping Bogoróditse Djévo was its brevity, and Eric Whitacre’s Lux aurumque glowed with technicolor intensity. Kenneth Leighton’s Coventry Carol demonstrated admirable skill at coaxing ravishing sounds from massed voices, but the dramatic effect was slight.

The brass numbers were clean as a whistle, with tight ensemble and perfectly negotiated tempo changes. MOB’s takes on Gabrieli’s Canzonas were, as always, a highlight of these concerts, and three excerpts from Tielman Susato’s La Danserye were tasty aural confections. All eight players come from the highest ranks of area ensembles, led as ever by the trumpets of Barbara Butler and Charles Geyer.

As entrancing as most of the program was, the 65-minute first half would have carried greater cumulative effect with a bit of trimming. Yet the seriousness of purpose and high professional standards were more than enough to maintain the audience’s rapt attention from beginning to end.

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