Tenor Agnew makes impressive podium debut with Music of the Baroque’s holiday program

Musical offerings in the latter half of December are devoted to the reinforcement of convention and nostalgia, a time during which most can’t be bothered to make the effort to absorb something unfamiliar. This common wisdom would seem to narrow the choices of repertoire drastically, and any efforts by presenters to stray from these would seem to be fools’ errands.

And then there is Music of the Baroque. Their Holiday Brass and Choral Concerts enjoy a top spot on the seasonal calendar, and the four performances of the program tend to be sold out or nearly so year after year. With a significant majority of the music in these affairs unknown to most in the audience, their success is a testament to the care given both to the repertoire choices and the devotion with which they are presented. Thursday’s concert at Grace Lutheran Church in River Forest continued this traditional exploration of the untraditional.

Not surprisingly, the chorus was prepared with loving care and exquisite attention to detail by William Jon Gray. The big news was the American conducting debut of Paul Agnew, the superb tenor known to the MOB faithful in the roles of the Evangelist in the Bach Passions and Christmas Oratorio. Agnew’s more recent ascent as conductor has been enviably swift, beginning with his debut with Les Arts Florissants in 2007 and culminating with his recent appointment as joint music director of the same ensemble with the legendary William Christie.

Agnew largely succeeded in assembling a program culled from nearly every musical era, and yet he still cultivated a sense of dramatic cohesion by adopting a theme of “Mother and Child.” Perhaps surprisingly given his vast experience in early music, many of the highlights came in works of the last century, beginning with an extraordinary reading of Jan Sandström’s Det är en ros utsprungen, a reworking of Praetorius’ setting of the same tune (known more commonly as Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming). With a slight nod to fellow Finn Sibelius and a close kinship with the “holy minimalists” Henryk Górecki and Arvo Pärt, the reading began with a slow accretion of gossamer, ethereal humming that, due to expert singing and a fortuitous acoustical quirk of the church, seemed to emanate from every crevice in all four walls.

This same school was also represented by John Tavener’s The Lamb, an oddly compelling work that has reached near-standard status since its debut in 1982. The tempo and textual themes are consistent, but the composer allows the horizontal lines to proceed with stubborn independence, leading to harmonies that move from lush Romantic gestures to dour unisons and astringent dissonances.

Another high point was a sweeping and heartfelt reading of Britten’s early A Hymn to the Virgin, the most familiar work of the evening and an apt choice in the final weeks of the composer’s anniversary year. Two of Francis Poulenc’s four Christmas motets received equally vigorous and compelling performances, including stellar high-flying passages from the fine tenor section.

The composer highlighted most often was Giovanni Gabrieli, notably in gripping, celebratory readings of Angelus ad pastores ait and Magnificat á 14. Agnew coaxed full-throated singing from his forces, the sopranos filling the space with waves of radiant lyrical outpourings.

The soloists in these MOB December concerts are culled from the ranks of the ensemble, and as usual, performed solidly, if a notch or two below the high standards of the massed voices. These included sopranos Hannah Dixon McConnell and Susan Nelson, mezzo-sopranos Amanda Koopman and Julie DeBoer, tenors Brendon Marsh and Adam Smith, countertenor Ray Chenez, and baritones Corey Grigg and Ryan O’Mealey.

The brass ensemble was assembled from the cream of the crop of area musicians, including trumpeters Barbara Butler, Charles Geyer, Scott Quackenbush and Jennifer Marotta, and trombonists Jay Evans, Timothy Smith, Randall Hawes, and Jared Rodin. Their resonant and cohesive playing blended beautifully with the vocalists, and they also contributed vital and engaging readings of instrumental works by Gabrieli and Lodovico da Viadana.

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.