Daniel Swift and his merry band of musicians launched the holiday season with an impressive array of carols, story and bells. The Sean O’Sullivan Theatre has never looked better, exquisitely “tarted up” with glimmering snowflakes, colourful balls floating from the baffles, papered-over speakers and glittering white bulbs flanking either side of the stage. Before a note was heard, the mood was set; the capacity crowd eager for some musical cheer.
And they were not disappointed. The hot and cold buffet included seasonal favourites ranging from Robert Russell Bennett’s too-sugary-by-half arrangement of Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” to Leroy Anderson’s sultry “The Girl in Satin,” whose inclusion just before intermission more puzzled than pleased, temporarily halting the fun, like the appearance of an uninvited guest.
Milton Barnes’ Hanukkah Suite No. 2 was the opener and the former Niagara Symphony music director would have been delighted with the sensitive and convincing reading his well-crafted score received. The following Anderson Suite of Carols improved as it progressed, with the first violins’ pitch clarifying with each verse.
The first-half audience favourite came from William Vickers’ imaginative and colourful reading of Bill Holcombe’s setting of “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas.” It proved to be fortuitous that the words are so well known, as the Shaw Festival’s stalwart (cross-reference below)—even with a body mic—couldn’t hope to compete with the band at full force.
After the break, the hall was awash with the hand bells, antlers and antics of the Aragain Ringers. Their dedication and enthusiasm was infectious: parents and patrons alike beamed from ear to ear. Once de-hooded and mallets in hand, “Rudolph” was particularly adept at plumbing Tchaikovsky’s depths and may well take his place at the back of the stage in future concerts that require a full kitchen complement.
The inclusion of Eugene Zador’s A Christmas Overture proved to be a master stroke. With all of the confections and bonbons flooding the stage, it was welcome relief to have this magnificently orchestrated essay that conveyed the mood and feelings of late December without the need of quoting a carol to “make the connection.” This was the finest, most assured playing of the concert, sturdily anchored by a solid effort from the brass. Special mention must be made to the evening’s concertmaster, Xiaoling Li, whose leadership and solo contributions throughout were first rate.
Inevitably, The Prince of Egypt, which followed, sounded every bit as contrived as the Zador work was original. Hooray for DreamWorks!
Quibbles aside, it was a grand night and a pleasure to be n the room with the feelings and sounds of the season so sincerely presented. JWR