The Niagara Symphony’s Christmas spirit was very much in evidence for this weekend’s holiday fest at the Sean O’Sullivan Theatre. As is always a feature, members of the community were invited to share the stage with music director Daniel Swift and his music-making elves, before dragging out the carol sheets, sending home the gentle patrons both happy and hoarse.
The program opened with a spirited reading of Leroy Anderson’s A Christmas Festival, which was conducted with unerring enthusiasm, producing the finest orchestral sounds of the night.
Next up was guest conductor David Atkinson (his day job being the very capable President of Brock University) whose forty seconds of fame (Andy Warhol’s plus inflation) followed the three golden rules of orchestra conducting to a tee: 1. Start Clearly; 2. Don’t bother the players in the middle; 3. End when they do. Happy Birthday Indeed! Would that all educational institutions have such supportive leadership.
After some bits and pieces from Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors (where the first violins appeared to have already been into the eggnog as they scaled the heavenly heights) the Laura Secord Secondary School Concert Choir took to the risers and provided the most encouraging signs for the future of music (not to mention our youth) yet seen in Niagara.
Conductor David Sisler has the magical talent of understanding the skills, passions and limits of his charges and being able to draw out their very best from those, filling the room with more comfort and joy than any sing along ever could.
The enthusiasm and mutual respect generated by the boisterous choristers and their talented leader should be bottled and sent to every secondary school in the country—proof positive that our most universal art still has the power to draw all manner of cultures, races and abilities together and produce a result that should make their parents wonder just what the world’s arguments were about in the first place.
Laura Thomas made a welcome return to the podium for another macedoine of Xmas cheer but, although the playing was fine and the direction clear, Lee Norris’ rather staid arrangement (counterpoint can be fun!) paled considerably in comparison to the zest that proceeded it.
After intermission, some of the band decorated themselves with a bow tie here and a festive vest there, but actually dangling shiny balls from some of the pegs was trite: Let’s leave the ornaments on the trees!
With such a bevy of actors down the road at the Shaw Festival and through no fault of his own, Reverend Robert Wright seemed a puzzling choice as narrator for Allen’s Nativity Scenes. Not surprisingly, the text was delivered pulpit style, putting it at considerable odds with the music, where the familiar had been crafted in an entirely different hue.
Still, being the last concert before St. Nick arrives and swipes the cookies, here’s your faithful commentator’s “Wish List” for Niagara’s most important professional arts organization in 2005:
- Chatter reduction: If there is a pre-concert talk, then please assume that those who wish to have their music interrupted with banter and “sponsor” commercials have had their fill prior to the downbeat.
- Reflective pauses: Since less of us know the standard repertoire as time goes on, perhaps whomever is on the podium would keep his/her arms raised at the end of movements, providing a silent visual clue that there is more to come after we digest what’s just been heard.
- “Christmas” for the rest: Since there is more than one religion in our region (and “Hockey Night in Canada” doesn’t count here) how about programming a “Not the Messiah” concert and share the traditions of other faiths and cultures—great audience builder.
- Keep the faith: The future of concert music is most threatened by attempts to lure the audience into the hall with clever promotions and marketing ploys; but let’s never lose sight of the fact that biggest asset is the repertoire, lovingly presented and carefully handed down.
Happy Holidays! À la prochaine! JWR