Concert Review: Holiday Joy

This review appeared in the Dec. 18, 2011 Albuquerque Journal. Reprinted with kind permission.

Orchestra’s in seasonal mood

by D.S. Crafts

Popejoy Hall, awash in colored lights, played host to the New Mexico Philharmonic’s inaugural Pops concert, Holiday Joy, on Saturday night. Guest conductor Randol Bass, himself an arranger-composer (and former Longhorn), chose a selection of seasonal music including a number of his own works.

His opening Fanfare: Joy to the World, proved no simple short introduction, but a full-scale sonic color spectacle including chorus. Most impressive was the Choir of the Cathedral of St. John directed by Maxine Thévenot. Thrilling high sopranos along with a hearty group of tenors (the most difficult section to assemble), sang with a rampant enthusiasm both here and later in the program.

Bass provided his own personal commentary throughout the program introducing music and performer alike. The first of which was tenor Javier Gonzales singing Every Valley from Handel’s Messiah. His tightly-focused tone of rich color ended in a full operatic flourish. He will be heard singing the entirety of the part next Easter in Thévenot’s production of The Messiah with her outstanding choral group Polyphony.

Several excerpts from Tchaikovsky’s perennial Christmas ballet, The Nutcracker, followed, included the ominous Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy and the uproarious Russian Trepak. The Russian theme continued with Russian Christmas Music, written in a nationalistic style originally for wind ensemble by one A. Reed (no pun intended, or so we were led to believe). The piece was most notable for a sympathetically plaintive English Horn solo by Melissa Peña.

Children were not to be left out as the excellent Manzano Day School Choir directed by Louise Loomis, ascended magically from the depths of the pit via rising platform. As a tip of the cap to Jewish tradition the grouped opened with three Chanukah melodies including the obligatory dreidel song. There followed a kaleidoscopic tour through “the old familiar carols” until the group descended as gracefully as it had come, this time to the traveling music of Anderson’s familiar Sleigh Ride including horse whinny.

Rimsky-Korsakov wrote an entire opera devoted to a Gogol Christmas tale, but the more well-known Dance of the Tumblers from his opera The Snow Maiden opened the second half. This wonderfully colorful showpiece from the man who literally wrote the book on orchestration brought the full orchestra to its most exuberant. The tune Elizabethan Greensleeves was later given a Christmas text, thus the inclusion of Vaughan Williams touching Fantasia on Greensleeves provided a spotlight for the NMP strings, including a lovely flute solo by Valerie Potter.

The final selections were all arrangements or compositions by Bass including a cinematic-sounding The Night Before Christmas with a recitation by Mayor Richard Berry[cq]. A Feast of Carols brought back the Cathedral Choir garbed in caroling outfits and fully matching the festive performance of the orchestra.

In the immortal and probably apocryphal words of the classic all-purpose review, “A grand time was had by all.”

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