Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Russian movie, Italian painting and Latin hymn light up Saginaw Bay Symphony concert

review by Janet I. Martineau
Maestro Brett Mitchell began this year’s Saginaw Bay Symphony Orchestra Christmas concert the same way as he began last year’s, as the then just-newly-hired conductor -- with Leroy Anderson’s  “Sleigh Ride” and its cracking whip and horse whinny from his musicians.
A tradition he has in mind, perhaps? Since he also concluded the night with a repeat as well, Anderson's singalong "A Christmas Festival."
Not to worry, because all else in between was new on his program Tuesday night at the Temple Theatre, before a capacity audience.
His “Christmas Around the World” theme featured a delightful mixed bag that included three-horse-sleigh music from a 1933 Russian movie, a tone poem  inspired by an Italian painting (a projection of which hung overhead), a traditional Latin hymn and a really nutty arrangement of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” that paid homage to the French national anthem, “Swan Lake” and “The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy.”
Oh, and the mayor of Saginaw, Greg Branch, narrated “The Night Before Christmas” and at one point in the reading displayed a charming rhythm-like delivery to the poem while the orchestra provided interesting sound effects to those words.
Mitchell was chatty throughout, concluding the night by noting, “ya, classical music is dumb and boring, right?” Nope not at all in this program which yes, showcased four  yuletide standards that aren’t exactly 100 percent classical, but also delivered five fine classical pieces not all that familiar in these parts. Great mix.
Our two favorites were Respighi’s “Adoration of the Magi” as inspired by the Sandro Botticelli painting, and Mozart’s Regina coeli, featuring the Cardinal Singers from Saginaw Valley State University.
The former had an unusual old church/Gregorian/mystical sound to it, and some excellent oboe work. And in the Mozart, the 23-member choral group from SVSU delivered a richness of sound that made one feel like he or she was indeed in a Catholic church during a mass.
Pietro Yon’s “Gesu Bambino,” with its whiffs of “Veni, Veni Emmanuel” amid it, featured a duet with concertmaster Sonia Lee and cellist Sabrina Lackey that produced sustained applause. 
And who among us ever gets tired of hearing “The Skater’s Waltz” by Waldteufel? It just glides throughout the soul.
The stage, in the first half, featured an eye-pleasing blue and white palette -- white snowflakes hanging on high and sitting on the floor and a white Christmas tree at left with a blue backdrop and what looked like a blue poinsettia in front of Mitchell. In the second half pink replaced the blue.

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