Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Saginaw Bay Symphony Orchestra's Christmas concert takes some fun chances

review by janet i. martrineau

A Gregorian chant ...Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” ....Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever”....

What, you might ask, do they have to do with Christmas.

Well, nothing...but everything.

Back in 1990, American composer Craig Courtney put a new spin on that tired old “Twelve Days of Christmas” with a ditty called “A Musicological Journey Through Twelve Days of Christmas.”

Words are the same, but the music is from 12 different eras, settings. composers; from the 6th Century to the 19th. Ballet. Opera. A march and a madrigal. Viennese waltz. And played to perfection Tuesday night during the Saginaw Bay Symphony Orchestra’s “A Classical Christmas Returns” concert at the Temple Theater.

A wild piece to conduct and play, methinks, given its 12 musical styles in 11 minutes. Me also thinks the SBSO has performed this before under a different conductor. But no never mind. It is a pure delight.

In the fact entire sold-out concert conducted by Brett Mitchell was pure delight -- and mostly from the lesser heard fare on the program.’

Pieces  like Frederick Delius’ “Sleigh Ride,” the poetic and soothing “This Christmastide” by Donald Fraser,” “The Snowman Overture” written by movie composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold when he was only 11, and even in its own way the strange strings-only “December” by Michael Torke, seeking to capture a Midwestern storm of rain turned to snow.

Bravo maestro Mitchell for finding new musical presents to play in Saginaw....and the gutsy stretching of the boundaries with Bizet’s rousing “L’Ariesienne Suite No. 2: Farandole.” Fantastically played, and linked to the fact the suite opens with a theme based on the Christmas carol “March of the Kings.”

The vocal power of the evening came from The Center Stage Chorale and Bella Voce Singers from the Midland Center for the Arts as well as bass-baritone Eric Hoy Tucker from Central Michigan University in Mount Pleasant. The choral groups were involved in the entire second half of the program and did not wear out their welcome. Tucker’s rich voice joined them and the orchestra in “Fantasia on Christmas Carols” by Ralph Vaughan Williams, a piece celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. (Outstanding opening cello work by Sabrina Lackey on “Fantasia,” by the way.)

Bravo also to whomever stepped outside the box on the stage decorations. No fewer than three people stopped by me at intermission to complain about it, grinches they be. I found it refreshing and innovative.

Five deciduous trees, from little to large, on loan from Kluck’s, bereft of their leaves. No lights strung upon them, no colorful balls, no garland. Just five bare trees --- but with just their limb shapes to gaze upon, a delight to see how different kinds of trees have different shapes. The longer I gazed upon them -- and their casting shadows from the colorful projections on the stage backdrop -- the more relaxed and at peace I became, enhanced also by the music.

Added to that, the conductor’s stand was lined with six faux candle containers, adding to the simplicity of the setting.....and maybe, just maybe, making a comment that may have been what the baby Jesus saw but that we have lost sight of.

OK, getting too sentimental here.

Bottom line, it was a delightful concert.

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