Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Saginaw Bay Symphony Orchestra goes jazzy and adds an art exhibition too

Kellie Schneider's "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy" illustration

Review by Janet I. Martineau

It was an embarrassment of "Nutcracker" riches Tuesday night when the Saginaw Bay Symphony Orchestra presented  its annual Christmas concert at the Temple Theatre.

And not all of them involved music.

In fact, eight of them were gorgeously and whimsically visual.

On paper, maestro Brett Mitchell's program for the night looked, well, um, kinda pedestrian. Enter Saginaw-born artist Kellie Schneider, jazz musicians Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn's creativity, elegant and colorful staging, tuned bells, and orchestra members shining in an unusual number of solo samplings.

Now, how to boil it all down in a few words.

To enhance the playing of that old warhorse, Tchaikovsky's "The Nutcracker Suite," Mitchell commissioned Schneider, now living in Minnesota, to create an illustration to project overhead for each of its eight segments -- among them the dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy, the ethic dances, the dance of the reed pipes, and the waltz of the flowers.

The renderings were utterly charming and magical, with a nature-linked recurring image of trees or tree branches in most of them, snow flakes falling, an oversized red Chinese fan in one and a castle-like background in another, eye-pleasing light and shadow plays, childlike and playful people in them yet sophisticated too.

Sometimes we sorta tuned out the music being played, just to wallow in the examination  of the art....but not for long as we realized the orchestra was beautifully playing the score.

And the came "Nutcracker" two -- the Ellington/Strayhorn five-segment jazz take on Tchaikovsky's classical fare. With its segments renamed  "Toot Toot Tootie Toot," "Sugar Rum Cherry" and "Peanut Brittle Brigade," for three.

Oh my goodness what fun, with the cherry one via sugar plum soooo smooth and sultry and HOT. And the orchestra proved it can masquerade as one mean jazz-playing machine with strings attached.

Between these two pieces, goosebumpy solo segments were delivered by Margot Box on harp, Catherine McMichael on celeste, John Nichol on sax, Kennen White on clarinet, John Hill on percussion, Andrew Mitchell on trombone, Gregg Emerson Powell on bass, and  Mark Flegg on trumpet.   

The tuned bells were used in Mozart's "Sleigh Ride," and created we must say a worthy  unusual sound, different from regular run-of-the-mill sleigh bells. LOVED, LOVED the playing of the overture to Humperdinck's "Hansel and Gretel" -- an operetta we adore and which is staged way too rarely. And McMichael on piano and a combo gave a jazz feel to the opening of "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" -- part of Mitchell's inventive programming that offered a classical first half and a jazz second half.

The staging echoed the classical/jazz division with traditional Christmas trees in the first half to which was added the trunks of palm trees in the second, with the lighting more cool in the first half and hotter in the second.

And Mitchell was in a humorous mood which served the night well, even when a technical snafu surfaced and ended with him exclaiming, rightfully, "Mercy!"

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