Portland Symphony Orchestra
“Magic of Christmas”
Dec. 11, 2015
by Christopher Hyde
This year’s “Magic of Christmas” concert at Merrill Auditorium. the Portland Symphony Orchestra’s contribution to the holiday season, promises to be a hit with kids—short, with familiar carols, a large Magic of Christmas Chorus, under the direction of assistant conductor Norman Huynh. and best of all, fantastic acrobats and dancers from the Cirque de la Symphonie.
Santa also made a couple of appearances, impersonated by tap dancer Liz Pettengill..
Children (and some adults) are fascinated by the instruments of the orchestra and the unusual sounds they make, and they were front and center from the first number, a medley of tunes from “Christmas Fantastique” by Todd Hayen.
The arrangements take more than customary liberties with the tunes, and also feature unusual orchestration,and instrumental solos. Another part of the set, played later in the program, included a version of “The Little Drummer Boy,” with strangely middle-eastern harmonies in the brass section.
The instrumental opening was followed immediately by a stunning gymnastic display by Marco Balestracci to the “Dance of the Tumblers” from “The Snow Maiden” by Rimsky-Korsakov. Balestracci manipulated a large cube of glowing pipes with graceful ease, ending with it spinning by one corner, high above his head. His feats elicited a gratifying number of gasps and spontaneous applause, which were well deserved.
A funny parody of “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” “The Twelve Days After Christmas,” detailing the disposal of the gifts, was given a lively and clearly enunciated performance by the Magic of Christmas Chorus.
What really brought down the house was the last act before intermission, the Pas de deux from “The Nutcracker,” danced by Sagiv Ben Binyamin and Gana Oyunchimeg. The two gymnasts performed a series of jaw-dropping lifts and contortions that seemed like the normal choreography squared. It wasn’t ballet, but nevertheless a form of art, with Oyunchimeg’s (she’s Mongolian) fun-loving personality shining through.
The duo joined Balestracci later for a delightfully unbelievable dance trio to the “Parade of the Wooden Soldiers.”
The traditional works on the program included the popular “Sleigh Ride” of Leroy Anderson, complete with costumes and horse laughs, a full orchestra and chorus reading of the “Hallelujah” Chorus from “Messiah,” and good audience participation in the holiday carol sing-along.
The final work on the program, “I Heard the Bells” was, as PSO music director Robert Moody pointed out, a hopeful end to a Christmas concert in bleak times. Longfellow wrote it during the height of the Civil War, in 1863. John Baptiste Calkin later set the poem to music, which is the version I grew up with. Johnny Marks, infamous for ”Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” set the poem to music in the 1950s and some choruses, notably Fred Waring’s, have used this version.
There is only one problem with the Marks version. It’s terrible, tuneless and virtually un-singable, unless you’re an 80-voice ensemble. In an attempt at a glorious conclusion, the composer resorts to burlesque show drumbeats-—va va va voom. I have no idea why a competent arranger, such as Christopher Rouse, would have used it, or why the Magic of Christmas chose it, when Calkin’s setting is better known and better music.
However that may be, if the choice of one piece of music is the only quarrel with Magic, it’s a very good year. The next performances are on Dec. 12, 18 and 19 at 2:00 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., and Dec. 13 and 20 at 2:00 p.m. and 5:00 p.m.
Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal, Maine. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.