Tag Archives: Magic of Christmas

The Magic of Christmas

Portland Symphony Orchestra
“Magic of Christmas”
Merrill Auditorium
Dec. 8-17, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

The 38th annual “Magic of Christmas” series by the Portland Symphony Orchestra at Merrill Auditorium, omitted some of the bells and whistles of previous productions, but was alll the better for it, letting the music stand on its own, aided by sopranos Suzanne Nance and Susie Pepper.

The first half of the program was the least successful, consisting largely of medleys featuring the kind of holiday music played in department stores, albeit by a better orchestra.

Notable exceptions were an unknown Romanian carol, “O, ce vesti minuntã,” sung by Nance, and a bluesy version of “All I Want for Christmas is You,” by Pepper.

The solo orchestra was on display in a lively version of Prokofiev’s “Troika” from the “Lieutenant Kijė” Suite, which could have used a little more rehearsal time. This review is of opening night, and things are bound to improve over the next two weeks.

The prize for “it seemed like a good idea a the time” goes to a medley of songs with the word “magic” in them, with the orchestra backing up Pepper and Nance. Containing the word does not confer any distinction to the songs, but the light show was spectacular.

The second half of the show was marvelous, beginning with “Fanfare and Flourishes for a Festive Occasion,” played by a brass choir, with organ accompaniment by Ray Cornils.

The “Magic of Christmas” chorus, under chorus master Nicolás Dosman, contributed a striking chant-like “Gloria in Excelsis Deo” by Mack Wilberg, the arranger of three of the evening’s show pieces.

It was followed by a moving performance of “O Holy Night” by Nance, who sang it as well as any operatic soprano could. (Note to future PSO conductors: For full effect, it requires a boy soprano.)

The highlight of the evening was Handel’s “Hallelujah” chorus. It is always good to hear this from a a major chorus and orchestra but both outdid themselves on Friday. The part singing by the chorus was perfectly delineated and balanced, without the muddiness that often mars its performance by a large group.

Pepper’s expansive version of “Let it Go,” from “Frozen,” captivated the younger members of the audience, dressed in holiday finery, some with reindeer antlers.

Music director Robert Moody, conducting his last “Magic of Christmas” series of concerts, sang “My Grown Up Christmas List,” with the orchestra conducted by Dosman. Moody has a surprisingly good voice, which sometimes reminded me of a French horn.

The traditional holiday carol sing-along seemed louder and livelier than usual, with Moody quipping that the audience was auditioning for next-year’s chorus.

The final “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” with chorus and soloists in a Wilberg arrangement, was especially appropriate in these times. Now if it could only be sung to the right tune…

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal, He can be reached at classbeat@netscape.net.

A Traditional “Magic of Christmas”

Portland Symphony Orchestra
“Magic of Christmas”
Merrill Auditorium
Dec. 9, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

Perhaps it’s the world situation, but the Portland Symphony Orchestra’s “Magic of Christmas” concert, on Friday’s opening night at Merrill Auditorium, seemed more movingly traditional than usual, emphasizing the orchestra and chorus, with a remarkable soprano, Elizabeth Marshall.

It was the first time I had seen the new assistant conductor, Andrew Crust, who did an admirable job as master of the Magic of Christmas Chorus, and in alternating as orchestral conductor with music director Robert Moody.

Tania Holt and Alexander Fedorchev, of Cirque de la Symphony, held the audience spellbound with their athletic feats on silk fabric 30 feet above the stage. Their duos were romantic enough to provoke a comment from Moody to the effect that the audience would either rush out to take gymnastic lessons or buy a Harlequin Romance.

As usual, the arrangements of Christmas favorites were a mixed bag, ranging from pedestrian—Anderson’s Christmas Festival Overture— to superb —the Rutter/Adam “O Holy Night,”—marred only by an unnecessary modulation in the second verse.

I would go to this concert again (December 10, 16, and 17 at 2:00 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., Dec. 11 and 18 at 1:00 p.m. and 5:00 p.m.) just to hear Marshall’s sweet but powerful voice hitting the high notes of “O Holy Night” without effort.

She also appeared in another French traditional song, “Quelle est cette odeur agréable?” with the Magic of Christmas Chorus, and in the Rouse arrangement of “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” I prefer the more common tune, whether original or not, but will accept the alternative if it leads to another soprano solo over massed chorus and orchestra.

An unexpected combination of voice and orchestra was especially effective, pairing a section from Ravel’s “”Ma merè l’Oye,” “The Enchanted Garden,” with a contemporary Life of Christ read dramatically by Mathew Faberge.

Crust’s work with the chorus was outstanding, although the large, traditional group of 108, still needs a few more good bass voices. It was particularly good in an up-tempo “Hallelujah” chorus, for which the American audience stood like good subjects of King George.

The desire of that audience for some old-fashioned Christmas cheer was apparent in the concluding Christmas Carol sing-along, which was enthusiastic, with some audible evidence of part singing.

Judging from the reaction of the children seated near me, this year’s production holds attention very well, even without Santa Claus.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at classbeat@netscape.net.

A Good Year for “Magic of Christmas”

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 classbeat@netscape.net.