Everyone gets the Christmas blahs when December 26th hits. After months of “shoppers rush[ing] home with their treasures” ("Silver Bells"), Christmas parties every night, caroling, and gift wrapping sleepovers, Christmas finally comes, and goes. Christmas day often feels anticlimactic.
The same is true for concerts: holiday performances, after months of advertising and tickets for the whole family, tend to be more of the same-old carols and tunes, as the kids yawn in their seats. But even as I prepared myself for another — I admit — ho-hum concert, the Raleigh Symphony Orchestra, celebrating its 30th season, was preparing to dazzle its audience, young and old, in Meredith College’s Jones Auditorium.
This delightfully fresh performance boasted several different kinds of familiar Christmas and holiday works: Jim Waddelow, Interim Music Director and Conductor, led classic favorites including “Frosty the Snowman,” “Winter Wonderland,” “The Christmas Waltz,”and “Let It Snow.” The orchestra’s impressive ensemble, coupled with the lighthearted tones of the lilting pieces, led the audience in a pleasant musical journey, reminiscent of childhood.
Alan Neilson, Conductor Emeritus, conducted some of the best-known selections from Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker, as well as the Finale from The Faithful Shepherd (by Handel, arranged by Thomas Beecham), “Vorspiel” from Hänsel and Gretel (by Humperdinck), and Dvořák’s Slavonic Dance Op. 46, No. 8. These pieces, along with "In the Steppes of Central Asia" (conducted by Waddelow), were fantastic selections for an audience with children: none of the pieces was boring or dragged on, and the audience was exposed to substantial music, much of it classical, besides the much-heard holiday pops.
Another bright programming idea was Vivaldi’s" Winter" from The Four Seasons, Concerto in F minor, Op. 8, No. 4. A concerto is a rare event at a holiday concert, and it helped hold the program together, since the program mostly consisted of shorter pieces. The solo violinist, Izabela Spiewak, did a masterful job of keeping the rhythmic energy and sweep throughout the piece and, as Vivaldi wrote for the soloist to play the same part as the first violin during most of the piece, she led them through it with a highly commendable presence and delightfully defined phrases.
Throughout all these pieces, the orchestra played together and exhibited a lovely ensemble with both conductors. It gave the audience the spirit of each piece, and we sat down comfortably, along for the ride. We had the pleasure of listening to swing music, classical virtuosity, old-time carols, and even some enchanting excerpts from The Polar Express (conducted by Waddelow).
The hit of the evening was Sammy Cahn’s/Jule Styne’s “Let It Snow,” arranged by Harrison Fisher, with Greg Fishel, tuba. This humorous piece, which included a bit of acting and goofy props, had the whole audience giggling as the orchestra and the tuba player struggled to stay playing the same piece. This did not work, however, as the orchestra at one point broke out into "Skaters Waltz" and, at another point, embodied a huge snowstorm with their fast minor scales and full-scale dynamics and percussion. And after fighting our way through snowstorms and a wayward conductor, we returned to the original, simple theme: Let It Snow!
But the crowning moments of the entire concert were the last pieces: Neilson conducted the audience in a whirlwind of sing-along carols including “Jingle Bells,” “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” “Joy to the World,” “Away in the Manger,” “Silent Night,” “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” and “Deck the Halls.” The sweet music of the symphony carried us from carol to carol as we sang, giving “Glory to God in the highest” ("O Come, All Ye Faithful").
This joyous experience was nearly the opposite of what I expected; instead of listening to another dull holiday performance, I listened to a moving, inspiring orchestra with a charming program selection, skilled conductors, and a fantastic virtuoso violinist. The pieces and songs made the audience feel that maybe Christmas will be different this year.