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The enthusiastic audience on the North Carolina State University campus must have left Stewart Theatre well into the mood for Christmas. They had just been treated to a diverse mix of season favorites and variations on same.
Those variations came to light early in the invigorating evening when the “Upstairs Jazz Combo” jumped on “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” Here the trumpet, two saxophones, guitar, bass and drums were crowd pleasers. They continued in the same spirit with their treatment of “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,” players showing their wares by taking expert solo turns.
With scarcely a missed beat, the “Downstairs Combo” followed their upstairs brethren. This group “Let It Snow” before deciding to “Deck the Halls.” And the audience was not to be denied their obligatory annual shot of Leroy Anderson’s “Sleigh Ride.” Here though, the two trumpets, saxophone, guitar, bass, piano and drums called upon a most innovative jazz arrangement by their director, Wes Parker. “We Three Kings” never received a more startling yet agreeable treatment. Who knew that old standard could be so swinging and syncopated? Reluctant to let them go, the crowd insisted upon an encore. They obliged with the non-seasonal “You Know What It Is,” a dazzling piece by their saxophonist, Carter Harris.
A time-and-motion expert could have smiled on the efficiency of the evening. As the jazzmen were dismantling and removing their equipment, director Nathan Leaf’s hundred or so vocal troops were filing onto the stage risers. They arranged themselves in proper grouping, left to right, Vox Accalia, NC State Chorale and The Singing Statesmen so each chorus could perform singly and together without distracting rearrangements.
Vox Accalia (women’s chorus) was in great form with the spiritual, “Go Where I Send Thee,” which they pleasingly performed without score. The Singing Statesmen did a superb a cappella job on “Deck the Halls.” The Chorale brought on two musical high points of the program. The long-time choral staple, “There Shall a Star Come Out of Jacob,” from Mendelssohn’s Christus was top notch. The lesser-known “This Christmastide,” by contemporary composer Donald Fraser, carried an uncommonly appealing melody and text, repeatedly assuring one and all that “…truth and love and hope abide this Christmastide.”
The entire company collaborated in yet another rendition of The Many Moods of Christmas (Suite II) by Robert Shaw and Robert Russell Bennett. They injected fresh life into this old standard medley of Christmas standbys. Here and throughout the program, major credit is due accompanists Tom Koch and Kate Lewis for their supporting roles. Indeed, in the “many moods” closing suite, Koch worked wonders on the electronic keyboard. By exploiting the versatility of that instrument, he was able to give the impression of a substantial accompanying ensemble.