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(Editor's note: This review reports on events on December 2 & 3, 2010)
Stewart Theatre on the NC State University campus was awash in Christmas tunes and songs, but none dared speak the Christmas name. Music @ NC State warmed a couple of chilly evenings, first with "Instrumental Holiday Concert," followed twenty-four hours later by "Choral Holiday Concert." The instrumental evening began with the fine Jazz Ensemble I and ended with the equally excellent Wind Ensemble.
In 1958 Dave Brubeck brought his brand of jazz to Poland. There he asserted that "No dictatorship can tolerate jazz. It is the first sign of a return to freedom." As the music world celebrates Brubeck’s 90th birthday, perhaps director Wes Parker and the ensemble were subconsciously inspired by those words and events. Not that they needed any special stimulus. Who knew that so many old Christmas favorites could be so effectively exploited by jazz groups? For example, there was the opener, "God Rest Ye, Merry, Gentlemen," featuring solo runs by saxophone, guitar and piano. "Silent Night" followed, then "Greensleeves" with the director himself taking a turn on the trombone. They celebrated Tannenbaum, and they roasted chestnuts on an open fire. The players honored all of these pieces in tradition as well as departure, skillfully establishing the theme before bringing on the variations. The resurrection of Glenn Miller's "Jingle Bells" was particularly agreeable.
The group Mannheim Steamroller seems to have furnished the motivation for at least two of the pieces by director Paul Garcia and the Wind Ensemble. The Steamroller "Carol of the Bells" opened, to be followed later in the program by their version of "Silent Night." The latter featured a chorus of ooo's and aah's as several of the players exhibited their vocal bona fides. The sonic highlight of the evening was the treatment of "Greensleeves." Here the pleasing strains ranged from beginning pianissimos to full-throated intensity, replete with vigorous percussion. The lone departure from Christmas themes was also perhaps the most tuneful of the evening. Celebrating Hanukkah, "Festival of Lights" showed the ensemble at its most skilled, with a joyous aggregation of full forces. That same full power was again called upon with the closing obligatory "Sleigh Ride."
The second (vocal) evening comprised three choral groups, all under the direction of Nathan Leaf. The women's chorus, Vox Accalia (Voice of the She-Wolf?), traversed the entire Britten suite, Ceremony of Carols. No work shows female voices to fuller advantage. These singers were at their best and most articulate in numbers I and XI, "Processional" and "Recessional." The distant build-up and the fading-away of the marching singers were especially effective. Accompanist Kate Lewis performed a near miracle in making the piano sound so much like a harp.
The Singing Statesmen opened with the Nigerian Christmas song, "Betelehemu," calling for drums, clapping and various sound effects. Their most excellent work came with the Randall Thompson setting of Frost's renowned poem, "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening." The audience could readily experience "…the sweep of easy wind and downy flake." Kate Lewis's piano was a complementary partner, never obtrusive. The men completed their assignment with charming arrangements by the likes of Norman Luboff, Leroy Anderson, and Mel Torme.
Formally named The North Carolina State University Chorale, the mixed chorus of some fifty voices performed four numbers, two of which could justifiably have been called exceptional. "Estampie Natalis" by the Czech composer Vaclav Nelhybel (1919-1996) employed flute, string quartet and percussion in a masterly association with the voices. Steven Heitzeg (b. 1959) has composed a work called "little tree." (Yes, the title indeed utilizes no upper case because it sets to music the poem by, who else, e. e. cummings.) The composer has here captured the eccentricities, and even the enchantment, inherent in the poem. The singers' performance could scarcely have been improved upon. Tom Koch's piano accompaniment of this piece rates special mention. Throughout there was subtle support, but the concluding measures were of rare quality. When the singers' last notes had faded away, the piano furnished a coda of sorts, itself fading to inaudibility. The effect was altogether captivating.
Anyone privileged to have attended either or both of these offerings should now be possessed of an abundance of "holiday" spirit.