The Sacramento Choral Calendar
Music in the Mountains Chorus & Orchestra
Holly Jolly Holidays - December 13, 2015
by Dick Frantzreb
The audience in the large Amaral Center at the Nevada County Fairgrounds looked like a sell-out crowd to me — and they were definitely in a festive mood. What they got from the Music in the Mountains Chorus and Orchestra gave them just what they were looking for: a wide variety of well-performed, spirit-boosting holiday music.
(Click here to open the concert program in a new window.)
The 25-piece orchestra provided a brilliant start to the concert with their energetic and crisp playing of James Stephenson’s “Holiday Fanfare No. 1.” It was a musical fruitcake (I like fruitcake, by the way), with different instrumentation and different moods for each of the many familiar holiday melodies that were incorporated into the piece. Conductor Ryan Murray kept up a brisk tempo and the orchestra's playing was simply impeccable. I’d say that the piece was surprisingly long — perhaps as much as 10 or even 12 minutes — but it’s easily the best medley of Christmas songs that I’ve heard.
The chorus began their part of the program with “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” Mark Hayes’ arrangement really conveyed the joy of the song, as did the performance by the chorus. I noticed right away that there was a good balance between the men and women, and as they sang what seemed to me like a rather difficult piece, it occurred to me that the discipline of classical music (which this group usually performs) helps in mastering an arrangement like this.
“Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” was next, and it began with an unfamiliar verse, the words of which came across clearly, due to good articulation by the chorus. I was also aware of a warm blend of their voices. But with that warmth, I would have liked to see more smiles. In this piece, I also noticed Murray’s broad conducting style that seems to inspire and that must be easy to follow. And he really responds when the music gets exciting. At several points this afternoon, he was directing so forcefully that it seemed he would become airborne.
I bet there aren’t many orchestras (or conductors) in our area who would tackle an arrangement by the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. Well this one did, and it was brilliant. They were perfectly in sync through many changes and breaks in the music. And the authentic sound was there — interesting, exciting, toe-tapping, even pulse-pounding. The only thing missing was the light show. Naturally, the audience loved it.
There couldn’t have been a bigger change of pace with the next selection: “Hanukkah Blessings,” performed a cappella and in Hebrew. And kudos to Murray and the chorus for undertaking the substantial challenge inherent in this piece. In fact, it seemed difficult for the chorus at the start, but after the first 30 seconds or so they really were expressing the spirit of the music, and the ending was simply beautiful.
Holst’s “Christmas Day” is a traditional medley that I’ve heard performed several times before. It incorporates many moods and many melodies, solos by one or another of the chorus sections, orchestral interludes, and sections where melodies are interlaced with one another. It is complicated and grand and was performed well by both orchestra and chorus. It was during this piece that it occurred to me what an ambitious program this was for any chorus to undertake — and it was only half-completed at this point.
“A Holly Jolly Singalong” was quite a production: orchestral accompaniment and 8 full Christmas carols, all but one of which were of the secular variety. It was fun, but by the time it concluded, we in the audience were ready for the intermission.
After a 20-minute break Ryan Murray welcomed us back and led the orchestra in Leroy Anderson’s “Sleigh Ride.” This was a trip down memory lane for me. My family had a record of Anderson’s music, and it was played often and was part of the soundtrack of my childhood. With what seemed like the same orchestration as the original — complete with banging wooden boards together to simulate the crack of a whip and the imitation of a horse by the trumpeter at the end — it was a gift of a cherished memory for at least one person in the audience — and I bet many others, too.
Master of Ceremonies, Danny McCammon, had done a good job introducing each musical selection from his script. But in setting up the medley of 3 pieces from the movie Home Alone, he was genuinely funny. Honestly, I don’t recall a Christmas show featuring music (or at least not a medley) from this movie, but it was a good idea. After all, it was John Williams who had composed these songs: “Somewhere in My Memory,” “Star of Bethlehem” and “Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas.” They required a lot of energetic playing by the orchestra and some really triumphal singing by the chorus, and they were one of the many highlights of this concert.
The delicate sounds of Mannheim Steamroller’s “Traditions of Christmas” lulled us with some dreamy, pleasant listening. And this pleasant listening was continued by the chorus’s somewhat abbreviated version of “O Nata Lux” from Morten Lauridsen’s Lux Aeterna. Performing a cappella, they gave a sensitive, restrained interpretation in which each voice part brought their best work, though I thought the tenors were particularly outstanding. It seemed to me that they sang this beautiful piece with reverence — which it deserves.
We were awakened from our reverie by another arrangement from the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, “Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24.” It is a medley of “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” and “Carol of the Bells,” and it has the same driving, pulsating sound we had been treated to in the earlier arrangement from this group.
The finale of the concert, that felt as much like a community celebration as a performance, was Craig Courtney’s “A Musicological Journey Through the Twelve Days of Christmas.” This clever piece takes the tedium out of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” by presenting each verse in a different style of classical music. It starts with the first verse as a Gregorian chant. Subsequent verses advance through historical periods with composers that represent them: Josquin des Prez, Palestrina, Vivaldi, Beethoven, Mozart, Saint-Saëns, Wagner, Strauss, Offenbach, and Tchaikovsky. I had been part of a performance of this piece on several occasions, so I knew what to expect. But nearly all of the people around me seemed to be hearing it for the first time. At first, they were nonplussed by the strange musical styles. Then they began to get the humor of the idea, and chuckles and laughs began to break out. At one point, sensing confusion in the audience, Murray turned quickly to say “it’s OK to laugh.” The culmination of the piece is a grand setting of the music of John Philip Sousa’s “The Stars and Stripes Forever.” But the words were the last verse of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” — the verse beginning with the twelve drummers drumming. By this time the audience was fully engaged, clapping to the beat of the music. When it was over they were on their feet, not just applauding, but cheering.
Personally, I would have ended the concert there. But instead we got a reverential a cappella performance of three verses of “Silent Night.” After this gentle reminder of the real significance of the season, audience enthusiasm was undiminished, and we left the Amaral Center with a good dose of Christmas spirit, thanks to the extraordinary talents of Conductor Ryan Murray and the Music in the Mountains Chorus and Orchestra.