The calender year ended on a fitting note with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra's Christmas Concert. The program was included in the same book as the one for Messiah, so I was anxiously awaiting this for about a week. It included some of my favourites, so with just a quick glance I knew it was going to be good. At the beginning of Dec. I remember saying that I hoped something from The Polar Express would be included in one of the several Christmas concerts I've attended. Well it took until the last one, but "Believe" made the TSO program. Fitting I suppose since the guest artist this year was tenor Mike Eldred, although I really was hoping for the orchestral suite from the movie.
Steven Reineke returned as conductor in what is perhaps going to become standard for these concerts. He mentioned he'll be back next year with Canadian Brass. Lots of his arrangements were used as well. On another note, there was more festive attire on stage than decorations around Roy Thomson Hall. The lobby had 3 hanging wreaths and that was it! Their decorators need to visit the ISO :)
On stage there were two lit trees, red and green spotlighting and the orchestra which had multiple members liven things up by wearing red or green, Santa hats (more on that later), and funky Christmas ties. Award winners in the tie area were principal cellist Joseph Johnson with what looked like Santa and principal trombone Gordon Wolfe with reindeer. One of the trumpeters had French horns on his tie, and one oboist had a bright red sweater. There were likely more, but those were who I noticed. Oh I almost forgot, the winner of the most sparkly tie was definitely Maestro Reineke. His tie had a stripe of glitter down the centre that shimmered in the lights. Even Mike Eldred commented on it and Steven replied he was helping out the Canadian economy by purchasing it (Thanks Steven!).
Anyway, on with the musical part of our program. The "Holiday Overture" started with a series of Christmas song quotes that went by too fast to really pick them out. A longer version of "Hannukah, O Hannukah" was very recognizable though. Through the concert I felt sorry for the percussionist who got saddled with the long strand of sleigh bells, they looked heavy and tiring after a while. Yet he never got off the beat!
"It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year" led into "Winter Medley" which included at least "Winter Weather", "Winter Wonderland" and "Let in Snow". There wasn't a part for the string bass section in this one, but they were bopping along. It's nice to see musicians enjoying the music.
The next two songs I'd never heard before. The first was "Christmas 'Round the World" and the second "Give Your Love for Christmas". Steven introduced "Give Your Love" which he found in the New York Pops library and has Google and Wiki searched but can't find where it's from. I would have thought being associated with 4 orchestras one of the librarians would be able to track down some info on it. It's a pretty song with a nice message and the chorus sang it beautifully. After spending some time doing Google and public library catalogue searches of my own I've come to conclude "Christmas 'Round the World" is rarely recorded and only Mike seems to have done it. For all I know, it could have been written for him. It's on his Christmas CD "Let it Begin" and is a great song! Sort of a smooth jazz type feel. Check out itunes or here for a preview .
Flipping back to the orchestra, they played what I've come to consider my favourite orchestral version of "Winter Wonderland". It's a rather over played song this time of year, yet this arrangement by Ralph Hermann has a great beat, doesn't drag, incorporates different styles (the standard full orchestra with lots of brass, some light weight flute runs, pizzicato strings, and finishes with a march), and just isn't boring! It's also on the Yuletide Celebration CD by the ISO :)
Mike then read "Twas the Night Before Christmas" accompanied by the orchestra performing Randol Bass' setting. I really like the main theme in the music, it reminds me of something you might hear at Disney. A band version with minimal strings is here. One of the best parts is the timpani at the line "down the chimney St. Nicolas came with a bound". In fact just as a piece of music without the narration I think it would be quite enjoyable.
The first half concluded with a piece I first heard on AccuHolidays performed by the Cincinnati Pops, "Little Bolero Boy" (a sampling of their version can be found here). At the time, I recognized the mixing of "The Little Drummer Boy" and Ravel's "Bolero" but didn't know it had it's own distinct name. I figured it was just a different "Drummer Boy" arrangement. Anyhow, the piece was being introduced by Steven when suddenly the percussion section transformed themselves from straight-laced musicians to festive overload! The sleigh bells guy I mentioned earlier had on a full Santa beard with his Santa hat, and the snare drum player had dawned a Santa hat, with reindeer antlers and a blinking red Rudolph nose! Steven turned around ready to start, faced this, and had to relax, chuckle and get his bearings again. He then said to the audience it was featuring "Rudolph on the snare drum". Had I known then what I know now I would have gotten a much bigger kick out of that comment. It turns out the principal percussionist's, and incidentally snare drum player, name is John Rudolph! :) Anyhow, the piece is great, and I don't know how Steven managed to get through it with the blinking red nose staring back at him, especially since it didn't blink in time!
The second half began with one of my favourite songs, "We Need a Little Christmas". In fact a few nights ago I watched Mame, the movie this song is from, for the first time, . I think Angela Lansbury would do (and likely did on Broadway) a better job of the title character than Lucille Ball, but it was enjoyable. Mike returned for "Silver Bells" and added a nice prelude verse. Unfortunately I can't remember any of it to try to find it again, but it was a pretty and fitting addition.
The definitive version of "Sleigh Ride" by Leroy Anderson featured just the orchestra again. I LOVE the bass line part in this! This version is by the Boston Pops conducted by John Williams. The good bass part starts about 1:53. A different take on "Jingle Bell Rock" was performed as well. It started with a trio of phenomenal solos by the clarinet, trumpet and trombone players who stood up and let loose.
Things then quieted down with the orchestra taking a break while Mike sang the Nat King Cole standard "Cradle in Bethlehem" accompanied by Tony (I didn't catch the last name) on solo guitar. It was lovely. Soft and sweet, reminiscent of the Yuletide Celebration encore. Evidently no Christmas concert is complete (especially with a tenor or soprano guesting) without "O Holy Night". But I was glad that "The Christmas Song aka Chestnut's Roasting on an Open Fire" was NOT on the program. I've heard it all over this year, and the break was nice.
Another composition by Randol Bass titled "Glory to God" (obviously a full orchestra version was done rather than just the piano in the linked clip), which was another new one for me, preceded the "Christmas Sing Along". It's great fun singing with a full orchestra! Continuing with the more sacred theme, the pieces included "O Come All Ye Faithful", "Hark the Harold Angels Sing", "Joy to the World" and concluded with "Silent Night". Steven wished everyone peace and love for the holidays and the concert almost ended on this very quiet, almost reflective note. But a quick rousing chorus of "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" was thrown in, and I left the hall singing.
If you weren't in a festive spirit after these 2 hours, then you really are Scrooge, because what more could you ask for than great Christmas music on Dec. 23rd :)