Thursday, December 23, 2010

Yuletide Celebration Part 3: The Show

The actual concert begin with an invitation to "Join us on an exciting Holiday Adventure"...which may have been a tad cheesy but hey, why not?

The curtain rose revealing the orchestra fairly far back on the stage via the use of raisers with the brass section and timpani in a balcony of sorts. (picture from 2004 production)
ISO photo via Daniel Rodriguez site
Maestro Jack Everly looking very classy decked out in tails, and then Sandi Patty appeared in a gorgeous gown (one interview mentioned 10 dress changes, I could spend ages just describing them, if I remembered all the details, alas no picture taking allowed.  But there were red, green, red with white fur trim-for White Christmas of course-, blue, and perhaps a few more) to open with "Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee" accompanied by the remainder of the company.

Next was a song I feel is not Christmas (even if technically it does mention sleigh bells), Rodgers and Hammerstien's "My Favourite Things" from The Sound of Music.  I was prepared to just enjoy it anyway when after the first few lines the lyrics changed to list Yuletide Celebration favourite things!  No more "girls in white dresses" but flying reindeer puppets and dancing Santa's.  It would be awesome of someone would post this version's lyrics.

This led extremely well into a montage segment of clips from past Yuletide shows.  The orchestra begin playing John William's, "Somewhere in My Memory" from Home Alone as a screen lowered and the Yuletide singers appeared.  Previous specialty acts (Tony Hoard and Rory, Martin Preston as Liberace-both appearing in Baltimore's Holiday Spectacular this year), past hosts (Maureen McGovern-2009, Sylvia McNair-2003, Daniel Rodriguez-2004), and former conductors (Keith Lockhart 1992-93) were shown. Well deserved applause began when a photo of Jack appeared listing him as conductor since 1994 (16 years, wow!), and continued for Sandi's photo listing the 5 years she's hosted.  Alas, the evening audience seemed more appreciative than the next day matinee where this illicited no applause :(  The lyrics of the song though are a perfect fit for this years show which includes magicians in addition to music "...Christmas joys all around me...all of the music, all of the magic"

"Some Children See Him" with Sandi and Company was next.   Aside from being pretty, I honestly don't remember much about it this piece.  The linked version is closest rendition to the ISO's I could find on youtube.

The orchestra then took centre stage with "Here We Come a Caroling".   It was the same version that's on the Yuletide Celebration CD and it was really fun to see it performed live when I'm so familiar with the arrangement.  I was bopping along from my seat :)

One of the highlights of the concert was "We Three Kings" performed by the Yuletide Gentlemen.  This was absolutely incredible!  Seven guys in tuxedos walked out at an angle from each side of the stage and started singing.  14 voices all together, nothing fancy, just straight forward power.  The verses were done by 3 bass soloists.  Two I'm able to pick out of the program by their pictures (Mark Gilgallon and Andrew Nolen) but I'm not sure who the third is (I'll guess Ben Crawford, feel free to correct me if I'm wrong).
Andrew, Ben and Mark
The third one also did the "I Love a Piano" solo in "White Christmas" (keep reading there will be lots more details on that).  Anyway, by the end when they lined up at the front of the stage and, completely synchronized, turned first to one side of the audience, then the other, finishing with a final step apart of their feet (a simple move that worked so well to emphasize the rich arrangement), the audience had begun a rousing round of applause.  A bit of a show stopper.  There really is no other word for it than powerful!

Perhaps because one can only take so much seriousness, some light-heartedness followed with "Shopper's Lament" and the Yuletide Ladies.
All bordered pics from interview with Mike Runyan
Sung to the tune of Tchaikovsky's "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy" the ladies lamented Christmas shopping, children's pestering, injuries in the Colt's starting line up, and something about the Dunkin Donuts always being known as Rosalyn's.  Being an out-of-towner, I figured not comprehending only one Indy joke was pretty good.

Les and Dazzle, the guest act of the year, are a father-daughter magic team.  Les plays it straight and Dazzle is extremely enthusiastic would perhaps be a way of describing it.  They were introduced by Jack who referred to Dazzle by saying "well she's just glad to be part of the act".  They were featured in Mysterioso as well, and did exactly the same magic tricks.  Considering they were probably my least favourite part of the show (primarily because I'd seen the act before), I was glad the accompanying music was at least a Christmas medley.

Quite a good one in fact with a quick quote from "You're a Mean One Mister Grinch", and more complete versions of "Rudolph", "Most Wonderful Time of the Year", "Up on the Housetop" and I'm sure lots more.  The ball-balancing-on-handkerchief section near the end of the act, which is a bit of "my ball's bigger than your ball" competition between the two of them, was to a re-worked version of "That Old Black Magic" that included Yuletide lyrics.  The arrangement was by Wayne Barker, who's done other things for Jack and Symphonic Pops Consortium shows (actually a neat article is here about his work on She Loves Me over the summer), and if he wrote the lyrics too he's even more talented than I thought (again would love to read these again.  Post someone?).

It's said that you can tell a good writer by the transitions between thoughts, well if you extend that to telling a good show by the transitions between the numbers, this one excelled.  The strip closet, with curtains in red and white to resemble a stocking, had Dazzle replaced with none other than a tap dancing Santa.  This introduced what closes every Yuletide Celebration Act I (well at least all ones I've heard about)  The "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" tap dancing Santa's with their Rockette style kick line.  Dazzle even got into the line, and demonstrated she can really dance!  Check out this clip from a few years ago for a taste of the dancing Santas (no Santatizer this year, but once that finishes, the tap dancing takes over).  As an aside: This story from Jack about the Santa-tizer creation was written up in the program.
And with that it was suddenly intermission.  The first half flew by!

Since it's something apparently one has to do, I had gotten a sampling of the cookies available for an intermission snack.
No they weren't all eaten, one actually made it all the way home in it's entirety.  My conclusion: it's hard to go wrong with sugar cookies and gingerbread and I'll agree it's definitely part of the whole Yuletide experience.

Act II began with a recorded "Welcome Back" message from Jack, giving an intro to the world premiere (well I would have seen the 2nd and 3rd performances, but I suppose this Yuletide series of concerts are the world premieres) of his (Fred Barton is also credited as arranger) "A Tribute to Irving Berlin's White Christmas".  Indeed it is true, that no holiday season is complete without at least one viewing of the iconic film.  The curtain rose on the orchestra and Jack sporting the red Santa version of the tails jacket.  It's great fun to see everyone involved in the festive spirit :)  The 15 min or so mini-version of the movie and musical that followed was all the fun with none of the will they/won't they aspect from the story (although in 1954 Hollywood musicals, does the guy ever not get the girl? so maybe there never really was any "won't they").  The key musical upbeat numbers were all included beginning with "Happy Holiday" and "Snow, Snow, Snow" both with the whole company.  Then the same dark haired guy from "We Three Kings" came out and sang the opening verse to "I Love a Piano".  I read somewhere, perhaps in a biography on Irving Berlin, that he wrote it so the word piano would be over two syllables rather than three (ie: pia-no, not pi-an-o).  Personally I prefer the three, and that was how it was sung here.  Dancing ladies then joined him with little white grand piano props, and a male tap dancer did a great job with his dance solo.

Maintaining the dance theme, "The Best Things Happen While You're Dancing" came next.  It began with Sandi serenading a couple who did some foxtrot style dancing.  Then the orchestra demonstrated their skill at cohesiveness while conductor-less as Jack left his spot on the podium, extended his arm to Sandi, and showed that dancing is also on his list of many talents!  He looked quite comfortable during his turn around the floor, I'd say easily surpassing Bing Crosby with gracefulness, as they moved very smoothly together.  After returning to his traditional place, he flipped a few score pages and picked up as if there had never been a dancing interlude.

No White Christmas compilation would be complete with "Sisters" and it wasn't forgotten here as Sandi and all the ladies flipped around the feathers.  I wonder if the same orchestration was used for this as for the version that appeared in Irving Berlin: Ragtime to Ritzes.
A lovely solo by Sandi of "Count Your Blessings" followed before the production number style finale.  The whole company joined in for "I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm" which led into five singers performing the often skipped verse of "White Christmas".  Sandi then returned, wearing the red dress with white fur trimming from all the promo photos, for the chorus as the snow machines on stage and in the audience started whirring!

The line that popped into my head was Bob Wallace saying to Phil Davis at the end of the movie as they're opening the doors at the back of the stage/barn "you made it snow in here pal".  The audience was invited to join in the singing at the end and it was easy to imagine being right in the movie!  My opinion: a very, very successful world premiere!

A change of pace followed with Sandi introducing the return of the Wurlitzer organ, which after undergoing a 5 year refurbishment, rejoined the Yuletide concert last year.  I saw both Donna Parker (evening show) and Martin Ellis (next day matinee) have the organist honours performing "Nutcracker Fantasy", a medley of songs from, you guessed it, Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker.  I believe I recognized sections from the Overture, March, Trepek, Coffee, Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy, and Waltz of the Flowers, although there were probably more.  Martin wore a vest fully covered in glittering Christmas items.  Very festive!

The curtain closed again while the organ console was moved off stage and Sandi introduced the only piece to be performed at every single Yuletide Celebration, "'Twas the Night Before Christmas".  While there is music to the entire poem (see previously mentioned CD), she spoke the text unaccompanied until Ma and Pa "sprang from their beds to see what was the matter".
Not a great image, but only one I could find

The whole cast, including bears as toy soldiers, a panda, and a gingerbread man, were involved in acting out the story, and the reindeer pulling Santa's sleigh were walked down the main aisle by puppeteers.  Puppet Santa became real after sliding down the chimney.  He smoked his pipe and pulled presents out of his sack, before "laying his finger aside of his nose, and giving a nod, up the chimney he rose".  Everyone waved as puppet Santa and reindeer "flew" down the opposite main aisle.  All of a sudden a moon dropped out of the wings and a shadow of Santa's sleigh and reindeer was passed in front of it.  I chuckled to myself as the same comment about full moons and set designs entered my mind :)

"All I Want for Christmas Is You" which followed, allowed the cast to let loose with the singing and dancing.  The two female soloist's belted out their parts with high energy and it was a great "wake up audience, the show's not over" moment.

Another chance of pace followed with one of my favourite acts of the evening.  Mike Runyan is the ISO librarian and has been credited as an arranger in programs of several concerts I've attended in the past.  I remembered reading on an ISO blog post by one of the orchestra members that he played the harmonica so I was quite interested to see what "A Cowboy Harmonica Christmas" would bring about.
from Lou's IBJ Blog

In short it was charming.  Mike started with a semi-mournful sounding "There's No Place Like Home for the Holidays" accompanied by the orchestra, complete with the "clip-clop" of horses hooves.  He transitioned to "Rudolph" and with Dazzle's help, kept finding new harmonicas of all different sizes in a box, although I think she "helped" make one disappear.
There were quotes from the "Orange Blossom Special" (which was awesome!), Up on the Housetop (on a teeny-tiny harmonica), the first line of "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer" (so fast you'd almost miss it), and "Holly Jolly Christmas".  The music and schtick never stopped and it was incredibly fun to watch.

The concert concluded with a return to the serious and reminder of the true meaning of the season.  Sandi Patty and company performed "One God" (the link is an extremely long compilation version but has some nice NASA Earth pictures),
which had a neat "Wonder as I Wander" melody quote at the end before heading into the classic "O Holy Night".  This link is to the real thing (although not the shows I was at), hopefully it stays posted for a while.  Perhaps a bit intense, but an impressive performance.

There was polite applause as the singers and dancers took their bows, and an immediate standing ovation when Sandi walked back on stage.  The orchestra got a rousing applause too, which was certainly warranted!  Obviously expecting this, there was an encore :)  After everyone was re-seated, Sandi thanked Duke Energy, the title sponsor who must have put up a lot of money to fund the show, and promoted live music by saying everything we'd heard was completely performed live, even off stage vocals weren't pre-recorded.  Maybe that's why I love symphonic music so much, what you see is what you're getting, nothing added, nothing taken away, and you get the true sense of how talented the musicians and performers are.

She continued my saying that not everyone will make it home for Christmas but they'll be there in spirit (a subtle reminder of all the deployed members of the armed forces) and she and Mike Runyan performed a very poignant version of "I'll Be Home for Christmas".  I agree completely with Lou's view that the combination of performers, instruments and arrangement transcended expectations.  

So with a final "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" and a re-appearance of Santa to say he'll see everyone on Christmas Eve, the 25th Anniversary Yuletide Celebration performance was complete.

The whole concert was classy (save for Dazzle's dress at the end :) , see above picture) and the music fresh, nothing felt like a re-hash of an old, well worn Christmas carol.  There was a great balance in the variety of elements, nothing too much over the top, and always first rate quality.  I'm so glad I went, and while it may not become tradition (I'll see what/who ends up on the program for next year before making that decision), my first Yuletide could not have started with a better version.

Congrats to everyone involved and thank you for making this a wonderful experience for everyone in attendance!

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