Sunday, December 20, 2015

Concert Review: Getting the Christmas spirit back with Steven Jarvi and the St. Louis Symphony, December 18-20, 2015

Whitney Claire Kaufman and friend at Powell
What with El Niño, global warming, and the relentless drumbeat of hate and fear from the rightward end of the political spectrum, it hasn't felt much like Christmas lately for me. But walking into a bright, wreath-bedecked Powell Hall Friday night for the first of the St. Louis Symphony's Macy's Holiday Celebration concerts changed all that. I'm starting to feel like a right jolly old elf.

If you've been to any of these concerts, you know what to expect: yuletide classics, a guest performer, and a visit from St. Nick himself. Santa's visit was a bit shorter than usual, but otherwise this musical evening was as comfortable and familiar as a favorite Christmas sweater.

Speaking of being comfortable, when Resident Conductor Steven Jarvi took over these concerts back in 2013 it seemed to me that, while his work at the podium was impeccable, he seemed a bit less at ease with the MC role. Two years later, he looks and sounds entirely relaxed up there, chatting with guest performer Whitney Claire Kaufman and cracking jokes about his "Star Wars" obsession.

It was nice to see Ms. Kaufman back on the stage this year. When she first appeared here in 2013, I noted that her singing showed the kind of emotional investment in the lyrics that made the pop standards she sang sound fresh. She did that again this year, with lovely renditions of "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year," "Santa Claus is Coming to Town," and "White Christmas."

Her considerable theatrical talents were on display in Jeff Tyzik's clever "The Twelve Gifts of Christmas," in which sections of the orchestra replace the original presents (as in: "three French horns, two clarinets, and a glockenspiel and a bell tree"). The piece itself is great fun, filled with in-jokes and musical quotes from Mozart, Vivaldi, Brahms, Beethoven, Rimsky-Korsakov, and (appropriately) lots of Tchaikovsky.

The area high school and college students of the Holiday Festival Chorus (directed by Kevin McBeth) are always a joy to hear, and this year was no exception. They sounded clear and robust in the arrangements of "Joy to the World" and "Silent Night" by Mormon Tabernacle Choir music director Mack Wilberg, and were particularly impressive in the syncopated, whimsical arrangement of "Jingle Bells" by Jack Gold, Marty Paich, and Mack Hayes, with its many rhythmic and key changes. With Mr. McBeth at the podium, they also did a fine job with André Thomas's brief "African Noel" for six-part chorus and percussion.

A few of my favorite things this year were the classical orchestral selections, led by a simply gorgeous prelude to Engelbert Humperdinck's opera "Hansel and Gretel." Humperdinck was a protégé of Richard Wagner, so it's not surprising that his prelude sounds more than a little bit like the one his mentor wrote for "Die Meistersinger." Mr. Jarvi's performance brought out all of the contrapuntal richness of this music and the orchestra did full justice to the composer's lush orchestral landscape.

It was also fascinating to find a work I'd never heard of on the program: the overture to the ballet "Der Schneemann" ("The Snowman"), written at the ripe old age of eleven by Erich Wolfgang Korngold and orchestrated by the composer's teacher Alexander von Zemlinsky (no slouch as a composer himself). It's surprisingly mature-sounding music, with all the ripe harmonies that would characterize Korngold's later work for films and the concert stage.

I've seen a number of the "Holiday Celebration" concerts over the years and have rarely been disappointed. They're always festive events, with the orchestra and hall decked out in seasonal finery and a selection of music calculated to appeal to both adults and all but the youngest kids. There's also a special drink at the bar: a bright-red Poinsettia Punch. And you can take your drinks to your seat with you, allowing you to savor them during the show.

The Macy's Holiday Celebration concerts continue through Sunday, December 20, after which Powell Hall gets turned over to the Compton Heights Concert Band and the Bach Society for their annual holiday concerts on December 21 and 23, respectively. The SLSO returns on New Year's Even for the annual musical party under the baton of David Robertson. For more information:

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