December 15 & 16, 2017 • Holiday Cheer!
Concert program notes by Betsy Schwarm and other contributors
Holidays mean many things to many people, and no single program can honor all traditions. Rather than attempting to be a bit of everything, we recognize the role that music plays in any celebration. What would a birthday party be without some singing? What would the December holidays be without a lot of singing — and some orchestra music, too? It all adds up to holiday cheer, and we hope you’ll join in some of the singing tonight — and all of the listening!
James Stephenson (b. 1969)
Holiday Overture by Chicago-based composer James Stephenson is decidedly not a Christmas overture, as it includes two Hanukkah songs along with carols. After a festive prelude, Stephenson offers a spirited Deck the Halls, followed by Oy Chanukah, complete with klezmer touches for clarinet, then the eager energy of the Dreidel song. O Tannenbaum brings solo spotlights from numerous sections of the orchestra, and Away in the Manger gives specific attention to the oboe. Jingle Bells has a jazzy flavor, and a celebratory version of Good King Wenceslas brings the overture to a close — almost. Keep your ears tuned for a touch of The First Noël.
Christmas Through Children’s Eyes
Robert Wendel (b. 1951) & Vince Trani
Composer Robert Wendel appears twice in close order on our program: his original chorus/orchestra piece Christmas Through Children’s Eyes, and his arrangement Little Bolero Boy. Christmas Through Children’s Eyes sets a waltz-time setting of a text by Vince Trani. The chorus reflects upon the simple joys of a child’s holiday, while the orchestra provides flow and sparkle — the sparkle especially from the bell-like sounds of various percussion instruments.
“Somewhere In My Memory” from Home Alone
John Williams (b. 1932)
KEVIN!!!!!! The Christmastime hit charmed movie-going audiences when it was released in November 1990 earning Home Alone a number one spot for a full 12 weeks. Nearly 30 years later, Home Alone still tops the charts as a perennial holiday favorite. The familiar theme song written by iconic film composer John Williams was nominated for both Grammy and Academy Awards. — Matt Meier
Little Bolero Boy
Arr. Robert Wendel (b. 1951)
Like Christmas Through Children’s Eyes, percussion also has a prominent place in Little Bolero Boy. The last movement of Wendel’s Classical Christmas Suite, Little Bolero Boy combines the familiar carol of the drummer boy by the manger with the determined snare drum rhythm from Maurice Ravel’s Bolero. It has been called a concerto for snare drum.
“March” from The Nutcracker
Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840–1893)
The Nutcracker was based on the Alexandre Dumas translation of a Hoffmann tale, in which a little girl comes to the aid of her Christmas gift (a magical nutcracker in the costume of a soldier) in his battle with an army of mice. Her assistance is rewarded when her toy transforms into a prince and takes her into his kingdom of sweets and other colorful delights. The subjects of the kingdom each dance for their guest in a series of amazing set pieces that comprise some of the most gorgeously evocative music Tchaikovsky ever wrote. — Jeff Counts, Utah Symphony
Prayer of the Children
Kurt Bestor (b. 1958)
Over the years, I’ve written many songs with melodies more memorable, lyrics more poetic, and harmonies richer. But none of my compositions has had the kind of reach and emotional effect of Prayer of the Children. Ironically, I never intended to publish the song at all. I wrote it out of frustration over the horrendous civil war and ethnic cleansing taking place in the former country of Yugoslavia.
Having lived in this now war-torn country back in the late 1970s, I grew to love the people with whom I lived. It didn’t matter to me their ethnic origin — Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian — they were all just happy fun people to me, and I counted as friends people from each region. Of course, I was always aware of the bigotry and ethnic differences that bubbled just below the surface, but I always hoped that the peace this rich country enjoyed would continue indefinitely. Obviously that didn’t happen and the inevitable did — civil war.
Suddenly my friends were pitted against each other. Serbian brother wouldn’t talk to Croatian sister-in-law. Bosnian mother disowned Serbian son-in-law, and so it went. Meanwhile, all I could do was stay glued to the TV back in the U.S. and sink deeper in a sense of hopelessness.
Finally, one night I began channeling these deep feelings into a wordless melody. Then little by little I added words… Can you hear…? Can you feel…? I started with these feelings — sensations that the children struggling to live in this difficult time might be feeling. Serbian, Croatian, and Bosnian children all felt the same feelings of confusion and sadness and it was for them that I was writing this song. — Kurt Bestor, composer
More online at www.kurtbestor.com/prayer-of-the-children
The Many Moods of Christmas, Suite No. 2
Arr. Robert Shaw (1916–1999) & Robert Russell Bennett (1894–1981)
In 1963, conductor Robert Shaw, the chorus that bore his name, and the RCA Victor Symphony Orchestra released what all these many years later is still one of the best-selling Christmas albums of all time, The Many Moods of Christmas. For many people, that recording — ideally in its original vinyl form — is the soundtrack of the holidays. The arrangements are the work of American composer/arranger Robert Russell Bennett — not to be confused with his English born contemporary and colleague Richard Rodney Bennett. Of the four Christmas suites by the American Bennett, we offer selections from the second, beginning with the prayerful O Sanctissima. Joy to the World is bold in character, Away in the Manger peaceful, with a central role for English horn. Our suite concludes with two French carols: the hearty March of the Kings (one may know it as Il est né – He is born) and the dance-like Fum-Fum-Fum.
Festive Sounds of Hanukah
Arr. Bill Holcombe (1924–2010)
Bill Holcombe was a piccolo player. How often do you get to read that in program notes? Most composers begin their careers as performing musicians until they can “make it big” as a composer, but Holcombe led a double life in New York City. He composed and arranged by day and performed each night in Broadway musicals, and he even toured with the Tommy Dorsey Band! His Festive Sounds of Hanukah is an animated collection, including snippets from Rock of Ages, Who Can Retell, Hanukah Hanukah, My Dreidel, S’Vivon, and Hanukah oh Hanukah. — Leigh Townsend
“Hallelujah Chorus” from The Messiah
George Frideric Handel (1685–1759)
George Frideric Handel was one of those lucky composers who was famous in his own lifetime. Although born in Germany and trained in Italy, he is most famously known as an English composer. The Messiah is a sacred oratorio, a kind of religious opera. Unsurprisingly, the text is biblical, a mix of Old and New Testament. The “Hallelujah Chorus” is the final selection from part two of the work. Since you may already be familiar with this, try listening for something new tonight. Listen to how Handel accentuates the word “hallelujah” in three different ways, emphasizing a different syllable at each restatement. A trinity of praise, if you will, from a very clever composer. — Leigh Townsend
Leroy Anderson (1908–1975)
The widely beloved Sleigh Ride by Leroy Anderson exists in multiple arrangements: for string orchestra, full orchestra, symphonic band, and any of those with or without additional chorus. Anderson well understood the practicality of making his music available to diverse ensembles. This bright and festive score includes sleigh bells and wood blocks to reinforce the mood. Each time the central melody recurs, it’s a bit bigger and more exuberant, until by the last time through it has gained a measure of syncopation and bluesy color, signaling that this wintry journey is an exciting occasion. On the final page, a four-note pattern repeats, rising in energy, until Anderson wraps up the scene with the whinnying of a horse, thanks to the solo trumpet. No manger, no angel, no shepherds: but all in all, a delightfully festive scene for the season.
Stephen Amundson (b. 1955)
How would angels dance? In a spirited manner or in more reverent mood? Amundson thinks it’s a bit of both. His Angels’ Dance opens and closes playfully, with particular attention given to piccolo, tambourine, and pitched percussion. By contrast, the central pages are as gentle as starlight, with the brilliantly voiced piccolo yielding to mellow flute; after that gentle interlude, the lively opening material returns in closure. By the way, note the punctuation of the title: Amundsen specifies that it is angels plural, so let your imagination conjure up visions of a number of them.
What Child is This?
Arr. Paul Carey; lyrics by William Chatterton Dix (1837–1898)
William Chatterton Dix wrote the lyrics to this now beloved noel in 1865 during a time of spiritual renewal recovering from illness. It was later set to the tune of the English folk song “Greensleeves.” — Callista Medland
That’s Christmas To Me
Scott Hoying (b. 1991) & Kevin Olusola (b. 1988); Arr. Jena Dickey
A year after graduating high school, Hoying’s a cappella group Pentatonix competed in and won the third season of NBC’s “The Sing-Off.” Beatboxing cellist Olusola joined the group only one day before the auditions! “That’s Christmas to Me” was featured on the YouTube sensations’ second Christmas album of the same name, released in 2014. — Matt Meier
Angels in the Snow
Tracey Rush (b. 1955)
Angels in the Snow deals not with dancing angels, but with those snow pictures made by falling backward into a snow-covered yard and waving your arms and legs. The Iowa-based composer says she had in mind a blizzard in December 1990 when the family’s newspaper boy decided to adorn their yard with a snow angel, and Rush’s father chose to follow suit. The piece is a memorial to her father. It’s scored for orchestra with children’s chorus, the singers telling us that it is “time for Christmas cheer.” Often, this leads Rush to bright brass and jingle bells, though one also finds broader, almost prayerful moods, perhaps reflecting on her father.
A Holly Jolly Sing-Along!
Arr. James Stephenson (b. 1969)
The concert closes with a return to music of James Stephenson. Here, the chorus joins the orchestra. A Holly Jolly Sing-Along offers plenty of songs you likely know well, most of them Christmas related, though having more to do with winter itself. Let’s hear you sing along at Holiday Cheer! 2017!
Program notes by Betsy Schwarm, author of the Classical Music Insights series.