John Frayne: Symphony, singers lead a rousing holiday concert

The Champaign-Urbana Symphony Orchestra offered a festive, melodious and cheerful holiday concert Dec. 13 in the Foellinger Great Hall at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, with Daniel Black as the congenial maestro on the podium.

Black is no stranger to holiday concerts here. He filled in for Steven Larsen at Christmastide two years ago. Black is the conductor of the Rockford Symphony Youth Orchestra as well as the University of Illinois at Chicago String Orchestra.

Due to an accident in the front balcony, the concert began about a half-hour late. After a group of orchestral numbers, including a suite by Robert Wendel of familiar Christmas carols, entitled "In the Manger," the Central Illinois Children's Chorus (conductor, Andrea Solya) came on stage, in an impressive procession from youthful choristers down to very young beginners.

The children began by singing "The Friendly Beasts," arranged by Harry Simeone, and in later numbers smaller groups of the chorus were featured. Beginning with "O Christmas Tree" ( "O Tannenbaum"), the children were joined by five members of the orchestra's brass choirs.

The groups of the chorus sang admirably, expertly prepared by Solya, but in "The Angel Choir and the Trumpeter," arranged by Howard Cable, the brass instruments somewhat overpowered the voices.

At the end of the first part, soprano Audrey Vallance sang a parody of "The Twelve Days of Christmas," with the title changed to "Twelve Gifts." I found it difficult to catch the words of the altered text over the high volume of the orchestra, but the cream of the joke was that the gifts were groups of instruments, playing familiar passages from popular concert pieces.

The famous melody from the finale of Johannes Brahms' First Symphony was played repeatedly, and other composers thrown into the mix were Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, and the inevitable opening of Ludwig van Beethoven's Fifth.

Black conducted with vigor and gave amusing introductions from time to time. His urgent impulse to conduct his first try at Leroy Anderson's "Sleigh Ride" was foiled by a public-address announcement that the lights of his car were on in the parking garage.

In his absence, Santa sneaked out on stage to conduct the number, as Santa had done two years ago. Suspicions of foul play buzzed through the audience.

The "Waltz of the Snow Flakes" from Tchaikovsky's "The Nutcracker" was the impressive opening to the second half. From the front balcony, the voices of the C-U Choir Singers, led by Chester Alwes, blended with the Central Illinois Children's Chorus down on stage, and the ending of this number was especially beautifully sung and played by the orchestra.

Daniel Borup, baritone, joined the chorus in the balcony and the orchestra for a well-sung "Fantasia on Christmas Carols" by Ralph Vaughan-Williams. The folk carols in the "Fantasia" were "The truth sent from above," "Come all you worthy gentlemen," and "On Christmas night all Christians sing." Barbara Hedlund eloquently played the lovely cello solo in this work.

"The Twelfth Elf" by Gary Fry was charmingly sung by the children's chorus, but the words were difficult to understand. Perhaps the texts of this and other number should be printed in the program.

Borup came back and sang clearly and melodiously "O Holy Night" by Adolphe Adam, in an arrangement by Black. The final crescendo, swelled by the adult chorus, had admirable impact.

That left the Christmas sing-along to top off the evening. On the conviction that people sing better on their feet, Black got all of us up to intone six carols, from "Joy to the World" to "Deck the Halls."

The youngest members of the children's chorus sat on the lip of the stage, wearing reindeer's antlers, and they were joined by the rest of the chorus members on stage for the grand final tableau. All in all, it was an impressive display of singing by old and young alike.

Charmian Bulley is the artistic director of the children's chorus as well as the conductor of the Music Makers section of the chorus. The Concert Choir of the chorus is conducted by Ann Marie Morrissette, and Solya leads the Chamber Choir and the Youth Chorale. Many of those involved in the performance joined Black for the final curtain call.

And Santa came back and gave Black a gift (perhaps an inscribed score of "Sleigh Ride"?). When not attired as Santa, the "jolly elf" listed in the program is known to his friends as Rodney Woodworth. (An earlier version of this story misspelled Woodworth's name.)

John Frayne hosts "Classics of the Phonograph" on Saturdays at WILL-FM and, in retirement, teaches at the University of Illinois. He can be reached at frayne@illinois.edu.

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