As the fall concert season ends, The Champaign-Urbana Symphony, conducted by Stephen Alltop, made its return to Foellinger Great Hall with a varied, tuneful and memory inducing “Welcome Joy” holiday concert on Dec 9.
After a few words by Alltop, the concert opened with a jolly “Chanukah Overture” by Dana Friedman and Robert Wendell, which featured a horn solo, an imposing march and arrangements of familiar Hanukkah songs such as “I have a little Dreidel.”
The full orchestra was then trimmed down to a smaller group in which assistant conductor David Stech led the musicians, standing, in the Sonata (Overture) to George Friedrich Handel’s 1707 Oratorio, “The Triumph of Time and Truth.” Stech, a widely experienced conductor, expertly led this piece, which offered fine solo opportunities to the players, among whom conductor Alltop contributed expert playing at the chamber organ.
Next came an “Ave Maria,” listed in the program as by Giulio Caccini, but, as Alltop explained, it was really written around 1970 by the Russian composer Vladimir Vavilov, who specialized in musical fabrications. The voices of the two vocal soloists in the concert, soprano Katelyn Lee and counter tenor Carl Alexander, sweetly blended together in this piece that has been recorded by a long array of singers, from Andrea Bocelli to Sumi Jo.
A sample of Venetian baroque polyphony transplanted to Foellinger Great Hall was given by Giovanni Gabrieli’s “Canzon Septimi Toni a 8,” in which brass players of the symphony volleyed Gabrieli’s brilliant tones back and forth from the opposing sides of the balcony.
Matthew Naughtin’s arrangement of four ancient carols, titled “A Christmas Feast,” offered vivid back-and-forth playing in a Scandinavian “Gaudete” (“Be Praised”), and a tender English “Coventry Carol,” evoking for me the style of Ralph Vaughan Williams, who did indeed do a setting of this carol for men’s voices.
Then came a lovely and brilliant performance of Wolfgang Mozart’s youthful “Exultate, jubilate,” K. 165, sung with fresh, clear and emotionally appealing phrasing by soprano Katelyn Lee. With her brilliant singing of the concluding “Alleluja,” the first half of the concert ended on a literal and emotional “high note.”
After intermission, Alltop and the orchestra were joined by the Central Illinois Youth Chorus, whose members, masked, were lined up in the choral balcony. These combined forces then performed Jeff Tyzik’s “The Twelve Gifts of Christmas.” The dozen gifts turned out to be snippets of famous classical pieces. Since I last heard this engaging work in 2016, I have been boning up on Vivaldi, Beethoven, Brahms and Tchaikovsky, and this time I think I got a passing grade. The audience gave the Youth Chorus an A+.
Countertenor Carl Alexander then galvanized the audience in his high-spirited, rollicking version of the spiritual “Go Tell It on the Mountain.” In Gary Fry’s arrangement, the drums gave it a special urgent flavor.
Jennifer Margaret Barker’s “Nollaig” (Celtic Christmas) featured a richly orchestrated, high-volume suite of three Scottish carols, the third sung in Scottish Gaelic. Soprano Lee’s solo voice was joined by the Youth Chorus.
For many years, a high point of these holiday concerts was to see how Santa foxed Alltop out of beating time during Leroy Andersen’s “Sleigh Ride.” This year, Alltop gave a memorial tribute to Rodney Woodworth, who had appeared as Santa all those years. After a varied career, which included managing and directing the Sunshine Dinner Theatre, Rodney passed away in August of this year. It was with mixed feelings that one heard Alltop finally get to conduct “Sleigh Ride.” Is it permitted to say, “Alltop’s good, but he’s no Santa”? Perhaps there may be hope for a “Santa Redivivus”?
The concert then concluded with the “Christmas Angels Sing-Along,” in which we in the audience enjoyed an opportunity to join in music-making with soloists Lee and Alexander, the Youth Chorus and Alltop and the orchestra. During the final applause the directors of the Youth Chorus, Andrea Solya and Ann Marie Morrissette, came onstage to take credit for the fine singing by their youthful students.
One by one, the musical treasures of our community are being put back into the seasonal festivities of the year.