The Champaign-Urbana Symphony, led by Stephen Alltop, now in his third year as music director, gave its annual Christmas concert, entitled "Holiday Heralds," on Dec. 10 in the Foellinger Great Hall.

In contrast to Christmas concerts of some years ago, maestro Alltop has tried to counterbalance the usual medleys of Christmas carols with serious, complex works of traditional classical music. In doing so, he has wisely allied himself with the Central Illinois Children's Chorus, whose performances at this concert gave ample evidence of the fine work of artistic director Charmian Bulley, and the excellent preparation of the Chamber Choir by conductor Andrea Solya, and of the concert choir by Ann Marie Morrissette.

The concert opened with a rousing, and loud, performance of the Polonaise from Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's opera "Christmas Eve," in which the symphony's woodwinds were outstanding in the middle section.

Then came the first major offerings of the evening, four selections from the "Christmas Oratorio" by Johann Sebastian Bach, a work that consists of six cantatas, one for six of the festive days of Christmas. Somewhat unusually, conductor Alltop began with the final chorus of the entire work, No. 64, "Now you are well avenged," into which Bach interpolated a "passion" melody from the "St. Matthew Passion." In the section, the Children's Chorus was joined by all five of the singers who were later to sing solo numbers. The grandeur of their combined singing was topped by the fine playing of the symphony's trumpets, led by Jennifer Brown. This chorus was followed by No. 15 of Cantata No. 2, "Joyful shepherds, hurry, ah hurry," ably sung by tenor Ryan Townsend Strand. One of the more familiar numbers of the Oratorio, the bass aria from Cantata No. 1, "Great Lord, O Mighty King," was stirringly sung by bass-baritone Eric J. McConnell, with trumpet obbligato by Brown. The fourth number was the chorus, "Ah little Jesus, dear to my heart," No. 9 of Cantata No. 1 in which Bach had interpolated the famous melody of "Von Himmel Hoch" ("From Heaven on High"). It was very enjoyable to hear these numbers from a work that I know rather well.

I do not expect to be converted at such a concert to a work I had never heard before, but that was my feeling when hearing four numbers from the "Christmas Oratorio" of Camille Saint-Saens. The contrast between Saint-Saens' suave and sweet music compared to the grand but rugged music of Bach, was very marked. The singing of the soloists already mentioned, Strand and McConnell, joined by sopranos Adeline McKinley and Eleanora Benedict, and mezzo-soprano Amber Leigh Farish, was beautifully refined and well-balanced in a trio, a quartet and a quintet from this work. Also notable was the playing of harpist Molly Madden and Debra Sutter at the organ.

Highlights of the second, more popular, part of the evening were the jolly rendition by Ronald Hedlund of "A Visit from St. Nicholas" to music of Mathew Naughtin and the singing of the Children's Chorus in "Nolaig," a collection of Scots Gaelic carols, somewhat heavily orchestrated by Jennifer Margaret Barker. By the end of this work the sweet voices of the children were overwhelmed by the massive orchestral sound.

Yet once more, Santa (himself!) cheated maestro Alltop of the joy of conducting Leroy Anderson's "Sleigh Ride," and once more we happily joined in the carol singalong, as the children's chorus sat on the edge of the stage. Then, "as sure as preaching," we all joined in to sing George Frideric Handel's "Hallelujah Chorus" of which, for the first time in my experience, every single word was printed in the program.

John Frayne hosts "Classics of the Phonograph" on Saturdays at WILL-FM and, in retirement, teaches at the UI. Reach him at

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