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Symphony and Friends put on Stellar Holiday Concert

Nov. 30, 2006

By James Chaudoir
Post-Crescent staff writer

The Fox Valley Symphony welcomed in the holiday season Thursday with a festive evening of music.

For those who filled Neenah's Pickard Auditorium, a well-played program, conducted my Music Director Brian Groner, awaited; one filled with melodies both old and new. It was particularly exciting to see so many young children in the audience, but why not, for the evening also offered the premiere performance of Badger State Girl Choir's, Vivace, the Fox Valley's newest choral ensemble for school-aged girls directed by Kevin Meidl and Robert Unger.

The first half featured more familiar concert fare. Opening with Leroy Anderson's A Christmas Festival, a medley of eight popular Christmas tunes, the orchestra set the tone for the evening. I began to realize how into the program the audience was when I heard the child sitting behind me humming along when Jingle Bells joined in the medley.

Ralph Vaughan William's hauntingly lovely Fantasia on Greensleeves followed. Scored for two flutes, harp and strings, this popular concert setting never ceases to stir the emotions of the audience. A curious surprise was the programming of Blackberry Winter by Nashville composer Conni Ellisor for hammered dulcimer and strings. The composition was written in two movements and featured Audrey Nowak playing the hammered dulcimer. Groner told the audience that he programmed the piece because of its feeling of home.

Strings begin softly and lyrically while working their way toward the folk-like quality of the dulcimer's entry. After an imitative passage, the work quickly moves to more dance-like movement as the first part comes to a close.

The second movement opens quite Copland-esque in style, moving to a long dulcimer solo over sustained strings. More dance-like writing and the piece comes to an exciting close. Nowak performed her part exceptionally well and the audience showed their appreciation with an energetic ovation.

Bill Holcombe's arrangement, Festive Sounds of Hanukah, brought the return of the full orchestra on stage. This medley of familiar Hanukah tunes was well scored, allowing the melodies to flow through the rich harmonies and orchestration, particularly in the final measures.

The first half closed with three well-known excerpts from Handel's Messiah, the angular Overture, the lilting Pastoral Symphony and the popular Hallelujaha chorus, where audience members stood and added their voices to the jubilant sounds coming from the stage.

The entire second half of the concert was devoted to Appleton resident Maury Laws' settings from the Rankin/Bass holiday TV specials. These are tunes that have become familiar from TV specials that include Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer and Frosty the Snowman, among others.

Joining the orchestra for this half were members of the White Heron Chorale and Vivace. Fourteen songs in all from the TV shows were performed and featured beautifully skilled orchestration on the part of Laws. Vivace was first heard in Save a Little Christmas, which started off the set of tunes with much excitement. Vocal soloists included Jeanne Lietzan, John Stangel and Rich Landin, each of whom performed their roles admirably well.

Of particular note was the scoring in Parade Of The Christmas Toys. The crystalline playing of principal trumpeter Michael Henckel set it apart as a special movement, for which he received a well-deserved solo bow. Tivoli Bells and the jazzy Waltz For Christmas further demonstrated Laws' orchestrational inventiveness, but it was his arrangement medley of Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer, Frosty The Snowman and Santa Claus Is Coming To Town, which featured the choir, that resonated through the hall to the pleasure of the audience. Upon the conclusion of the concert, a rousing standing ovation was given for the orchestra, choirs and Laws.

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