Dallas — It’s probably the distinguishing features of a holiday-themed performance that attracts the audience. Maybe a group is featuring one of your favorite artists as a guest. Maybe it’s a performance of an oratorio that allows the audience to sing along with the chorus (or maybe it’s one that doesn’t). What distinguished this year’s program offered by the Dallas Winds were great performances by the ensemble—that’s a given, though—some good program choices with a nice mix of the obligatory and the unexpected; and, oh yeah, I almost forgot, Brave Combo.
Conducting this year’s performance by the DWS at the Meyerson Symphony Center was Jeff Hellmer, Director of Jazz Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. He’s an entertaining emcee and a great performer as well, both as conductor and piano soloist. And I suppose it’s a slight drawback of an occasion like this that you get such a small dose of such a talented player’s work. The same could be said, though, of the outstanding solos by Don Fabian (who had his own big feature number in Torme’s “The Christmas Song”), principal trombone James McNair, and the English horn soloist.
What was her name, you ask? I’m asking, too. The program neglected to include the credits for the upper double reed section, and that’s too bad, because they’re is regularly outstanding. In fact, the ensemble as a whole is regularly outstanding, but let us never take that for granted. Dallas is fortunate to have a group like the DWS, one that is consistently entertaining and polished, and that always seems to be getting better.
What they spent their time doing on Monday evening was, as mentioned above, a nice mix. And some of the standard holiday wind band stuff that regularly comes around provided some of the biggest surprises, such as their rendition of Leroy Anderson’s “Sleigh Ride.” Sometimes this piece—and I think the arrangement is the same one we played in high school—seems like the musical equivalent of Christmas fruitcake, but there’s nothing like a live performance by a great ensemble to help you reevaluate your attitude toward a song.
There were also some unforeseen gems, such as the arrangement of music from Vince Guaraldi’s score for A Charlie Brown Christmas. Arranger Biondi Bouras put together a medley that shows reverence for the original score, but is still original in its own right, including an especially beautiful version of Guaraldi’s “Christmastime Is Here,” one of the few great Christmas songs written in the last half of the 20th century. And the only gimmicky number on the program, David Louvrien’s “Minor Alterations for Christmas,” was hilarious, like a Christmas medley gone klezmer. And fortunately it’s available on the DWS Christmas CD, Horns for the Holidays.
Did I mention Brave Combo? For some in the near-sellout crowd—the kids younger than 5, I mean—this concert was their first look at this well-known group out of Denton, a highly skilled more-than-a-polka-band that specializes in up-tempo arrangements tailored for the group’s considerable talents. Once again, I wish the program had named the individuals in the group—I should probably know them by now, but perhaps it was Brave Combo’s choice to keep the acquaintance properly Platonic. Whatever the case, in their two sets they rocked, samba’d and polka’d their way through an assortment of well-known Christmas songs, giving us new looks at “Feliz Navidad,” “Jolly Old St. Nicholas” (which morphed seamlessly into a rip-roaring Pachelbel Canon), and even “O Holy Night.”
Describe their “O Holy Night” Cha-cha as irreverent if you want to, but many strokes of genius have streaks of irreverence. And it was played with such energy! Admittedly gorgeous as the original is, it does sort of, well, hang around. This arrangement took nothing away from the song you love so much, added plenty of zip, and even encouraged us to notice the great harmonies of the original song again.
This superb program might have been called “Christmas Music to Make You Sweat,” even without the unusually high temperatures outside. Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, and many thanks to Brave Combo and the Dallas Winds. We hope to see you both next year.