Fort Worth — Holiday concerts, like most holiday gatherings, seem to work best when the fresh-to-familiar ratio is around 1:20 (remember that crazy year when Aunt Ora substituted marjoram for sage in the stuffing?). Another way to put it: we don't come to holiday concerts to be challenged by recent developments in holiday entertainment.
Friday evening in Bass Performance Hall, under the direction of Maestro Miguel Harth-Bedoya, the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra's 2018 "Home For the Holidays" concert launched the season with an ideal mix of fresh and familiar. There were few surprises in the program's running order: "Flight to Neverland" from John Williams' score for Hook? A little odd perhaps, but thematically defensible. Likewise, Leroy Anderson's Bugler's Holiday is hardly a gimme for a winter holiday concert, but "holiday" is right there in the title, so if there's a holiday nearby and a trumpet section that can handle it, go for it. Principal Trumpet Kyle Sherman and associates certainly handle it: they gave this little work as smooth and precise a performance as it has ever seen (it was a privilege to be on hand for it); even better, they were clearly enjoying sharing it.
The biggest treat, though, was the massive chorus of some of the area's best middle and high school singers (from Arlington High School Chamber Singers, Fort Worth Academy of Fine Arts Academy Singers, Lone Star Youth Chorus of Fort Worth, Paschal High School Panther Chorale, and Summit High School Jaguar Chorale). After a couple of brief orchestra-only works (including the Stephenson Holiday Overture, which features the best arrangement of "Jingle Bells" this side of Fred Waring), the choir performed the opening movement of John Rutter's Gloria accompanied by the orchestra in the version I prefer to the one for chorus and brass. It's a fast and flashy piece, and we shouldn't underestimate the time and effort by so many singers (under the direction of several leaders in the course of its preparation) needed to give it the power and the balance of Friday evening's performance.
Following the Rutter were a couple of brief orchestral works that we'll be lucky ever to hear again: a selection from some incidental music by Norwegian composer Johan Halvorsen and an arrangement of some of Malcolm Arnold's music for the 1951 film The Holly and the Ivy. The chorus then joined the orchestra for "On Christmas Night," in which master arranger René Clausen had a field day with the carol's asymmetrical phrase structure.
When, after two numbers from Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker, Maestro Harth-Bedoya turned the helm over to his close associate, Chorus Master Maritza Cáceres, things turned scary, if only for a moment. Everyone knows that “The Carol of the Bells” is exciting even when performed slowly, but the takeoff tempo on Friday was beyond brisk. When that many notes have to come out that fast, it's easy for singers (instrumentalists, too) to bury their heads in the music and not watch the conductor (the notes might get away if you don't keep your eye on them?). That's when performances start to go awry. Fortunately, the secure performers in this crowd outnumbered the insecure ones, as evidenced by the ratio of visible faces to tops of heads in the chorus, and the breakneck pace—along with uniformly clear articulation and crisp enunciation—never let up.
The chorus followed Bells with an a cappella performance of Will Todd's My Lord Has Come, recently heard in the Dallas Chamber Chorus's concerts (and the CD Love Manifested). It was great to hear it again in the radically different setting of Bass Hall sung by younger voices (and so many of them!). Again, it would be easy to underestimate the skill and professionalism of so many that makes this sensitive, pliable work come off so beautifully. And the breathtaking final "m" was a perfect foil for the arresting final sonority of “Carol of the Bells.”
Prior to the final Christmas carol sing-along—in which even those who aren't wild about such enforced fun found themselves caught up in the occasion—the adult leaders of the several individual choirs combined to form a chamber ensemble for “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” While playing its combination name-that-tune/catch-that-reference game with the audience, this clever arrangement of this most interesting carol managed to be enjoyable; it should have been a blast. Orchestra and chorus were superb; the adults up front sounded good, but—except for the occasional grin from a couple of them—they looked downright solemn. Preparation for the concert was doubtless plenty stressful—devoting attention to 30 to 60 singers in your charge is surely no picnic, and the drive to Bass Hall can certainly take its toll—but appearing pleased to be doing what you're doing makes for a truly engaging performance. Ask the trumpet section. Or ask your students.
Thankfully, I hope, there are more opportunities for everyone to share Maestro Harth-Badoya's enthusiasm for this thoroughly enjoyable program, one rendered especially exciting in featuring Dr. Cáceres and the fresh talents of some of the best singers from this part of the country.
» See our list of holiday classical music and opera concerts here.