By J. Kevin Butler
For The Republic
On a mild, sunny, not-so-typical December afternoon, the Columbus Symphony Orchestra presented its holiday gift to the Columbus area community in the form of its concert, “A Holiday Journey.”
Playing to a standing-room-only crowd Dec. 3 in the Custer-Nugent Performance Hall at The Commons, the symphony presented a program of both old and new holiday favorites.
Beginning with the traditional, the orchestra opened with “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” music by Vince Guaraldi and Lee Mendelson and arranged by David Pugh. The audience quickly recognized much of the music used in the beloved animated Christmas special that has been on TV during the holidays since 1965. The piece was nicely driven by the drum set play of percussionist Daniel Wiehe, who, working in nice collaboration with maestro Josh Aerie, adeptly handled the many intricate tempo changes within the medley.
The audience acknowledged their efforts and those of the entire ensemble with a strong round of applause.
Moving quickly to the new, the symphony presented three movements of a work entitled, “Trans-Siberian Orchestra Suite.” The Trans-Siberian Orchestra has achieved international fame since they began touring in 1999, and their music has been described by Washington Post writer Richard Harrington as “Pink Floyd meets Yes and The Who at Radio City Music Hall.”
Although the orchestra’s performance didn’t quite match the raucous level of the previously mentioned bands, it did, however, match their spirit. The first selection, “Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24,” music by Paul O’Neill and Robert Kinkel, featured a full orchestral sound, strong percussion and, in spite of some minor feedback issues, a solid electric guitar performance by Kenny Kraynik.
The second selection, “Wizards in Winter,” also by O’Neill and Kinkel, displayed some fine pizzicato playing by the strings and the most cohesive playing of the full orchestra in the concert. In this piece as well as in the final selection, “Dreams of Fireflies on a Christmas Night” by O’Neill, Kraynik could have been more dominant with his guitar work, and there were some moments of rhythmic insecurity between the orchestra and the rhythm section, which may be attributed to their placement on the far left side of the orchestra. Nonetheless, all of the pieces were enjoyed by the audience and received sustained applause.
Moving back to “old” Christmas musical traditions, the orchestra performed “Lieutenant Kije Symphonic Suite” composed by Sergey Prokoviev, which featured several passages of intricate rhythms and more dissonant 20th century harmony. Despite some intonation issues within individual sections of the orchestra and some moments of insecurity during exposed passages, the symphony performed the work in appropriate Russian style, which even included the occasional “strumming” of the violins.
There were several outstanding soloists, including Paul Hunt on trumpet performed offstage behind the orchestra, harpist Erzsebet Gaal Rinne, and Grant Pfifer on tenor saxophone, an instrument rarely used with orchestras. Pfifer played with a warm, rich tone, boldly leading the orchestra through his solo moments.
Then, as even maestro Aerie admitted, came the moment that most of the audience had been waiting for — the Parkside Elementary School Choir, under the direction of Kathy Dell.
Moving quickly to the stage above and behind the symphony, this 84-voice ensemble of fifth- and sixth-graders brought new energy and excitement to the concert by performing the traditional favorite “Do You Hear What I Hear?” with music and lyrics by Noel Regney and Gloria Shayne.
Singing with a clear, strong tone and with crisp, articulated diction, the choir gave a spirited performance strongly supported by the orchestra. Their second number, “It’s Beginning to Look Like Christmas” by Meredith Willson, brought smiles to the faces of audience members young and old as they augmented their musical performance with clever and well-executed choreography.
The audience responded with enthusiastic applause, setting the stage for the final collaboration of the afternoon, a holiday sing-along with the audience led by the Parkside choir and Aerie and the orchestra. Many members of the audience and many performers alike left the concert filled with the spirit of the season and looking forward to many other musical performances in the future.
J. Kevin Butler is a graduate of the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music and was a high school choral director for more than 20 years. He is currently director of music for the First United Methodist Church of Columbus.