Sunday, December 6, 2015

Have a politically correct holiday of your choice

WSO lights it up
by Christopher Key

What’s a nice Jewish boy to do when his employer asks him to conduct a concert called “’Ham for the Holidays?”  If you’re maestro Yaniv Attar, you slap on a Santa hat and turn it into a short standup routine.  Would that we all were so tolerant of other cultures.

Our Whatcom Symphony Orchestra delivered the mistletoe on Sunday afternoon and, for a while, there was Peace on Earth.  At least in the ‘Ham.  Attar got everyone’s attention immediately with Johann Strauss’ Tik-Tak Polka, Op. 365Sprightly and full of good humor, it could put a grin on the Grinch.

Gordon Nast was WSO board president until his recent death and Maestro Attar dedicated the next work to his memory.  Sergei Prokofiev’s Winter Bonfire Suite, Op. 122 gave thorough credence to Attar’s contention that Russian composers have a special relationship with winter.  This one is perfectly evocative of a troika dashing through the snow with spirited horses at the fore.

Attar has been instrumental, so to speak, in cultivating young conductors.  Today’s guest, Takuya Nishiwaki, led off the next segment with Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s beloved Waltz from Swan Lake, Op. 20a.  As my colleague Lily Olason would say, it was brassy, percussiony and totally delightful.

Given Attar’s easygoing way with the audience, we nearly always learn something new.  I learned that the “Pastoral Symphony” from Georg Frideric Handel’s Messiah is also known as “Pifa.”  Regardless of what you call it, the orchestra made magic with it.

Since dashing through the snow is what some of us like to do in the winter, it was fitting that we got not one, but two takes on that winter pastime.  Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart called his version “Sleigh Ride” from Three German Dances, K. 605.  Leroy Anderson’s version is perhaps more familiar, but it’s still called “Sleigh Ride.”  The percussionists jingled themselves silly.

After intermission, the Western Washington University Jazz Combo I took the stage and immediately enchanted everyone with a truly innovative version of Kathleen Kennicott Davis’ Carol of the Drum (aka Little Drummer Boy).  Kevin Woods is a brilliant arranger and actually used two drummers to make the obvious point.

The combo also treated us to Christmas Time is Here by Lee Mendelson featuring vocalist Gabija Vaicekonis.  Two jazz legends, Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, composed a riff on Tchaikovsky’s Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy and called it Sugar Plum Cherry.  Arranger Woods gave it some fascinatin’ rhythm as he did with Felix Bernard and Richard B. Smith’s Winter Wonderland.

David Post has become something of a legend in Bellingham for his brainchild, Bellingham Arts Academy for Youth.  One of the things that led to the creation of that organization is the Bellingham Children’s Choir.  They have become regulars at the holiday concert for obvious reasons.  They got to premiere a new work by the ubiquitous Scott Henderson called Northwest Nowell.  It’s perfectly titled, starting out laid-back and ending up volcanic.  Bravo!

Arthur Harris’ arrangement A Medley of Well Know Carols got the audience humming along and the Maestro is smart enough to realize a clap-along is safer than a sing-along.  The audience acquitted itself quite well with another Strauss rouser, Radetzky March, Op. 228 and what better way to face the howling windstorm outside?

To warm us up in midwinter, the WSO welcomes back the Seattle Rock Opera on February 13 for a symphonic twist on the music of Motown.  I can smell a sellout several months away.  Get you tickets now by calling the Mount Baker Theatre box office at (360) 734-6080 or purchase online at the MBT website.

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