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Review: Symphony returns in style for Holiday Pops concert

Mon., Dec. 17, 2012

Leading Saturday’s Holiday Pops concert by the Spokane Symphony and Spokane Symphony Chorale at the Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox was the orchestra’s resident conductor, Morihiko Nakahara. His impish wit and engaging platform manner combine with his superb musicianship to make him an ideal host for a festive evening of music. The orchestra’s silence during the recent work stoppage has made all of us more aware of what a treasure we have in our midst, and Nakahara is one of the parts of that treasure we prize most highly.

At one point in the evening, his amusing banter took a serious turn, as he observed that a person may come to such a concert seeking several things: diversion, amusement, refreshment, solace and, alluding to the dreadful events of Friday in Newtown, Conn., refuge from a world in which terrible things may happen. He said we may reasonably ask ourselves whether a sense of magic and wonderment can survive in such a world, but that experiencing together the joy that music can bring proves that it does; indeed, I would add, that it must.

Any fears that the orchestra’s time away might have taken the edge off the terrific playing we have come to expect were immediately dispelled by their performance of James Stephenson’s “Holiday Overture,” one of four pieces on the program composed or “arranged” by Stephenson. The quotation marks are meant to indicate that, like all great arrangers (W.A. Mozart, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Dmitri Shostakovich and Nelson Riddle among them), Stephenson transforms his material, allowing us to appreciate it in new ways while still savoring its familiar qualities. So, in the “Holiday Overture,” as in the incredibly witty “Bassoon It Will Be Christmas,” “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” and “Here Comes Santa Claus,” Stephenson turns thrice-familiar ditties into brilliant and challenging orchestral showpieces filled with color and animated by imagination.

If you think you have heard the Rudolph saga once too often, you need to seek out Stephenson’s version (, although you will have to do without the tremendous panache brought to the piece by Larry Jess and Chris Cook, trumpets, and Ross Holcombe and Richard Strauch, trombones, in the outrageous, Dixieland-gone-wild conclusion to the piece.

Stephenson was not the only brilliant arranger whose works appeared on the program. Ralph Vaughan Williams, Hershy Kay and Leroy Anderson all enlarged our idea of what a symphony orchestra is capable of, as did, of course, Rimsky-Korsakov, whose “Dance of the Tumblers,” from his sadly neglected masterpiece “The Snow Maiden” really allowed Nakahara and the orchestra to strut their stuff. Watching Nick Carper and Jeanette Wee-Yang, violas, dialoguing with Mateusz Wolski and his violins as they threaded their way through Rimsky-Korsakov’s dazzling string writing was a show in itself.

Finally, however, it was the participation of the Spokane Symphony Chorale that elevated the concert from the merely delightful to the truly celebratory. Their diction, not only clear but expressive, and their tone, beautifully round and full in all sections, make the ear hungry for more. Nor shall one soon forget the solo turn by the honey-toned baritone David Wolf in Vaughan Williams’ “Fantasia on Christmas Carols.”

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