Expectations aren't always necessarily high for holiday music concerts. Most concertgoers attend wanting little more than to have a pleasant, entertaining evening with family and friends, and come away with warm, cozy feelings of seasonal good cheer. However, sometimes a concert of holiday music is able to rise above the expected level of traditional entertainment and into the realm of enchanting sophistication. Such was the case with the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra holiday concerts last weekend. The KSO was joined by the Knoxville Choral Society, members of the Appalachian Ballet, the Sound Company Children's Choir, soprano soloist Shira Adler, and of course Santa Claus, in a concert titled A Holiday Peace.
After opening the concert with Leroy Anderson's Christmas Festival Overture, Maestro Lucas Richman introduced the new work on the program, the world premiere of Hodie Christus natus est by Knoxville composer James Carlson. The work, written particularly for performance by the Knoxville Choral Society, was vividly bright and festive, opening with an engaging fanfare and then moving into some lovely lyrical territory for the chorus. The choral text was based on the traditional Latin "Hodie Christus natus est" and a 15th-century English carol "Jesu, as Thou Art Our Saviour." A fast section of freely changing meter, although in no way particularly derivative, did remind this reviewer a little of contemporary works such as Leonard Bernstein's Mass. The piece builds in intensity to the end—a refreshingly bold and triumphant conclusion and a perfect showcase work for the holiday concert.
Although the Choral Society performed in many of the works on the concert, of particular note was the beautifully poignant chorale "There Shall a Star Come Out of Jacob," from an unfinished oratorio by Felix Mendelssohn. This piece has a lovely musical arc, opening with women's voices, joined by the men in ever-increasing choral drama, then ending quietly and solemnly.
Members of the Appalachian Ballet, who were seen earlier this month in their Nutcracker performances with the KSO, provided dance movement to accompany several of the orchestral/choral selections on the program: Bach's "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring," "Jingle Bell Rock," and "Carol of the Bells." The addition of the movement, nicely choreographed and performed, added quite a colorful visual supplement to the works. Their space on the downstage apron was limited, though, by the presence of audio monitors and video projectors on the stage floor, giving the impression of somewhat constricted motion.
Appearing with Richman and the KSO was soprano Shira Adler, who opened the second half of the program with "Hanukkah Medley," a delightful Richman arrangement of Hannukah songs. Her unique and soaring lyrical voice was perfect for the piece to follow, Franz Schubert's "Ave Maria." Adler was joined by the Sound Company Children's Choir for "Dona Nobis Pacem."
Santa Claus himself made an appearance on stage, and I must admit that I did not realize he was so tall, or that he possessed such a strong baritone voice. Santa appeared with the Children's Choir in two selections: a delightfully entertaining "Jingle Bell Rock," and, to highlight the theme a very moving performance of "Let There Be Peace of Earth."
This holiday concert, though, was more than just the sum of its musical parts. It possessed a lofty theatrical rhythm and magic that delighted the eye and ear, and that enabled the audience to leave the theater truly believing the theme—holiday peace—could be possible after all.