With a Little Help, KSO Keeps Its Holiday Tradition Interesting

It can be said that concerts of holiday music are like a warm bowl of soup with a surprising touch of spice—a mix of entertainments that merge our comfortable traditions with fresh and intriguing sounds and new perspectives on the season. The Knoxville Symphony Orchestra's annual holiday concerts, which occupied the Civic Auditorium last weekend, have been that comfortable bowl of soup for 24 years. However, keeping the recipe interesting year after year is no small feat when the audiences consist of both regular concertgoers and those who venture out only on special occasions. In this year's production, the KSO's performance partners were the Knoxville Choral Society, the Sound Company Children's Choir, and Go! Contemporary Dance Works.

The Knoxville Choral Society, which collaborates with KSO on a number of concerts throughout the year, was featured in several selections, including the ubiquitous "Hallelujah Chorus" from Handel's Messiah. However, the highlight for the KCS seemed to be a vividly melodic work based on Hebrew melodies, but one unfamiliar to most listeners: Jeffrey Biegel's arrangement of Hannukah Fantasy. The KCS also contributed "We Three Kings of Orient Are" and "Little Drummer Boy."

In many ways, the holiday season is all about children. And, in fact, the voices of youth seem to echo the excitement and wonder of the holidays that one sees in children's faces. While professional-quality children's choirs are rare, the Sound Company Children's Choir is certainly in that category. The choir, an auditioned choral group based in Oak Ridge, joined KSO for a number of selections based on popular holiday characters: "Frosty, the Snowman," "Christmas Time Is Here," from A Charlie Brown Christmas, and "The Grinch Who Stole Christmas."

The performance highlight of the evening was Maestro Lucas Richman's pleasantly fresh composition, Reindeer Variations, which also featured members of Go! Contemporary Dance Works in a dance medley interpretation of Santa's reindeer, covering dance styles ranging from classical ballet to jazz. The dance group, consisting of young dancers aged 12 to 17, was also delightful in selections from Tchaikovsky's ballet The Nutcracker and in a version of "Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer." Of course, helping out was none other than Santa Claus himself—a baritone as it turns out. Who knew?

Despite all odds, the film Home Alone has managed to become something of a holiday favorite, due in part to the sentimental, but memorable, John Williams score. The orchestra and chorus offered "Somewhere in My Memory" and "Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas" from the film.

As much as I hate to inject a Dickensian moment into the festive season, I do have a serious "bah, humbug." It is no secret that the 50-year-old Knoxville Civic Auditorium has flaws of design and acoustics that have made it mostly undesirable as a modern performing-arts venue. While organizations such as KSO, the Choral Society, and Knoxville Opera have chosen the acoustic excellence, gorgeous resonance, and architectural charm of the Tennessee and Bijou theaters for their regular performances, a venue with the audience capacity and stage size of the Civic Auditorium is needed for productions with a large number of performers. Unfortunately, the auditorium's voluminous shape and dead acoustics require most productions to use audio enhancement of varying degrees, but that has proven to be a truly slippery slope. This year's concert was grossly over-amplified to the point that any semblance of hearing a live music event was destroyed, taking with it any sense of orchestral and choral balance, as well as much of the performance energy, musical texture, and subtlety. With all natural sound manipulated electronically and overwhelmed by amplification, the production could just as easily have been a recording. Clearly, this is not what live music is supposed to be about, certainly not with a full-size orchestra and chorus.

However, the warmth of holiday traditions seemed to win out—carols were heartily sung, holiday camaraderie was embraced, and the audience walked back into the winter evening feeling the joys of community and the holiday season.

My list of the most memorable performances of 2010 will appear in next week's Metro Pulse.