Review: Harpists Perform at Holiday Concert

New show fit to become annual holiday tradition

By Peter Jacobi H-T Reviewer |
December 8, 2011

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Against a starry/snowy backdrop left from the recently closed “Nutcracker” production and with a row of 26 poinsettia plants hugging the apron of IU’s Musical Arts Center stage in front of them, a host of faculty and students from the Jacobs School of Music gave generously of their talents Tuesday evening.

They had volunteered to help realize a project dreamed up by their colleague and teacher, Steve Houghton: a “Holiday Celebration” to be given live and to be recorded. The just-issued recording, called “Holiday Celebration: A Jazzy Collection of Seasonal Favorites,” holds 15 items and clocks in at just under 50 minutes. The live event, which attracted a full house to the MAC, contained 22 numbers and — with introductions and set-up shifts and intermission — ballooned the length to 135.

But who could complain when that time span contained such festive and spiritedly performed goodies? Instead of complaints, there were multiple cheers-and-hollers-filled ovations that included a standing one at the end. Houghton’s idea was a tremendous success and, reportedly, the start of a tradition, an annual gift of music to the community during the holiday season.

Houghton was at stage center, serving as genial master of ceremonies while also actively engaging as percussionist during much of the show. He had asked for and received what he called a “studio orchestra” of more than 60 musicians. He had asked for and gained the assistance of David Effron as conductor. He had requested additional ensembles and soloists, including four stars of the vocal faculty, and they had all said “yes.” And, as musical director of this big time shindig, he had made sure that most everything would work out splendidly, which it did.

Effron contributed his zest while conducting the orchestra in medleys such as “The Bells of Christmas” and in arrangements of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” and “O Holy Night.” An audio issue did occur when, during builds and climaxes, the amplified strings were joined by amplified percussions, winds and brasses. The strings had no chance. They were quite often drowned out. In a studio situation, controls can balance out such problems. In live performance, that becomes more difficult.

However, when those percussion/winds/brass players took off on their own, in spacious arrangements of “We Three Kings” and “Jingle Bells” and “My Favorite Things,” they produced wondrous and mighty decibels. These performances were enriched also by breathtaking solos, most notably from saxophonist Tom Walsh and trumpeters Joey Tartell and Pat Harbison. And one cannot forget the presence of Luke Gillespie at the piano; he’s in a jazz keyboard class all by himself.

Dan Perantoni and his tuba precariously “Ding Dong (ed) Merrily on High” as part of a Faculty Brass Quintet. The Latin Jazz Ensemble provided a feast of rhythms in “Havana Holly Jolly,” a Latinized arrangement of “A Holly, Jolly Christmas.”

There were ears-calming interludes: harpists Maggie Grove and Abigail St. Pierre in the English folk song, “Greensleeves;” guitarist Jonathan Godfrey strumming a Catalan folk song, “El Noi De La Mare,” and former Jacobs School Dean Charles Webb in a fleet-fingered “Silver Bells” on the piano. Webb was then joined by current Dean Gwyn Richards for a duo-piano performance of “Sleigh Ride.”

And, yes, there were those vocal soloists. For this listener, they provided among the greatest pleasures.

Soprano Sylvia McNair, so precise of diction and so on target when singing the standards, asked alluringly, “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve” (a la the Frank Loesser song), with a jazz trio (Houghton, Gillespie and bass Jeremy Allen) backing her. She was joined by tenor Brian Horne in the delightful Loesser duo, “Baby It’s Cold Outside.” Soprano Heidi Grant Murphy, with husband Kevin Murphy at the piano, added beautifully nuanced interpretations of the “Shepherd’s Pipe Carol” and “Mary’s Lullaby,” both by the contemporary British composer John Rutter. Mezzo Marietta Simpson put her indelible imprint on Mel Torme’s “Christmas Song,” and — with the fascinating guitar collaboration of Tyron Cooper — a heartfelt “Silent Night.”

Quite a celebration, almost all-encompassing, with one element missing: some choral music. Next time?

Copyright: 2011

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