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W.Va. Symphony sparkles in annual holiday music gala

By David Williams

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- John Williams is not the composer who springs to mind when you think of Christmas music, but two of his pieces from "Home Alone" opened the annual holiday concert of the West Virginia Symphony Pops Friday night at the Clay Center.

Williams rarely stumbled with tone or timing in setting the right mood for a film scene, and he did not miss with these pieces that set the Christmassy mood in "Home Alone."

Talk about the right sound for a holiday mood.

Burnished chords in low brass and horns and the chorus wreathed in shimmers of celesta, harp, bells and vibraphone make "Somewhere in My Memory" sparkle while brassy fanfares, and heraldic choral passages give "Merry Christmas" its substance.

Conductor Grant Cooper included few of his arrangements in this year's program. His jocular parody of Ravel's "Bolero," which includes "The Little Drummer Boy" and "We Three Kings of Orient Are" (and put percussionist Matt Larson in the role of the drummer playing the famous mind-numbing repetitive riff from the Ravel) was taut and balanced.

Cooper's "Jingle Bells" is shorter and funnier. Concertmaster Amelia Chan played the first turn through the tune with plenty of virtuosic asides before the Appalachian Children's Chorus joined for a sparkling conclusion.

Cooper's poignant arrangement of the Hanukkah song "Mi ze hidlik" featured the young singers in lovely voice, with strings and a bit of winds.

The youths also sang a nifty a cappella, "Up Above My Head," conducted by director Selina Midkiff.

Soprano Lisa Vroman, known for her long engagement with the Broadway stage, sang with a bit of blues lurking in her voice on "Sweet Little Jesus Boy" and "Some People See Him." Her voice had a hard edge in the top range at the end, but was silky everywhere else.

The evening's only disappointment was "O Holy Night." Vroman never seemed comfortable with the pitch and the chorus and the orchestra did not sound in balance with her.

She was fabulous in the second half of the concert, though. She sang a medley of "Oh What a Beautiful Morning" and "A Child is Born" to perfection and added an encore of "Think of Me" from "Phantom of the Opera" that was her best performance of the night.

Cooper had his usual fun with "Sleigh Ride" and elf boots (if you don't know what that is, go to the concert on Saturday).

"A Musicological Journey through 'The Twelve Days of Christmas'" made things like Gregorian chant, Renaissance polyphony, Handel choruses, Saint-Saens swans and Wagner's riding Valkyries funny.

Okay, maybe the Valkyries were already funny.

HG Young, conductor of the Parkersburg Community Chorus, Dirk Johnson, conductor of the West Virginia State University Chorus, and David Castleberry, conductor of the West Virginia Symphony Chorus, served admirably as a massed ensemble.

The concert repeats Saturday at 8 p.m at the Clay Center.


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