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VSO shines with Holiday Brass program

Special to the Gazette

There’s something about the bright, shiny sound and look of brass instruments that suggest happiness and celebration. Such was certainly the case with the Virginia Symphony Orchestra’s “Holiday Brass” program, Friday, Dec. 15 in St. Bede Catholic Church.

With 13 brass players and four percussionists sporting in red ties (and a red top for the sole female hornist), not to mention the jolly tuba player’s red socks; a large number of listeners in red and green; and a church tastefully decked out in abundant Christmas lights and greenery--the moment was festive.

In somewhat a Christmas cookie version of last year’s event in Phi Beta Kappa Memorial Hall, the fare was focused on music of the season, starting off with a John Williams-esque sounding arrangement of “Joy to the World” with its extensive theme and variation. From there it was a sampling of much of the familiar. There was a delightful “Babes in Toyland”; a touching “Fantasy de Noel” on three French carols; a highly rhythmical take on a medieval Spanish carol, “Riu, Riu, Chiu”; a peaceful 12th century Irish “Wexford Carol,” considered one of the oldest of European carols; and a mellow arrangement of Mel Torme’s “The Christmas Song.”

On the much lighter side were such works as “Jingle Bells,” featuring the low brass (trombones and tuba); an essentially cute rendering of songs from seasonal television specials of the past, among them “Welcome Christmas” and “Trim Up the Tree” from “The Grinch”; “You’re a Mean One Mr. Grinch”; “Jingle, Jingle” from “Rudolph”; “Santa Claus is Coming to Town”; and “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.” Still on the light side was “Jingle Bells,” set for low brass (trombone and tuba) and the high energy, klezmer band-sounding, foot tapping “Of Nights, Lights, and Brass,” which, like last year’s playing, found this Hanukkah favorite a big favorite.

Of all the selections offered, the ones that found greatest impact in terms of sound, expression, and virtuoso skills were the solemn and peaceful “O Magnum Mysterium” and its rich textures, a brass setting of Morten Lauridsen’s choral composition; a section from Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio,” in which there was a perpetual motion of running notes and flashy high trumpet playing; and Gabrieli’s “Canzon Noni Toni” for antiphonal brass (two groups facing each other). Unfortunately, the acoustics of the large space prevented a full appreciation of the subtleties of antiphony, while allowing a full appreciation of the fullness of rounded sound.

Guest conductor Paul Bhasin’s clean, concise and basically unadorned style drew first class artistic results from the musicians.

Additionally, his ongoing commentary served as narrative program notes, offering background information in a fresh and engaging manner. The program also gave the members of the ensemble to introduce the musicians and talk a little bit about their instruments.

It fell to Scott Jackson of the percussion section to humorously suggest the program should have been called “Holiday Brass and Percussion” or better, yet, “Holiday Percussion and Brass.” And, in actuality, the event’s headline should have included them since they added color, depth and dimension throughout the program.

Like most such programs, there was a full-voiced audience carol sing. The evening closed with a snappy “Sleigh Ride” which Bhasin said was not Christmas without its playing. An appreciative ovation led to an encore of “Feliz Navidad,” which started off with nearly indistinguishable, lumbering melodic lines in the low brass before evolving into a rousing work that got the audience clapping, fully in the spirit of the season.

Shulson, a Williamsburg resident, has been covering the arts for over 40 years. He makes a guest appearance in Margaret Truman’s “Murder at the Opera.”

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