VSO's Holiday Brass full of good cheer

The holiday season, to me, brings visions of bright, shiny things, and when it comes to things bright and shiny, nothing quite matches the Virginia Symphony Orchestra’s brass, which was the focus of its Holiday Brass fare at St. Bede Catholic Church Friday.

Under the direction of Gonzalo Farias, VSO’s assistant conductor, the event featured some 18 members (and a few guest musicians) of the brass and percussion sections, along with the harp. Like past such programs, the event was one colorful piece after the other, each arrangement allowing a good sampling of the tones and colors associated with the brass, as well as layered textures and polished appeal. Many of the 16 works offered also showcased impressive virtuoso skills, all of which enhanced the festive fare.

Adding interest and a personal touch to the program, a spokesperson from each section introduced its members and shared often humorous accounts of life as a member of the trumpet, French horn, trombone-tuba, and percussion families. Following comments, each section was featured in a carol that showed off their capabilities; as heard, there was much to show off.

The seasonal songs kicked off with a rather grand, full voiced “Christmas Fanfare,” which was followed by Holst’s “Christmas Day,” a familiar arrangement of familiar carols. The percussion section was featured in an effective and dramatic “Patapan,” as was the low brass (trombone and tuba) in a cute “Jingle Bell Fantasy.”

Representing the French horns was fun filled “Rudolph.” As for the harp, Barbara Chapman didn’t address the large crowd, but her instrument did in two particularly beautiful and delicate arrangements of “In the Bleak Midwinter” and “The First Noel,” both of which again illustrated Chapman’s developed talent.

Spirited sounding works also included celebratory, full-out sound-filled “Angels We Have Heard on High,” a lilting “Waltz of the Flowers” from “Nutcracker,” a pretty snappy arrangement of the traditional French carol, “Il est ne” (“He is Born”) that was a real showcase for fancy playing all around, and an unusually dramatic setting of the usually gentle and serene, “Still, Still, Still.”

There was also a nod to Hanukkah with a lively “Of Night, Light and Brass,” a quasi blend of klezmer and “Fiddler on the Roof” spirit. It was a highlight of the evening.

A bit of audience participation was also part of the festivity. “Radetzky March” is a snappy piece traditionally played by the Vienna Philharmonic on New Years, during portions of which audiences clap along. Thus it was in St. Bede, with Farias cueing us when to clap softly and loudly, the audience a willing participant.

Also seeming to have a good time was Smith Waylett, who won a VSO conducting opportunity via an auction; his stint on the podium for the “Radetzky” suggested he’s no stranger to a score nor conducting. His ease at carrying out the task was notable and produced fine results.

Prior to the closing, there was a sing-along of “Winter Wonderland,” “White Christmas” and “Frosty the Snowman,” followed by a very spirited and rhythmic “Cuban Jingle Bells,” that brought the audience to its feet, the reward of which was an encore.

Throughout the event, Farias served as host, talking now and then about the pieces to be played and about how grateful he was (and is) for the talent heard, the VSO, and the warm welcome he has received from VSO audiences, particularly the one assembled in St. Bede.

The sum of this holiday music package was good cheer and appreciation for the tradition now established in bringing this seasonal program to us.

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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