The Tacoma Concert Band took to the stage of the Pantages Theater – described as “the crown jewel of Tacoma’s performance spaces” – Dec. 15 for its holiday show, “Let it Snow.” Standing just outside the grand theater, Tacoma’s municipal Christmas tree served as a beacon to the concert-goers that flocked in for the performance. With Tacoma Concert Band, you can always count on a top-notch performance.
During many of his spoken introductions to the various compositions, TCB conductor Gerard Morris was especially concerned to emphasize our “human-ness” and how much we have in common. Morris noted that some of the music was chosen because it is evocative of the excitement of the holidays. The evening proved to be a good mix of traditional holiday fare and other thoughtfully chosen selections – the result of Morris’ dissection of the experience of the Winter Holidays in an effort to get their cultural essence and to imbue the show with an inclusive appeal. I enjoyed both the traditional Christmas music and the material that ventured off the beaten path.
The show was augmented by mood lighting and projected emblems of stars, snowflakes, wreathes, Christmas trees and Santa in his sleigh drawn by flying reindeer.
First on the docket was Ron Nelson’s “Rocky Point Holiday,” which was penned in 1969 during a family holiday in Rhode Island. Morris stated that the composition explores memories of times spent with family and friends that make the holidays so special. The piece starts with a blast and then backs off with muted brass and use of xylophones and flute frills that bring to mind fairy dust and snow flurries. Dissonant lulls are followed by big upwellings that have the flavor of a Disney musical score. Later there is a jaunty portion featuring bongos and trumpets that has the mood of a vintage James Bond flick.
Morton Lauridsen’s “O Magnum Mysterium,” the second composition of the evening, was inspired by the biblical text’s depiction of the new born king placed amongst the lowly animals and shepherds. It starts off slow and majestic, with TCB’s primary trumpet player, Morris Northcutt, playing some sweet, warm vibrato ahead of a big, harmonious upwelling of the whole band, accompanied by kettle drums.
David Maslanka’s “Liberation” turned out to be one of my favorite compositions of the evening. It is a blend of the majestic and the exotic – a sonic expression akin to a tasseled rhinoceros pulling a Christmas sled through a snowy mountain pass along the silk road, carrying the magi from the East.
There are vocal chants mingled with exotic fanfares. The musical percussion instruments are joined by piano. Wonderful use is made of the low woodwinds: the bassoons and the marvelous contrabass clarinet. There are crashing gongs and distant trumpets and wild percussive effects. In this setting, the piece becomes a Christmas fusion of cultures from both East and West.
The splendor of “Liberation” was followed by a medley of music from “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” including an instrumental version of “You’re a Mean one, Mr. Grinch,” which features a jazzy drum kit, trumpets and xylophone. After a fast-paced and circus-like portion of the medley, the whole band joins in for a full-throated crescendo.
The first half of the concert concluded with a sing-along called “A Christmas Festival,” which consisted of verses from a number of traditional Christmas carols. The sing-along was led by soprano singer Sheri-Ann Nishiyama, a Lincoln High School graduate and now assistant conductor of the University of Puget Sound’s Adelphian Concert Choir.
At the beginning of the second half, Tacoma City Councilman Ryan Mello – decked out in a red shirt, awesome plaid pants and cool green shoes – narrated “A Visit from St. Nicholas” which was musically accompanied by Gioachino Rossini’s “Semiramide Overture.”
I especially loved the lushness of TCB’s performance of “Greensleeves,” the next work on the program. The woodwinds constructed a rich interplay with the melody before muted trumpets took up the tune while low brass played harmony. The woodwinds and flutes again took over with brass in support. Toward the end, the whole band came together as the chimes rang and cymbals crashed.
James Barns’ “Fantasy Variations on a Theme by Niccolo Paganini” is an exuberant work in which each variation features different section of the concert band. Morris noted that he chose this piece as gift to the band. It provides a venue in which each of “these amazing artists” could have a chance to really shine. Morris further noted that it captures the excitement of the holiday season.
The concert ended with the classic “Sleigh Ride.” Artificial snow came down from above the stage, landing mostly on a clarinet player, a flute player and one of the bassoon players. The piece ended with Northcutt rising to his feet and doing the brass horse whinny through his lustrous trumpet.