REVIEW: A Tupelo Symphony Christmas by candlelight

Remember when nobody even thought about Christmas celebrations until well into December? When it was inconceivable to imagine “Jingle Bells” and “Away in a Manger” mingling with retail displays of leering Halloween goblins or prim Thanksgiving pilgrims?
And as secular society marches relentlessly toward some kind of year-round “PermaChristmas,” where slurpy renditions of “We Three Kings” and “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” waft shamelessly over July Fourth barbeque utensils and sexy Labor Day beachwear, the luminous, short-lived musical magic of Yuletide itself seems to be suffering a slow but steady erosion.
Despite this, the “old sweet sounds” of Christmas still retain their endless appeal.
So it was that on Dec. 12 a sold-out audience jammed the festively decorated and candlelit Link Centre Concert Hall to experience the Tupelo Symphony’s annual holiday extravaganza.
Featured performers included the always-tuneful THS Madrigals, the popular Los Angeles tenor Steve Amerson, Broadway starlet Laurie Gayle Stephenson, plus the distinguished Hollywood composer/ arranger/ pianist, Mark Gasbarro.
Cleverly planned and suavely conducted by TSO music director Steven Byess, the evening’s Christmas fare ranged fearlessly from Renaissance elegance to Broadway glitz, with many moods in-between.
First came the Madrigals.
Though occasionally guilty of chopping off his wives’ heads, England’s King Henry the Eighth also wrote vocal music of great merriment and charm. His “Pastime with Good Company” was the first of three unaccompanied pieces merrily sung by the Madrigals in gorgeous 16th century costume. For 34 years this remarkable vocal ensemble – directed by Vicki Wilson and numbering about 16 talented THS students – has continued its enviable tradition of high musical distinction and extraordinary popularity.
Then came the soloists.
After a festive orchestral medley, Byess introduced Laurie Gayle Stephenson and Steve Amerson, already familiar to TSO audience members from their joint Valentine performance this year. Both singers have loads of professional talent and audience-pleasing personality, much in evidence during such duos as “It’s the Most Wonderful Time” and “We Need a Little Christmas/Let It Snow.”
What followed was a well-performed series of festive carols, holiday songs, and orchestral pieces on Christmas themes – including several sing-alongs – alternating orchestra, soloists, and the Madrigals in various combinations. Mark Gasparro, well-known TV and Hollywood composer/arranger, presided at the piano and soloed with the orchestra in his own imaginative arrangement of “O Come All Ye Faithful.”
But the work that sent TSO attendees warmly bubbling with exquisite musical memories into the chilly December night was Mannheim Steamroller founder Chip Davis’ rendition of “Stille Nacht,” or “Silent Night.” Opening with a deeply touching, superbly played (by Carlton McCreery) cello solo, TSO musicians performed Davis’ haunting rendition of Franz Gruber’s 19th-century Christmas lullaby beautifully, doubtless stirring many a bittersweet flashback to Christmases long past.
As a grand finale, Byess led audience, soloists, Madrigals, and the TSO in three brilliant Yuletide arrangements, concluding with a musically beaming “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” followed by broad smiles all around. Orchestra members and conductor smiled proudly at one another; guest artists smiled benignly at audience and orchestra; audience members smiled generously at one another and the musicians – Wow! it’s Christmas …
With such heartfelt, candlelit, live-music experiences to treasure as December 25 once more approaches, maybe the canned musical schlock of a premature commercial Yuletide won’t prevail after all. May it be so.
Merry Christmas and happy holidays to all!

Robert Bruce Smith