ROBERT BRUCE SMITH: Christmas with the TSO

By ROBERT BRUCE SMITH

“Christmas comes but once a year,” promises the old song, and certainly it happily landed at the Link Centre Concert Hall with a sleigh full of warm feelings and tuneful holiday music on Saturday night. Titled “Christmas with the Tupelo Symphony” and conducted by TSO music director Steven Byess, concert goers heedless enough to brave wind and drizzly weather found the hall had indeed been decked – not just with boughs of holly, but with lots of gently flickering candles and a huge illuminated wreath onstage as well.
Designed as a convivial Christmas experience showcasing Tupelo vocalists Jauna and Calvin Ellis plus the Link Centre’s delightfully intimate concert atmosphere, Byess’ thoughtful selections by distinguished composers and arrangers were a welcome musical respite from usual holiday fare.
First off was a festive series of orchestra works, including the brilliant overture “A Christmas Festival,” by Anglo-American composer Leroy Anderson (of the Boston Pops fame), and American composer George Chadwick’s “Noel,” from his “Symphonic Sketches.” Then came the singers.
Adding an unusual – indeed a suspenseful – note of authenticity to this musical celebration of the Holy Nativity was the soprano soloist’s physical condition: she was nine months pregnant, and due to deliver at any moment! So when Jauna Ellis movingly wound up her first number – Mack Wilberg’s alarmingly titled “What Child is This?” – there was visible relief all around.
Next, the prospective father (and Jauna’s husband), Calvin Ellis, sang Ralph Vaughn Williams serene “God Bless the Ruler of this House,” as well as “Mary Did You Know,” by the team of Mark Lowry and Buddy Green. Possessed of a fine baritone voice, Ellis is choral director at Tupelo High School and also joins his wife in giving private vocal instruction.
Two orchestral selections concluded the program’s first half: Chip Davis’ bittersweet, hauntingly evocative “Stille Nacht” (“Silent Night”) exquisitely performed by the TSO, and then Kathy Punwar’s stylistic tour de force rendition of “Jingle Bells.”
After intermission, Jauna Ellis returned with a powerful rendition of “Gesu Bambino” by the 20th century Italian-American composer Pietro Yon, segued by that greatest of all Christmas show-stoppers, “O Holy Night,” written by French composer Adolphe Adam in 1847. Ellis’ fine, thrillingly accurate performance of this beloved Christmas classic won an enthusiastic standing ovation from the audience.
And what would Christmas be without “White Christmas,” which Calvin Ellis nostalgically served up in his most handsomely crooning baritone style. The celebrated crooner Bing Crosby, who debuted Irving Berlin’s chart-busting holiday hit on Christmas Day 1941, would have been pleased
As a festive vocal finale, both Ellises teamed up in Frank Loesser’s charmingly intimate pop duet, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” written in 1944. As Jauna’s last notes rang out, all OB/GYN’s seated in the audience must have breathed yet another sigh of relief, knowing their skills in on-the-spot baby delivery would not be tested tonight!
“Jingle Bells Forever” by American composer Robert W. Smith, and “Farandole” from Georges Bizet’s L’Arlesienne Suite No. 2 brought the program to an end. Justifiably pleased with their exceptionally fine musicianship throughout the evening, Byess and the TSO treated the audience to a highly animated arrangement of “Sleigh Ride” as encore.
A smiling full house, artistically successful performance and no emergency baby delivery backstage – the TSO would doubtless wish everyone the very merriest of Christmases!