ROBERT BRUCE SMITH: TSO plays 'old sweet sounds' of Christmas

By Robert Bruce Smith/Special to the Journal

TUPELO – “Suddenly it’s Christmas, right after Halloween. Forget about Thanksgiving, it’s just a buffet in between.” Thus, in a song from his 1993 album “Career Moves,” did songwriter and folksinger Louden Wainwright satirize the ever-encroaching holiday trend of commercial “Christmas creep.”
Many of us can still remember those ancient “pre-creep” Decembers when holiday music, decoration and merchandising didn’t crank up until well into Advent. No longer! Halloween was barely over when I first heard “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” this year, and doubtless its annual premiere will eventually overtake Labor Day.
Certainly extending Yuletide into November has advantages, but its unfortunate downside is to degrade the old-time seasonal enchantment of Christmas itself. The two or three brief weeks preceding Dec. 25 used to be crammed with a special wonder and delight; with the merry anticipation of gift-giving, Santa Claus, renewed friendships and a sweet timeless yearning for peace on earth.
Fortunately, the enduring, uncommercialized, truly authentic music of Christmas can still benignly impact our distracted modern lifestyles, temporarily reconnecting us once more to the magical memories and emotions of Yuletides past. Certainly this feeling of holiday cheer was evident in the faces of those who attended last Saturday’s annual Tupelo Symphony holiday extravaganza at the Civic Auditorium.
Conducted by TSO music director Steven Byess and featuring both the 120-strong Itawamba Community College Chorus and the 32-member Tupelo Symphony Children’s Chorus, Saturday’s program offered imaginative forays into a variety of traditional and contemporary musical styles. Decked with a twinkling Christmas tree and packed wing to wing with almost 200 formally clad orchestral and choral bodies in orderly rows, the Civic Auditorium stage was itself an impressive sight.
A brilliant instrumental medley of European Christmas carols, “Overture for Christmas” by A. W. Binoy, opened the evening, followed by the huge, sonically exciting ICC Chorus in Mack Wilberg’s wildly energetic arrangement of “Joy to the World.” Adding a welcome touch of childhood fantasy in their Christmassy red outfits, the TSO Children’s Chorus also sang well and charmingly. Their initial selection, a tenderly atmospheric arrangement of “All Through the Night,” was expressly written for them by Sara Graef, a distinguished California composer with a special fondness for Tupelo.
What most wowed the audience with its cleverness and demanding choral-orchestral musicianship, however, was Craig Courtney’s “A Musicological Journey Through the Twelve Days of Christmas.” Beginning with “A Partridge in a Pear Tree” sung in 6th-century Roman plainsong, each verse of this Yuletide favorite humorously recapped successive eras of Western music, through medieval polyphony, Renaissance, Baroque, classical, romantic, and ending with “Twelve Drummers Drumming” as a grand John Philip Sousa march.
Only one discordant note fleetingly derailed Maestro Byess’ exquisite holiday programming – the infamous Tupelo Train! Just as Byess strolled onstage after intermission, a wanton and all-too-familiar hog-bellow whistle wafted faintly through the hall, forcing the maestro to call a brief timeout. “It’s in the wrong key for our next selection,” he proclaimed with a broad grin, “so we’ll just have to wait.”
By program’s end – including “Sleigh Bells” as an encore – the old sweet sounds of Christmas had unmistakably worked their magic. Audience members gratefully applauded the musicians, conductor, ICC Chorus directors Karen Davis and Robert Taylor, plus TSO Children’s Chorus director Monica Roden Spencer for a Yuletide attitude adjustment so pleasantly agreeable. It’s a mood they doubtless would be happy to share.
Merry Christmas to all!