Review: Home for the Holidays with Marja Harmon

Philharmonic, soloist, chorus offer holiday delights

As Santa Claus greeted members of the audience at the beginning of the Columbus Indiana Philharmonic’s “Home for the Holidays” concert Saturday, he carried with him a small bag of presents. Fortunately for the audience, the Philharmonic delivered a large bag of musical presents that delighted the audience, young and old, with something for everyone on a cold, snowy Saturday afternoon.

The first was wrapped in shiny white paper with a beautiful red bow — the orchestra itself. Playing the traditional favorite “Sleigh Ride” by Leroy Anderson, the Philharmonic displayed its robust sound and outstanding balance between the individual sections of the orchestra enhanced by Maestro David Bowden’s clever placement of certain sections on elevated platforms.

This was further emphasized in the exquisite rendition of “Russian Christmas Music” by Alfred Reed and orchestrated by Clark McAlister, showcasing the control of the musicians in the orchestra on extended crescendos and long musical phrases. The performance of the brass and horn section was of particular note.

The second present was wrapped in ocean blue paper and a brilliant red, white and blue bow and came in the form of the beautiful singing of the Philharmonic Chorus. Singing the plainchant “Of the Father’s Love Begotten” from the aisles around the auditorium, the tone of the chorus was resonant and pure though slightly marred by some moments of a lack of togetherness due to the distance between the singers. Moving to the front of the stage and in front of the orchestra, the chorus moved musically across the Atlantic Ocean to Great Britain and the choral music of English composer John Rutter.

Singing three of his well known Christmas pieces, “The Very Best Time of Year,” “What Sweeter Music” and Shepherd’s Pipe Carol,” the chorus sang with stylistic English choral restraint and a clear, well-supported soft tone. Some words were lost due to balance with the orchestra in these pieces and also in the selection that followed, “A Musicological Journey Through the Twelve Days of Christmas” by American composer Craig Courtney.

Setting the traditional carol in varying musical styles through the centuries, the piece evoked many chuckles from the audience and came complete with a “Christmas flag” descending from the rafters during the Sousa march-like 12th-day finale.

The final present of the first act was wrapped in beautiful blue with the introduction of Columbus native and current Broadway performer Marja Harmon, who joined the chorus in the singing of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” by Walter Kent, arranged by James D. Ployhar. Making a grand entrance and quickly taking command of the stage, it was easy to hear the emotion in her voice as she explained how special it was for her to come home to sing this concert with the Philharmonic for the holidays.

The first act finale, “O Holy Night,” by A. Adam and arranged by Camp Kirkland and Tom Fettke, showcased the blues vocal stylings of Harmon, which was well supported by the Philharmonic chorus as her backup singers and by the full rich orchestral sound of the orchestra, and then enthusiastically acknowledged by the sustained applause of those in attendance.

The first present of the second act was delivered by Santa himself as he led the children in the audience in a Christmas parade around the auditorium as the Philharmonic played “Parade of the Wooden Soldiers” by Leon Jessel and arranged by Dan Powers. Vigorously conducted by Bowden, when he wasn’t leading the clapping of the audience, the Philharmonic gave a delightful rendition of this traditional Christmas favorite.

With Santa’s help the orchestra then performed “The Typewriter,” also by Leroy Anderson. Although not a traditional Christmas piece, Santa’s overly enthusiastic typewriter performance complete with sticking keys brought cheers from the audience.

The next present was again Harmon, this time all wrapped in her silvery smooth vocal style as she sang “(There’s No Place Like) Home for the Holidays” by Robert Allen and “The Christmas Song” (“Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire”) by Mel Torme. With beautiful diction and a seemingly effortless delivery, Harmon commanded the rapt attention of the audience and was extremely well supported by her musicians, highlighted by Tim Stephenson on the Shigeru Kawai piano and Tom Lego on drums.

Based on their applause, the audience obviously wanted more of this shiny silver bauble, but the Philharmonic moved on to “Festive Sounds of Hanukah” by Bill Holcombe and to one of the most musical and moving moments of the concert, the “Stille Nacht” arrangement by Chip David. Simple in design but almost overwhelmingly haunting in the beauty of its simplicity, the piece featured solos by Cameron Collins on cello, Tim Stephenson on piano, concertmaster Alan Snow on violin and strongly supported by principal trumpet, Eddie Ludema, playing harpsichord and electric piano on a synthesizer.

The piece ended with one percussionist playing the instrumental jingle bells as he slowly walked off stage and conductor Bowden holding the silence that followed until he slowly lowered his baton and the audience broke out with cheers and thunderous applause.

The next present came in the form of a golden tenor saxophone played by the winner of the 2017 Betty F. Brown Award for Instrumental Excellence, Clayton Stine. His jazzy rendition of “White Christmas” by Irving Berlin showcased his warm rich tone and impeccable intonation.

By now the presents were piling up as Harmon returned to the stage and belted her way through “Let It Go” from Disney’s “Frozen.” It was a remarkable rendition and received a well-deserved standing ovation. Followed by the collaboration of Stine and Harmon on “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane, then joined by the Philharmonic Chorus on “Night of Silence” by Daniel Kantor, the concert came to an end with the traditional “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” by Arthur Harris.

J. Kevin Butler is a graduate of the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music and was a high school choral director for more than 20 years. He is currently director of music for the First United Methodist Church of Columbus.

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