Review: Philharmonic Holidays!

Philharmonic Delivers Musical Holiday Gift

by: J. Kevin Butler, for The Republic – 12/12/18 7:29 PM

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On a cold December Saturday evening, the Columbus Indiana Philharmonic presented its annual concert, “Philharmonic Holidays” in the warm and toasty Clarence E. Robbins Auditorium. The concert was a unique holiday recipe of maestro David Bowden based on many traditional holiday ingredients, flavored by several outstanding soloists from the orchestra and topped off by an impressive performance by guest artist Justin John Moniz.

The concert began with two strong performances by the Philharmonic of Leroy Anderson’s “Sleigh Ride” and George Whitefield Chadwick’s “Noel” from Symphonic Sketches. The first, familiar to most audience members, was articulated crisply with a bright driving tempo which was contrasted by the slower, more sustained second selection. Both pieces highlighted the musical control of this large ensemble under the precise baton of Bowden with beautiful dynamic swells and appropriate variations of the timing of long musical phrases. With the Philharmonic proving itself as the main ingredient in Bowden’s recipe, the foundation for the evening was well established, but a few special flavors were about to be added.

In preparation for the next selection, three clarinetists — Samantha Johnson-Helms, Zachary Stump and Keith Northover — rose, donned Santa hats and began “Clarinet Candy” by Anderson. Similar to the better known “Bugler’s Holiday” by the same composer, the three displayed great technique and agility while performing this briskly paced, entertaining piece.

The audience responded with cheers and strong applause to this new flavor in the concert. This excitement spilled over into the introduction of guest artist Justin John Moniz and his dramatic performance of “Every Valley Shall Be Excited” from “Messiah” by George Frideric Handel. His voice was clear, bright and strong, easily heard over the appropriate Baroque articulation of Philharmonic musicians.

He then showcased his more lyric vocal quality in the beautiful “In the Bleak Midwinter” by Gustav Holst and arranged by Philharmonic member Daniel Powers. He concluded this section with the traditional “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” by Walter Kent, which featured a beautiful instrumental interlude and allowed Moniz to demonstrate his command of popular vocal styling.

The orchestra then performed the well known “Skater’s Waltz” by Emile Waldteufel, showcasing different sections of the orchestra creating a beautiful mix of sound delectably stirred by Bowden’s expressive conducting. Moniz returned to the stage for “Jingle Bells,” followed by “Hanukkah Medley,” arranged by Lucas Richman, where he displayed impressive diction and an appropriately tasteful style. The first act came to a close with Moniz and the Philharmonic turning up the heat on a subtly different arrangement of the traditional “Angels We Have Heard on High” by David Clydesdale, to which the audience responded with strong and sustained applause.

The second act opened with “Variations on an Old Noel,” with a theme based on the French carol, “Sing We Now of Christmas,” with seven variations by Marcel Samuel-Rousseau. Here, harpist Wendy Muston’s talent was delightfully and deliciously showcased in her delicate, yet commanding performance. The selection was a challenge in rhythmic precision for this large ensemble and Bowden worked diligently to keep all of the forces of the orchestra together while not overshadowing Muston.

His efforts, as well as those of Muston’s, were rewarded by a great audience response.

Symphonic movie scores have become a mainstay of today’s orchestral programming and the Philharmonic added this delectable element to its concert recipe with a lush and stirring arrangement of John Williams’ score to “Home Alone.” Described as one of Moniz’s favorite movies, his vocal addition to the arrangement was well performed athough occasionally covered by the orchestra.

His lyric tenor voice was poignantly emotional, which allowed the orchestra to run the full gamut from overwhelming power to amazingly quiet sensitivity. Bowden then skillfully programmed the audience sing-a-long to build upon this emotion of the moment, allowing the audience to enjoy its own moment of music making. What followed was a sweet but subtle addition to the concert recipe.

Featuring concertmaster Daniel Aizenshtadt, the orchestra performed the well known “Ave Maria” by Schubert-Wilhelmj in another arrangement by Powers. Aizenshtadt played with remarkable sensitivity and a quiet-but-assured emotion. Without great outward emotion, his violin seemed to sing the passion of the text and his bending of the tempo of each phrase in beautiful cohesiveness with Bowden was breathtaking. As the piece ended in stunning silence, the audience roared its approval.

With the holiday concert almost complete, Bowden applied the final icing to his musical concert cake by bringing back Moniz to perform the Christmas classic “White Christmas” by Irving Berlin and then a rather different choice for the holidays, “Bring Him Home,” from “Les Miserables” by Schonberg. His performance was mesmerizing as he demonstrated his great vocal control, which allowed him to fully explore the emotional gamut of the piece.

The Philharmonic was also up to the task and was equally expressive but not overpowering. The holiday treat was officially wrapped up as Moniz and the orchestra performed a moving and powerful rendition of the Christmas classic, “O Holy Night,” with Moniz displaying the full range and power of his tenor voice. As the audience slowly rose to its feet with stirring applause, the Philharmonic under Bowden’s leadership took a well-deserved bow for another holiday musical treat given to the community of Columbus.

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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