By John Farrell
For once the fickle Southern California weather cooperated. The night was unusually cold and the nearly full moon, making its closest pass to Earth in sixteen years, shone out brightly.
The event it helped celebrate was “Christmas with the Maestro,” this year’s version of the California Philharmonic’s annual holiday concert, held last Saturday in the Pasadena Civic Auditorium just across from the lights and decorations of Paseo Colorado.
The location is important, because this was the second concert the Cal Phil has presented in its new Fall and Winter home, and the fact that the Civic holds more than twice the audience than Ambassador Auditorium changes the performance dynamics.
Not for the orchestra, which can play louder if needed and can adjust to the Civic’s drier acoustics. The change is largely one for that “Maestro” in the concert’s title, Victor Vener, founder and music director of the Cal Phil, whose skill with the baton may well be overmatched by his skill as raconteur and musical cheerleader.
Case in point: singing along with the “Hallelujah” chorus of Handel’s “Messiah” has become a part of the Cal Phil tradition. (It apparently originated with the Los Angeles Master Chorale many years ago.) At Ambassador volunteers were invited down towards the stage and sang up close and personal. At the Civic, a very much bigger place, such an invitation was impracticable.
Vener managed that problem by getting the whole audience to its feet for the sing along, those with the score in their hands and those who just managed “hallelujahs” and la-la-la-ed the rest. The result wasn’t great music, but everyone seemed happy and inspired
The program reflected Vener’s usually eclecticism, moving from Leroy Anderson to Mozart, from the required Tchaikovsky to Handel with an encore by John Williams and a big helping of the operatic Engelbert Humperdinck.
Carrying a good deal of the operatic weight was Angel Blue, the young and rising young soprano whose extraordinary voice is matched only by her beauty-queen good looks and a warm personality that projects itself to the back of the auditorium. Her version of Mozart’s “alleluia” from his “Exultate Jubilate” was doubly amazing. Blue’s voice is powerful but still youthful and fresh, bringing much joy to Mozart’s celebrated vocal line. She managed much more than vocal fireworks, expressively giving the one word in the work (it is repeated many times) all her acting skill, expressing with voice, darting glances and body language a variety of meaning far beyond the musical. She returned at the concert’s end to sing “O mio babbino caro” from Puccini’s “Gianni Schicchi,” not a Christmas song at all but, as Vener said, a chance for her to be heard one more time.
Humperdinck’ opera “Hansel and Gretel” isn’t quite a Christmas story either, but it is a charming work, and Vener presented it in a reduced version, sans witch but with Blue as the Sand Fairy, soprano Emily Dyer as Gretel and mezzo soprano Clare Snodgrass as Hansel. The latter two are winners of the California Philharmonic’s Young Artist Performance Award. Snodgrass is 18 and Dyer 16, but they performed like troupers, in simple but effective costumes and without props. The Cal Phil Children’s Chorale provided support under the direction of Chorus Master Marya Basaraba, with Basaraba doubling as Hansel and Gretel’s mother and baritone Craig Coclough as their father.
Three selections from Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker,” played with a little rust, provided the requisite balletic detail. The evening opened with Anderson’s arrangement of Christmas carols called “A Christmas festival,” which also seemed a bit rusty. But the finale, that composer’s fabulous orchestral piece “A Sleigh Ride,” was perfectly on point.
Two carols written by film composer Williams for the two “Home Alone” films were offered as a mid-concert encore, and proved, as always, to be crowd pleasers. The Cal Phil Chorale made an effective entrance with electric candles into the darkened hall, and Santa Claus made his regular stop.
After the concert families and groups of friends lingered in the Civic lobby, having their pictures taken with Santa and reluctant to go home. It wasn’t the cold weather, but the warmth of the event, that kept them around.
This article appeared in the Pasadena Star News, San Gabriel Valley Tribune and Whittier Daily News on Friday, December 19, 2008