By John Zeugner
Published December 17, 2007 , Worcester Telegram & Gazette
FITCHBURG – There’s a mild temptation to play the Grinch about Christmas music. Hell might consist of being eternally in an elevator and subjected to an endless tape of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” but the way the Thayer Symphony Orchestra and the Salisbury Singers spun out the traditional Christmas Pops concert Saturday night was a sweet reminder that such music is not about nuance, but about community building and tradition sanctification.
The sold-out concert, even to the extent of extra seats on the side of the stage at the packed Dukakis Center at the Montachusett Regional Vocational Technical School, was ample evidence how valuable institutions like the Thayer and Salisbury groups are to maintaining traditions and granting near familial coherence to our atomized, consumerist world. And Thayer Conductor Toshimasa Francis Wada is the perfect spirit to preside over such magic. Always energetic, always charismatic, he was unfailingly gracious and beguiling, whet! her introducing the music or bantering with this year’s “special conductor” for one orchestral piece. The victim conductor was Paul Rogers who countered by thanking Wada’s alleged “cousin” Dice-K for some Red Sox tickets, and then, with swaying frenzy, led the orchestra through Leroy Anderson’s “Sleigh Ride.”
The program highlighted the talent of several local musicians. Allan Mueller composed the opening piece, “Germantown Christmas Festival Overture,” incorporating several well-known carols. Mueller also arranged the third piece, “Christmas in Killarney,” and the fifth piece, a swing version of “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town,” and he did splendid keyboard work throughout the entire concert. Flutist April Showers and Harpist Greta Asgeirsson wove an enthralling version of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “Fantasia on Greensleeves.”
After the intermission the Salisbury Singers joined in for a rousing “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” and then for the purest musical delight of the evening, Craig Courtney’s ingenious staging of “Twelve Days of Christmas,” each verse presenting a specific style of composition from Gregorian chant to Tchaikovsky excess.
The Salisbury Singers usual conductor, Dr. Michelle Graveline, then took over to lead the chorus and orchestra through a bevy of holiday favorites, including the dreaded “Rudolph.”
Wada returned to lead John Rutter’s arrangement of “Go Tell it on the Mountain,” as well as a medley called “Christmas on Broadway” and yet another Mueller orchestration of songs from the recent film “A Polar Express.” The concert concluded with the anticipated audience singalong: Bob Cerulli’s arrangement of several favorites including, once more, the “Rudolph” punishment, and ending with “I’ll be Home for Christmas.” A clearly delighted audience stood applauding, and Wada and the Thayer Symphony and Salisbury Singers obliged with a sumptuous and Grinch-obliterating encore of Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus.”