Neither the First nor the Last ‘Noel Noel’ at The Rady Shell

The San Diego Symphony opened its traditional holiday extravaganza Noel Noel Friday at the Rady Shell. Under the baton of guest conductor Christopher Dragon and buoyed by its customary co-conspirators the San Diego Master Chorale and the San Diego Children’s Choir, the orchestra served up a frothy wassail bowl of Christmas songs from the Great American Songbook and more recent Broadway hits. The program ranged from those usual suspects, Irving Berlin’s cloying “White Christmas” and LeRoy Anderson’s whip-cracking “Sleigh Ride,” to Alan Silvestri’s 2005 Grammy-winning song “Believe” from The Polar Express.

Devin DeSantis [photo courtesy of the San Diego Symphony]

But the star of the show turned out to be vocalist Devin DeSantis. The combination of his ample baritone’s vocal warmth and prowess with his wry sense of humor refreshed and reclaimed a holiday repertory that has become threadbare by overexposure. Arranger Gary Fry’s “Holy Night of Angels” cloaks Adolphe Adam’s “Cantique de Noël” (“O Holy Night”) in darker, unusually probing orchestral harmonies and merges it with another familiar French carol “Angels We Have Heard on High.” DeSantis’ expansive baritone allowed him to craft a deftly paced, compelling “O Holy Night” without turning it into a long-lost Puccini aria, and the Master Chorale complemented his artistry with ebullient iterations of the carol’s “Gloria in excelsis Deo” refrain.

Gary Fry’s sumptuous, descriptive orchestral accompaniment for “’Twas the Night Before Christmas” presents the entire Clement Clark Moore poem A Visit from St. Nicholas as a sprightly vocal recitative, which DeSantis delivered with consummate dramatic flair. Since Fry has been the Chicago Symphony’s longstanding arranger for its annual Christmas concerts and DeSantis has flourished on Chicago’s musical theater stages, I would be surprised if this was his first take performing Fry’s holiday repertory.

For settings of familiar carols, Music Director John K. Russell’s San Diego Master Chorale came through with Ukrainian composer Mykola Leontovich’s “Carol of the Bells” and Mark Hayes’ clever jazz version of the ubiquitous “Jingle Bells.” Concertmaster Jeff Thayer provided a suave solo in the arrangement of the Ukrainian bell carol.

Though modest in number compared to the Master Chorale, Music Director Ruthie Millgard’s San Diego Children’s Choir’s bright voices, immaculate intonation, and pellucid pronunciation held their ground persuasively in  both “Do You Hear What I Hear?” and their witty account of “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” from the Albert Hague musical The Grinch Who Stole Christmas.

Under Dragon’s adroit, athletic direction the orchestra provided shimmering festive collaboration to this holiday celebration. Kudos to Horn Principal Benjamin Jaber and his section for their unfailingly resplendent descants and to guest drummer David Whitman whose sleek work on the drum kit gave these holiday favorites their sharp percussive edge.

A short skit involving eight youngsters in search of the real Santa Claus directed by Jonathan Gilmer made this event at the Rady Shell more family friendly.

This concert was presented by the San Diego Symphony at the Rady Shell at Jacobs Park on San Diego Bay on December 15, 2023. The program will be repeated in the same venue December 16 & 17, 2023.

1 Comment

  1. KMW on December 20, 2023 at 10:18 am

    “[A] deftly paced, compelling “O Holy Night” without turning it into a long-lost Puccini aria,…”

    Good one.

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