San Diego Symphony and Choral Ensembles Toast the Season with ‘Noel Noel’ at the Rady Shell

Under guest conductor Christopher Dragon, the San Diego Symphony opened this season’s edition of its annual holiday fête, Noel Noel, Friday at the Rady Shell. With the requisite assistance of the San Diego Master Chorale and a select ensemble from the San Diego Children’s Choir, this program offered a generous selection of secular holiday songs and traditional Christmas carols in more imaginative musical settings than the homogenized Muzak versions that drone on in the background of mall department stores.

The Rady Shell in holiday mode [photo (c.) Gary Payne Photography]

If I may riff on the failed prediction made by a certain Texas politician, this year’s Noel Noel programming presented what could be called a tsunami of medleys. Several of these holiday medleys were arranged and orchestrated by Gary Fry, an accomplished American composer who has provided music for the Chicago Symphony’s Christmas programs for nearly two decades.

The Master Chorale and orchestra opened with Fry’s “A Merry Old Christmas,” a clever medley that toyed with the traditional British carols “Deck the Hall” and “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” expanding their welcoming cheer with brassy fanfares and the muscle of the full orchestra. Later in the program Dragon led orchestra and chorus in Fry’s upbeat collage of Christmas fare from the Great American Songbook: “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas,” “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” “Let It Snow,” “Walking in a Winter Wonderland,” and “Frosty the Snowman.”

Kelly Pendergast’s light, supple soprano proved a wise choice we for Fry’s original setting of Clement Clark Moore’s iconic holiday poem “’Twas the Night Before Christmas.” If someone were to make successful musical out of Moore’s Christmas Eve scena, it would no doubt sound like Fry’s charming song for vocalist and orchestra.

Friday’s fare favored American music. In addition to Fry’s music we heard Leroy Anderson’s unavoidable “Sleigh Ride,” Eric Whitacre’s neo- impressionist a cappella “Glow” conducted by Master Chorale Music Director John K. Russell, as well as two selections from John Williams’ score for the 1990 box office smash hit Home Alone.

From the international repertory I particularly enjoyed “Los peces en el rio,” a lively Spanish villancico confidently sung by the Children’s Choir (Ruthie Millgard, Director), and the orchestra’s rousing arrangement of “Carol of the Bells,” originally a Ukrainian spring carol that changed seasons when it was given a new English text by a Ukrainian touring North America exactly 100 years ago—as our local NPR ration station has been telling us for the last week.

Although Adolphe Adam’s “Cantique de Noël” (“O Holy Night”) typically provides a star turn for a soprano, Concertmaster Jeff Thayer played the familiar theme with tasteful ornamentation in an subtle arrangement that accompanied the soloist with muted strings and harp.

This concert was presented by the San Diego Symphony at The Rady Shell at Jacobs Park on Friday, December 9, 2022. It will be repeated at the same venue December 10 & 11.

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