San Diego Symphony Salutes the Holiday Season with Two Programs of Jazz and Traditional Carols

Copley Symphony Hall has been dark since mid-March, but to offer some sorely needed musical Christmas cheer, the San Diego Symphony used the hall as a sound stage to stream online a pair of beautifully produced holiday specials. On Friday, December 18, the Symphony revived its traditional “Noël, Noël” format, collaborating with musicians from the San Diego Master Chorale and the San Diego Children’s Choir and a lead dancer from San Diego Ballet, for a fast-paced, family oriented Christmas music potpourri. And Sunday night, December 20, the Symphony’s Jazz Series Curator Gilbert Castellanos and three equally accomplished jazz colleagues served up an hour of sophisticated jazz arrangements of well-known holiday songs.

Jason Mraz [photo (c.) Jen Rosenstein]

On Friday, Broadway actor and La Jolla Playhouse favorite Storm Lever served the dual role of guest vocalist and host. In a jazzy arrangement for strings, piano, and percussion of the African-American spiritual “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” Lever’s stylish energy and gospel music overtones opened the program with ample flair. I enjoyed her more low-key approach to Gene Scheer’s “Christmas Once More,” a deftly nostalgic holiday reflection commissioned in 2003 by the Chicago Symphony. Although Sheer is better known as a librettist—he wrote the libretto for Jake Heggie’s opera Moby-Dick—his song proved quite moving, especially with Lever’s persuasive insinuation of confessional torch song intimacy.

The advanced treble singers of the San Diego Children’s Choir under the direction of Ruthie Millgard brought their clear tones and astute discipline to “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” ably assisted by accompanist Adam Ferrara. And they buoyantly propelled the closing medley, James Stephenson’s “Holly Jolly Sing-Along” either on their own or backing up Storm Lever. Singers from the San Diego Master Chorale under John Russell gave a stirring account of Shawn Kirchner’s choral version on the Epiphany carol “Brightest and Best of the Sons of the Morning,” energized by pianist Bryan Verhoye’s adroit account of Kirchner’s vigorous accompaniment that cleverly simulates the athletic figurations of a traditional Appalachian fiddler. Russell’s singers also suavely navigated John Rutter’s lush if overwrought a cappella arrangement of “Silent Night.”

Grammy Award winning singer-songwriter Jason Mraz’s gentle croon proved the right vocal approach for Gary Fry’s musical setting of “’Twas the Night Before Christmas” for orchestra and vocal soloist, indulging the poetry’s whimsy and keeping the dramatic impulse fresh throughout its well-worn images and predictable dramatic twists.

Principal Dancer of the California Ballet Reka Gyulai engaged the length and breadth of the entire Copley Symphony Hall stage for her graceful and compelling “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” from Tchaikovsky’s ballet The Nutcracker, performed with effervescent elan by the symphony under the leadership of guest conductor Timothy Semanik.

At Sunday’s I’ll Be Jazzed for Christmas concert on the Copley Symphony Hall stage, trumpeter Gilbert Castellanos’ virtuoso improvisations spun pure gold out of the dross of J. Fred Coots’ too-cute Depression era pop tune “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.” Each of his cohorts—pianist Joshua White, bassist John Murray, and percussionist Tyler Kreutal—took a turn cleverly elevating the catchy holiday song to empyrean heights.

White’s complex chordal progressions gave John H. Hopkins’ stately Epiphany hymn “We Three Kings” a brazenly powerful, regal, oriental cast without resorting to the usual augmented second cliches, and Castellanos’ bright staccato iterations of the hymn’s phrases increased the drive of this bold jazz fantasia. White and Castellanos each gave a more relaxed, conversational air to Jule Styne’s evergreen “Let It Snow” from 1945.

Vince Guaraldi’s “Christmas Time Is Here,” written for the 1965 animated television special A Charlie Brown Christmas, needs no jazz transformation, but this quartet methodically and fiercely deconstructed the song before returning it to its deft, piano lounge moorings. White’s elegant, fluid touch and sophisticated dynamic palette were complemented by Murray’s deft pizzicatos and Kreutal’s gently brushed percussion strokes.

Ignoring the homesick subtext of the popular World War II song “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” the quartet transformed Walter Kent’s wistful melody into a decidedly upbeat, free-wheeling production with Castellanos belting a high-octane account of the theme and White interpolating brashly inventive extensions on the Steinway. A thrilling ride, if a bit incongruous to the lyrics. Castellanos found a more mellow approach for Irving Berlin’s sentimental “White Christmas,” from the same era, although White managed to provide tongue-in-cheek counterpoint echoing Berlin’s melody in spicy major-second clusters.

The quartet capped its impressive program with “Winter Wonderland,” allowing each player to flaunt their fleet ornaments and diversions on Felix Bernard’s endearing picture of Christmas weather Southern California residents can only dream about.

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