For the record, we did not hear “Little Drummer Boy” at the San Diego Symphony’s program Noël, Noël at The Rady Shell on Friday. But it may have been the only familiar holiday song not performed or referenced in the orchestra’s sleekly re-imagined annual Christmas concert, presented for the first time at The Rady Shell at Jacobs Park.
To assist with this musical extravaganza, the orchestra rounded up the usual suspects—the San Diego Master Chorale, John K. Russell, Music Director, and the San Diego Children’s Choir, Ruthie Millgard, Artistic Director—as well as guest singers Bryan Barbarin, Mikaela Macias, and Jonah C. Orona in a skit devised by Maybelle Reynoso.
Under the baton of guest conductor Ted Sperling, the symphony accompanied the vocal ensembles and offered its own instrumental medleys of seasonal fare, starting with Christmas Overture, a spirited collection that ran the gamut from the French noël “Il est né” and Polish lullaby “W Złobie Leży” to the secular standards of “Deck the Hall” and “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” Sperling, a polished conductor who kept his wide array of musicians in the Rady Shell in assured alignment, bragged that earlier in the week he had conducted his own New York City musical ensemble, MasterVoices, in Carnegie Hall, although he did not mention that his singers performed Leonard Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms on that program. Nothing quite that challenging appeared on Noël, Noël, although the performance level of the San Diego groups would have appropriately graced Carnegie Hall.
Saluting the secular side of the season, the Master Chorale’s “We Need a Little Christmas” from Jerry Herman’s 1966 Broadway musical Mame brought convivial energy to the program, while the Chorale’s a cappella “White Christmas,” an understated chromatic arrangement conducted by John Russell, aptly evoked the season’s nostalgia. The Master Chorale offered music from Hispanic traditions to recount the traditional Nativity story, from the Venezuelan carol “La jornada” that depicted the journey of the Holy Family to Bethlehem, to the Catalan Nativity serenade “El cant dels ocels” a haunting modal theme made famous as a favored encore by the noted mid 20th-century Catalan cellist Pablo Casals, to the traditional Puerto Rican carol “De Tierra lejana venimos,” another beguiling minor-mode song about the legendary Magi.
As the evening’s high-spirited emcee, actor and stalwart bass Bryan Barbarin provided the narrative that kept the 90-minute program moving, and he introduced a skit in involving a New York teen-ager, played by Mikaela Macias, stranded in sunny San Diego but missing the holiday weather and bustle of the Big Apple.
Macias’ winning account of the song “Where Are You Christmas?” cued members of the San Diego Children’s Choir to come onstage and sing another Spanish language carol, “El burrito sabanero,” as well as “Noche de Paz,” the Spanish version of “Silent Night.” From their height and confident stage presence, the young singers appeared to be teenagers from the Youth Choir division of the San Diego Children’s Choir, and their vocal prowess lived up to the choir’s high standards.
All of the participants on stage combined for a rousing grand finale, the Christmas ballad “The Song in Our Hearts.”
This program, Noël, Noël at the Rady Shell was presented by the San Diego Symphony on December 10, and will be repeated at the Rady Shell at Jacobs Park on Dec. 11 and 12. Additional holiday programming by the San Diego Symphony includes ‘The Muppet Christmas Carol’ on December 18 and ‘Disney’s Frozen in Concert’ on December 22. All of these events at The Rady Shell will commence at 5:00 p.m.