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Music review: DSSO holiday concert offers skilled performances but narrow focus

Artwork from www.dsso.com

The Duluth Superior Symphony Orchestra launched into its first pops concert of the season with “Home for the Holidays” Saturday afternoon at Symphony Hall. The color palette outside was slate gray, but inside the hall, Lyric Opera of the North set the stage with twinkling Christmas trees. Whimsical candy canes and other traditional Christmas season decorations were suspended from the fly loft above for a feeling of drama that would support the guest artists from the opera and Twin Ports Tenors.

The house was full, and an appreciative audience took in the heavily traditional itinerary, opening up with the familiar notes of “Sleigh Ride,” written by American composer Leroy Anderson and first recorded by the Boston Pops in 1949 to tremendous acclaim. It’s not difficult to understand why it’s so popular with its upbeat tempo.

Sopranos Jennifer LeDoux and Alice Pierce joined tenors William Bastian, Marcus McConico, Calland Metts and John Charles Pierce for much of the program, lending their voices to a trio of melodies familiar to any fan of the movie “Home Alone.” The strength of their impressive vocalizations was a definitive ornament to the itinerary for the concert. Pierce and Metts, especially, have dramatic tones that sound almost barrel-aged, while Pierce is an exceptionally versatile soprano, adding immense depth to her solo performance of “I Wonder as I Wander,” a Christian folk melody in the second half of the concert.

There were moments of comedic exuberance, with all four voices performing a holiday pops favorite, “The Twelve Gifts of Christmas.” What makes this selection extraordinary is its tribute to instruments. It embraces and lifts up every section of the symphonic orchestra in a celebration of music, set to the theme of the instantly recognizable “Twelve Days of Christmas.”  Clarinets, French horns, cellos, strings and so on get their own nods with the added treat of snippets of classical compositions — Beethoven’s Fifth, Brahms’ First, Tchaikovsky’s Fourth, and even the solemn intonation of Westminster Chimes, all exquisitely rendered by the musicians of the orchestra. The timing was brisk and tight, preserving the essential humor of the piece.

After intermission, there was a slight — but ultimately misleading — nod to multiculturalism in Steve Cohen's arrangement, “A Klezmer Nutcracker,” originally commissioned in 2011 by the New York Pops. Klezmer music is a tradition of the Jews of Eastern Europe. Its instrumentation is highly emotionally expressive and quintessentially Jewish. Concertmaster Erin Aldridge’s treatment of the opening notes was mesmerizing and almost vocal on its own. I only wish that the use of Klezmer had reflected a Jewish folk composition or something related to Hanukkah. It’s an unfortunate loss that the richness of this particular cultural music wasn’t featured more throughout the program. Equally missing was a recognition of any other minority culture tradition or more contemporary Christmas selections that celebrate the overwhelmingly secular enjoyments of the season more accessible to more people.

Holidays take on meanings distinct across cultures. In the 21st century, a holiday concert, if we’re going to use the generic term “holiday” in its most inclusive sense, should feature a selection of music meaningful to more traditions than just the Christian canon.

The DSSO’s holiday pops concert was at times overtly religious, where lyrics like “God and sinners reconcile,” can strike jarringly to the ear of those not identifying as Christian. Many of us have adapted our ears to the overwhelming presence of religious notes in a holiday season heavily bending to one religious faith, but if we’re going to use terminology like “holiday,” we owe it to other cultures to help them find their places, too, in the music.

There’s no doubt about the tremendous beauty and power of the voices and instruments that filled Symphony Hall on Saturday afternoon. But perhaps it’s time to apply the majesty of the music to a more diverse and inclusive repertoire in future concerts.

Dennis Kempton is a Duluth arts and culture writer.

EDITOR'S NOTE: A previously published version of this review misidentified the arranger of "A Klezmer Nutcracker," based on information from the DSSO program. Steve Cohen arranged the piece, based on Tchaikovsky’s composition. Robert Wendel is the publisher.

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