Summary for the Busy Executive: Snap, crackle, pop!
A live Christmas concert CD of the Brass Band of Battle Creek, Michigan, home of Kellogg's Frosted Flakes and Pop-Tarts. Christmas is my favorite musical season, but if I never hear Jingle Bells, Rudolph, Frosty, or par-rum-pum-pum-pum again, my quality of life (and death) will significantly improve.
Christmas music falls into three broad categories: folk traditions, intense mysticism, and music consistent with the joys of overeating. This CD stresses the last. The band, made up of amateurs who have real jobs, is really good, a tribute to the school band tradition in the States. There are the rare fluffs and ragged rhythms, but unless you really listen, you can easily miss them.
The program is for me a mixed bag. Jeff Tyzik's Christmas Overture dresses "Deck the Halls" in a rackful of different costumes, including the Copland cowboy and the Stravinsky firebird. My bêtes noirs – Rudolph and Frosty – get spiffy arrangements reminiscent of "swinging" scores to Sixties "swinging" pictures or to old 77 Sunset Strip episodes. I don't particularly care for the idiom, but I admit the quality of the arrangements and the dash of the performances. Frosty gets turned into a virtuoso concertante piece complete with hair-raising cadenza, an equivalent of the cornettist's Carnival of Venice, for bass trombonist, the appropriately named Mark Frost, who looks calmly at its high hurdles and not only clears them, but laughs as he sails over. His performance lifts the Curse of Frosty. Handel's "For unto us" shines like … well, like polished brass. The Leontovich arrangement is good, but I much prefer the standard choral version. If you can find the Robert Shaw Chorale performance on old RCA, snap it up.
Motown Jingle Bells held the most promise for me until I heard it. I love classic Motown, but this arrangement, despite its inclusion of well-known Motown ostinato riffs, is still 77 Sunset Strip soundtrack rather than the Funk Brothers. Things pick up with Herbert's "March of the Toys." "O Holy Night" features the solo euphonium Steven Mead sweetly crooning the angel's Good News. The sturdy hymn "Angels from the realms of glory" sounds forth in a tasteful and mostly restrained arrangement, until we hit the end and we get a Cinerama-Technicolor extravaganza of chromo'd clouds, just in case you didn't understand what "glory" meant.
We end on Leroy Anderson's classic A Christmas Festival, a medley of well-known carols arranged by one of America's masters of pops. James Wood provides a marvelously effective transcription for band, but, if you haven't already, you really do need to hear the original. Anderson was an inspired orchestrator as well as a solid, reliable purveyor of catchy tunes. Naxos has issued (yet another!) series of Anderson's complete orchestral music with Leonard Slatkin leading the BBC Concert Orchestra. See Robert Cummings's review of Volume 4 (Naxos 8.559381). If you can find it, try Arthur Fiedler conducting the Boston Pops, Anderson's primary champions.
The group is good, the soloists wonderful, the arrangements mostly effective. Overall, I enjoyed myself. The only complaint I have is there wasn't enough. This CD runs shy of forty minutes, although it's offered at less than full price. Still, when can you indulge, if not at Christmas?
Copyright © 2012, Steve Schwartz.