by Jane Rausch
As the familiar song observes, “There’s no place like home for the holidays,” and this afternoon the Holyoke Civic Symphony invites its audience to stay close to home and celebrate “A Child’s Christmas in Holyoke.” This special concert blends old and new holiday favorites, some of which have a distinctly local connection.
That the observance of Christmas is universal is reflected in Around the World at Christmas Time, arranged by Bruce Chase who was a direct descendant of Aquila Chase, a Massachusetts Bay colonist and co-founder of Newbury, Massachusetts. He was also related to Salmon Portland Chase, the Secretary of the Treasury under Lincoln, and later Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and for whom the Chase Bank is named. Bruce Chase was a musician and composer who often conducted the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra. The selections in this medley include traditional carols from Germany – “O Tannenbaum”; Poland – “Infant Holy Infant Lowly”; England – “What Child is This”; Sicily – “O Sanctissima”; Southern France – “Whence Comes This Rush of Wings”; the African American spiritual, “Go Tell It on the Mountain”, and a nod to the Jewish holiday with the traditional “Hanukkah Song.”
Springfield native Theodor Geisel, a.k.a. Dr. Seuss, was already a popular author of children’s books when he published How the Grinch Stole Christmas in 1957, a cautionary tale debunking the commercialization of Christmas with rhymed verse and illustrations by the author. Nine years later a screenplay written by Seuss and animated by Chuck Jones, with Albert Hague’s score arranged by Jerry Brubaker, transformed the Grinch into a TV special. Since its first airing on CBS in 1966, the film, much like Charles Schulz’s A Charlie Brown Christmas, has become a holiday tradition.
The Grinch, once described as “the best Christmas-cad since Scrooge,” lives in a cave on top of Mount Crumpit, just north of Whoville, home of the warm, fuzzy Whos. He and his dog Max hear the Christmas festivities taking place in Whoville. The Grinch is so bitter, he plots to go into town and take away the Whos’ happiness by making off with their Christmas presents and decorations. Despite his efforts, however, the holiday arrives. When the Grinch hears that the Whos, bereft of their presents, are still celebrating the day with joyous songs, he realizes that Christmas is more than just gifts and trimmings. Touched by this awareness, his heart “grows three sizes larger.” He returns all the presents and trimmings and is warmly welcomed into the Whos’ community.
Jerry Brubaker served for 30 years in the U.S. Navy Band as a French horn soloist and has published over 200 works for band, chorus, and symphony orchestra. His arrangement for Grinch begins with a bluesy, nasty version of “You’re a Mean One, Mister Grinch.” It then moves into the happier, more hopeful “He Carves the Roast Beast” and “Welcome Christmas.” As in the original story, the Grinch is transformed by the end of the piece, and all is well once again on the mountaintop.
Composer, songwriter, and conductor George Kleinsinger graduated from New York University and studied music at Juilliard with Frederick Jacobi and Bernard Wagenaar. In the 1930s he was a music director at Civilian Conservation Corps camps and a music supervisor with the 2nd Service Command, ASF during World War II. In 1941, just one week after the attack on Pearl Harbor, a tuba player observed, after an orchestra had performed Kleinsinger’s first musical piece, “You know, tubas can sing too.” That very night Kleinsinger’s collaborator, Paul Tripp, wrote a story about how a tuba found a melody to play, and later he and Kleinsinger translated the story into music. The finished work, combining narration with orchestration in the manner of Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, premiered in 1946.
The story of Tubby and all his friends – including Peepo the Piccolo and the Bullfrog – was an instant success, acclaimed not only by tuba players but also by audiences around the world. The piece has been translated into more than 30 languages, made into two films, and narrated by a galaxy of stars. In 2006 Tubby the Tuba was enshrined in the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry as one of the landmarks in American audio history. The HCS performance of this children’s classic features Holyoke’s State Senator Don Humason as narrator and Joe Hoye as tuba soloist.
Except for a few brief visits home, Sergei Prokofiev spent some fifteen years in the West following the Russian revolution. Finally, impelled by homesickness, Communist party blandishments, and a long-frustrated need to reclaim his artistic roots, he established permanent residence in the USSR in 1936. One of the incentives for his return was a commission to provide a score for the movie Lieutenant Kijé. The broad satirical humor of its story appealed strongly to Prokofiev who wrote the music for the film and then adapted the score into a five-movement suite. Along with Peter and the Wolf it ranks as one of his most popular works. On today’s program is the suite’s fourth movement, “Troika,” which portrays Kijé and his bride on a wild, post-nuptial sleigh ride. Prokofiev really ramps up the excitement here with delightful orchestral color employing strings, percussion with sleigh bells that occasionally give way to a horn and cello bawling out a rakish Cossack song. The movement is frequently used in films and documentaries for Christmas scenes and scenes involving snow.
The poem alternately titled, “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” “The Night before Christmas,” and “’Twas the Night before Christmas” (the latter from its first line), was published anonymously in 1823 but widely attributed to Clement Clarke Moore who included it in a book of his poetry in 1844. Before this poem came on the scene, American notions about Old St. Nick were vague, but the image created of him by Moore’s words has ruled our conception of Santa since the mid-nineteenth century.
In the 1980s the Philadelphia Pops Orchestra conducted by Peter Nero commissioned composer Bill Holcombe to create a musical setting for Moore’s poem designed to feature the Phillies’ star pitcher Tug McGraw as narrator. Since the Holcombe arrangement’s premiere, many orchestras have included it in their holiday programs, inviting a prominent citizen to serve as narrator. This afternoon we are privileged to have Holyoke’s State Senator Don Humason filling this role.
Holcombe’s background in swing, jazz, radio, and movie music clearly influenced his accompaniment to this classic. His treatment of ’Twas the Night before Christmas includes fragments of easily recognizable carols and songs of the yuletide which listeners may enjoy trying to identify. All goes along appropriately with the narrative of Moore’s poem as it unfolds, and Holcombe even sneaks in Jazz and Big Band elements to give the music a modern, festive flavor.
Elissa Brill Pashkin, chair of the HCC Music Department and composer of Oy Hanukkah: Reflections and Revels, offers the following introduction of her work for this premiere performance:
The piece is a continuous variation of the traditional Hanukkah song, known in English as “Oh Hanukkah.” It starts off with a kind of a tease, first with a fragment from the solo violin, then another fragment from the solo clarinet (a shout-out to Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue) and then the full melody is launched. It’s a slow, somewhat halting and nostalgic version of the themes. The memories evoked become warmer and more active but also a little more muddied, with the entrance of the full horn section. With the quicker tempo that follows, the texture becomes more fragmented and contrapuntal, with interruptions by the brass choir playing its own re-harmonized fragment of the original tune. The next section is introduced by a new percussion figure (timpani, snare, woodblock). What follows is a repeating, churning idea in the strings along with imitative and embellished pieces of the melody in the winds. Those wind figures gradually transform, via changes in pitch patterning, and one more increase in tempo, to a Klezmer-inspired joyful noise. A brief slowdown, with a triplet figure in the solo violin, gives way to an emphatic conclusion.
Maestro David Kidwell composed An Old English Christmas for the Holyoke Civic Symphony in 2009. It is a medley of English carols including “Here We Come a-Wassailing”, “The Holly and the Ivy”, “The First Noel”, “I Saw Three Ships”, “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”, and “The Sussex Carol.” The piece was premiered by the HCS in that year and performed by the Pioneer Valley Symphony in 2010.
Cambridge-born composer and arranger Leroy Anderson studied at Harvard and conducted its band from 1931 to 1935. He then went on to work in Boston and New York as an arranger and orchestrator. He wrote many familiar, light concert pieces that are audience-pleasers for their hummable melodies, infectious rhythms, and striking effects. Today the orchestra plays two of his best known works. The first, A Christmas Festival composed in 1957, is a sparkling arrangement of “Joy to the World”, “Deck the Halls”, “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”, “Good King Wenceslas”, “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”, “Silent Night”, “Jingle Bells”, and “Adeste Fideles.”
Anderson composed the second piece, Sleigh Ride in 1946 ironically during a long heat wave. Mitchell Parish wrote the lyrics that tell of a person who would like to share a sleigh ride on a winter’s day with another person. This colorful piece has been a holiday favorite ever since it was first recorded in 1949 and provides a rollicking end for our Holyoke-inspired concert.