Horns for the Holidays
John WASSON (b.1956)
Festival Fanfare [3:48]
Leroy ANDERSON (1908-1975)
Sleigh Ride (1948) [2:58]
Johan Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring arr. Alfred Reed [4:14]
Walter KENT (1911-1994) and James GANNON (1900-1974)
I’ll be home for Christmas (1943) [5:38]
Robert WELLS (1922-1998) and Mel TORMÉ (1925-1999)
The Christmas Song (Chestnuts roasting on an open fire) (1946) [4:36]
Hugh MARTIN (1914-2011) and Ralph BLANE (1914-1995)
Have yourself a merry little Christmas (1944) [4:57]
Leroy ANDERSON (1908-1975)
A Christmas Festival (1950) [6:54]
Deck the Halls [1:52]
James PIERPOINT (1822-1893)
Jingle Bells Fantasy arr James Wasson [3:57]
Alfred REED (1921-2005)
Russian Christmas Music (1944) [13:56]
John Philip SOUSA (1854-1932)
Christmas and Sousa forever arr. Julie Giroux [3:43]
Dallas Wind Symphony/Jerry Junkin
rec. Meyerson Symphony Center, Dallas, Texas, USA, 14 August 2011
For those on a low cholesterol diet this Christmas but not wishing to give up on the cheese altogether this might well be the album to save your festive indulging. This is as cheesy as a cheese stick bathed in stilton, dusted with parmesan and dunked in a fondue. I loved it. Take the super-skilled Dallas Wind Symphony, add Prof. Johnson hi-fi engineering, some ear-tickling arrangements and a healthy dollop of not-taking-it-all-too-seriously and you have a recipe for a really enjoyable alternative Christmas disc. That the tongue is firmly in the cheek is clear from the liner which gently parodies Christmas Texan-style “… unlike everything else in Texas, real Texas snowmen are really really small…”. But don’t confuse light-hearted or tongue in cheek with anything in the slightest bit second-rate or ill-considered. If the thought of any version of “Have yourself a merry little Christmas”” or “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire” is going to have you reach for your bumper box of humbug humbugs to suck on stick with the choir of King’s College - this is most certainly not for you.
Get past the preconception and there’s actually an interesting and diverse programme of styles and arrangements offered here. Not that I do not like everything equally - but isn’t that the case with Christmas presents too! The Dallas Wind Symphony are around 55 strong with full wind and brass sections filled out ‘extra’ instruments such as Euphoniums and Flugelhorns, saxophones and even a contra-alto clarinet. I have no idea what that last instrument is. The presence of a harp, piano and organ in certain pieces subtly tweak the aural character from ‘just’ wind and brass to something more symphonic. All of the music presented here arranges well-known melodies associated with Christmas to a varying degree. The one that sticks out as being not especially seasonal is Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring [track 3]. This is a beautifully moulded performance with the rich lower sonorities of the Symphony blending to produce a wonderfully sonorous and well shaped interpretation. Nice little glints on the harp and a subtle underpinning from the timpani reinforce the impression that this is a very skilful arrangement. Before that there’s a newy and an oldy to open the programme. John Wasson’s Festival Fanfare for Christmas is very much in the style of the numerous John Williams’ fanfares out of Danny Elfman and the recording immediately exhibits the Prof. Johnson trademarks of very extended bass response [organ pedals and bass drum having a field day] and a wide dynamic range with plenty of detail. Occasionally I think this can be too much of a good thing but it certainly brings an exciting dynamism to proceedings. That being said the wind band version of Leroy Anderson’s Sleigh Ride is just ever so slightly staid. A couple of curios in the transcription; when the main theme goes into a swinging eight bar phrase in the middle a rather deadening marching band bass drum part has been added that kills the feel and then at the end we get a pair of trumpets whinnying instead of the usual one.
David Lovrien is one of the Symphony’s long-time saxophonists and he is the arranger behind the hugely enjoyable Minor Alteration: Christmas through the Looking Glass. The “what-if” premise here is to take well-known Christmas tunes [again!] but play them in minor keys. It’s a rather fun mini-quiz seeing how quickly you can work out name that tune. Some are more hidden than others. There is no mention of this in the liner but I wonder if a second inspiration/layer of arranging was to do these tunes as if they had been taken out of Fiddler on the Roof. Certainly there’s a faux-Russian peasant feel that’s very funny. “Santa Claus is coming to town” as an um-cha minor key dance is great. Likewise Jingle Bells [again again already!] as a Matchmaker-cum-Mancini waltz is a particularly subtle version. The closing Wedding Dance meets the Nutcracker Trepak meets “Now’s the Season” is a tour de force of arranging and playing. I could live without the two tracks where the arranging tiptoes into big-band/lounge. Nice playing - certainly from lead sax Don Fabian - but I do not respond to a wind band trying to sound not like a wind band. That Pops standards can work for a Symphonic Wind line-up is proved with both the lush Have yourself a merry little Christmas [track 7]and the percussion-led and effectively minimalist Deck the Halls [track 9. The second Leroy Anderson contribution is the grand-daddy of Christmas medleys - his Christmas Festival - originally for full orchestra - is still one of the best. The liner notes that conductor Junkin gets hate mail if they do not include it in their seasonal programmes - welcome to Texas. More curiosities in the transcription here. The organ pedals rather overwhelm the daunted clarinets in the lovely version of Silent Night yet at the end when the full organ should thunder out holding a chord over the orchestral stabs there is nothing at all. An error of judgement by whoever cut those from the original for sure.
Just in case you have the memory of a goldfish and have forgotten that you have heard Jingle Bells several times already track 10 is a fantasy devoted to it and it alone. By now one should be heartily sick of it but you know what, the sheer good natured ebullience of this version sweeps all that aside. The longest piece by some distance is Alfred Reed’s Russian Christmas Music. This does consist of traditional Russian folk and Orthodox music but since - to me at least - the melodies are less familiar this emerges as more of an original work rather than an arrangement. The integration of the Orthodox chants reminded on more than one occasion of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Russian Easter Festival Overture. Enjoyable as the programme is as a whole this piece does offer a welcome respite from the relentless up-tempo bonhomie of the rest of the disc. It also offers the Symphony the opportunity to display some beautifully poetic solo playing from some of the wind who get rather submerged in the antics of the other music. That being said the powerful climax around the 11:00 mark is cinematically impressive.
The disc closes with Christmas and Sousa Forever. Its one of those old-fashioned ‘musical switches’ so we get the piccolo descant of Stars and Stripes forever over a transmuted Rudolf the Red nosed Reindeer as just one example. Clever but for some reason it doesn’t make me smile. The liner advises; “If you’re looking for the ultimate Christmas/Sousa mash-up, look no further.” Perhaps I wasn’t. But it would be quite wrong to end this review on a bah-humbug. Great fun, well played, spectacular engineering - pass the port. I’ll leave the last word to the liner; “Merry Christmas y’all!”
Nick Barnard
I’ll leave the last word to the liner; “Merry Christmas y’all!”