Jeff Tyzik’s MSO Christmas card
MSO Pops concerts get precious little rehearsal, and the MSO often takes a number or two to find the groove. Not so the Holiday Pops program that opened Friday evening.
Jeff Tyzik had the orchestra and the big crowd on his side from the first note. Tyzik’s clear baton technique and firm intentions helped the orchestra play confidently, precisely and energetically throughout. The arrangements, most of them Tyzik’s, also helped. His knack for giving the players plenty of interesting things to do without overwhelming them with complication kept them engaged. And his arrangements crackle with good-natured wit. In his Christmas Overture, Tyzik expertly mimicked Handel, Count Basie, Stravinsky and Mussorgsky. If you know the allusions, it’s hilarious; and if you don’t, you just find this Christmas medley inexplicably more interesting than the zillion deadly boring ones you’re heard.
That sort of thinking, in a more reverent context and more subtle way, enlivened a medley of carols for the Milwaukee Symphony Chorus. The substantial orchestral introduction to God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen sounded as if Aaron Copland had written it. He should have: The spacious, Coplandesque harmonies could not be more apt and affecting.
I got on Tyzik’s side back at the 2008 Holiday Pops, when I first heard his brilliant blend of The Little Drummer Boy and Ravel’s Bolero. This idea is so obvious that it takes a certain sort of genius to seize upon it. Beyond that, superior skill and a deep understanding of Ravel’s piece allowed Tyzik to pull off this tour-de-force arrangement. The orchestra, in particular soloists Jeani Foster, saxophonist Paul McGinly and trombonist Megumi Kanda, took to it and played with great verve. Generally, the MSO seemed to want to play well for Tyzik; an unusual number of smiles flashed around the orchestra, while it was playing and while Tyzik made his modest little jokes to the audience.
Actor John Letterman, as Santa, read A Night Before Christmas nicely. That’s a harder task than it might seem, as the text was couched within Randol Alan Bass’ lush, complicated tone poem. Letterman had to hit cues and phrase the old tale on the nose. Carol Storck’s Milwaukee Children’s Choir Jubilate and Jason Clark’s Milwaukee Youth Chorale sang well and charmingly. John Behnke’s Alleluia Ringers amazed me once again, in a three-number set of their own. How these kids from Concordia University can keep their places as they play a note or two here and there as a melody zips from one end of their line to the other is beyond me. Surely there’s a trick to it. But on the face of it? A Christmas miracle!
This program, given at Marcus Center Uihlein Hall, will be repeated at 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday (Dec. 4-5). Tickets are $25-$92. Call the Marcus Center box office, 414-273-7206.