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Kids singing Silent Night, and singing it well, over soft string accompaniment and the gentle tolling of handbells — who within earshot of such music wouldn’t yield to the spell of the season? Friday night at the MSO Holiday Pops, Jeff Tyzik arranged just such a piece for the Milwaukee Children’s Choir, the Milwaukee Youth Chorale, the Milwaukee Symphony Chorus, John Benke’s remarkable Alleluia Ringers and the orchestra.
Tyzik, unlike Marvin Hamlisch and Doc Severinsen, is a modest, low-key guy. He told a few jokes over the course of the evening, but spoke more often of a love for music and for the season. Marvin is the lively uncle who can do magic tricks and buys the kids flashy toys and keeps them out too late. Jeff is the uncle who makes sure they’re happy and tucked in at a reasonable hour.
This sweet concert had its brisk and lively moments, including a vibrant Sleigh Ride at the very start. Soon after, Tyzik and the orchestra took on Hershy Kay’s musically ambitious treatments of Deck the Halls, Pat-A-Pan and Joy to the World. They bristle with fugues and interlocking lines. Pops concerts get little rehearsal, and Friday’s performances of these smart, challenging pieces were slightly underbaked. The notes were in place, but were not charged with the usual MSO assurance and purpose.
Tyzik, a clear, unpretentious conductor, got good results with a suite of Hanukah songs, Gary Fry’s extravagant setting of O Come O Come Emmanuel, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Dance of the Tumblers and, with the MSO Chorus and orchestra, a set of three songs John Williams wrote for Home Alone. This movie music stands up very well in a concert setting.
Tyzik generously yielded the podium to Lee Erickson, director of the Milwaukee Symphony Chorus. That sensitive, disciplined group sang Clarence Dickinson’s a cappella The Shepherd’s Story
. Dickinson (1873-1969), a new name to me, has some repute
within the organ and choir world. The Shepherd’s Story
made me want to hear more. A brilliant, rising arpeggio on the word “Noel” seems at first just an opening fanfare, but it returns as a structural element. In between, subsections of the choir give the shepherd’s account of the nativity in an unusually engaging and legible arioso. At the end, Dickinson reduces the fanfare to a murmuring ostinato under the conclusion of the tale. Pretty cool. Erickson also led the choir a cappella in Z. Randall Stroope’s All My Heart This Night Rejoices
, a low meditation on the centuries old prayer
Behnke took the podium to conduct his Concordia University bell ensemble in his own fanciful, lovely arrangements of Angels We Have Heard on High and Ding Dong Merrily on High. Behnke and his kids amaze me every time I hear them. Think about it: As a rule, you have a bell in each hand, so you have two pitches at your disposal. That means the melody skips from ringer to ringer up and down the row of 15 or so. If anything goes wrong, train wreck. Nothing went wrong Friday. I best liked the ending, when the young ringers came right down front, so you could see and hear the precise team work required for this sort of ensemble. And you could also see how much fun they have making music.
They stayed on stage to add some ringing zing to Handel’s Hallejuah Chorus. Pretty smart, putting that last; it guarantees a standing ovation. The audience got its encore, a holiday sing-along. By then, we felt like singing.
MSO Holiday Pops, give at Marcus Center Uihlein Hall, will be repeated at 8 p.m. Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $22 to $99 and can be purchased online
or at (414) 291-7605.