In Review

Choral Christmas Spectacular

4 out of 5 stars
4 out of 5 stars - 'Smashing'
San Francisco Symphony
Conducted by Ragnar Bohlin (director of the San Francisco Symphony Chorus)
Review by Stark Insider

Last night I attended SF Symphony’s Choral Christmas Spectacular. I was especially looking forward to this concert for two reasons – 1. I was a choral singer and conductor from high school through college and 2. I was looking forward to a “get into the holiday spirit” event. Overall I’m glad I went and would strongly encourage anyone who loves to sing and/or enjoys choral music – especially during the holiday season – to go. The program was diverse, light-hearted, and a thoroughly enjoyable holiday evening.

Upon arriving in Davies Hall I first noticed that there were no seats or stands for instrumentalists, indicating that the concert would open with the choir singing a capella (which means “unaccompanied”). The opening number was a traditional arrangement of “Veni, Emmanuel” sung as a processional, which the choir walking onstage while singing a capella. It was a nice touch.

The next number was a Boda/Franzen arrangement of a Swedish song whose English translation is “Prepare Ye the Way.” I have never been a fan of conductors also serving as accompanists – while Bohlin is clearly an accomplished pianist, I find the optics of the conductor conducting from the keyboard to look a bit cheesy and also somewhat egocentric – but after I dialed down my cynicism I was able to enjoy the music.

Ragnar Bohlin, conductor

Next was Good King Wenceslas, the first of three “sing-along” carols. The audience was quite timid at first, but by the 3rd participatory verse there were several audience members (yours truly included) who were enthusiastically getting into the spirit. I was especially impressed by a big baritone voice from the row behind me!

A couple of numbers later was one of the entertainment highlights of the evening – Webber’s setting of Pie Jesu from his Requiem – featuring 3 soloists from the Crowden School – 3 grade school-aged girls. Far beyond the obvious “cuteness factor” they sang beautifully and held it together on stage – an impressive outing in such an intimidating setting for such young musicians.

Next was an intriguing arrangement of Audate, Gaudate by Ward Swingle (of Swingle Singers fame). I had never heard this arrangement before and was expecting a jazzy style, so I was surprised when it turned out to be fairly true to the medieval (pre-Renaissance) period style, with its heavy use of court dance rhythms and hemiolas (where two 3/4 measures are instead divided into 3 pairs of 2 beats). Later in the piece though some Swingle humor showed through, with the choir voicing and vocal production emulating the period’s reed instruments (which my music history teacher always called the “buzzies”) – a la the crumhorn, rackett, and shawm. This music geek enjoyed it.

Again my Boston heritage came to the fore – I could think of nothing but how much more appropriate this would have been in a Boston Pops concert.

Second to last in the first half was Sixten piece titled “Mary’s Lullaby” which turned out to be an arrangement of “Silent Night” for the choir with a soprano solo set over it using a 20th century poem. While I found the soloist’s voice and performance to be underwhelming, I found the arrangement and overall effect of the piece fascinating and fresh.

The first half closed with John Rutter’s Gloria. I was especially excited to hear this as (slight personal digression) I had sung this while in high school in an American Choral Directors’ Association regional competition choir! The piece is exuberant, with the choir accompanied by brass choir, organ, and percussion, and the performance was technically sound and emotionally spot on.

But the acoustics of Davies Hall really detracted from the full impact of the piece. I must admit that while much has been written about the poor acoustics of the hall, I had not really felt the detrimental impact of this until the Rutter Gloria (and yes we had excellent seats). There were times when the choir sounded like its entire sound was being sent straight up to the overly high ceiling (with little benefit from the Rube Goldberg plastic acoustic reflectors) and then mutely being transmitted to the audience – and in many places I heard almost no choir bass presence. This piece should really hit the audience right in the face and eardrums, and when experienced that way it’s a truly rousing piece – but instead we experienced a professional performance that was “just enjoyable”. As a former choral singer and conductor, my heart went out to the choir who were really singing their hearts out.

After intermission the choir was installed in what I guess suffices as the “choir loft” (pun intended) in Davies Hall – way in the back of the stage, about 20 feet off the ground. The opening piece of the second half was the Gloria from J.S. Bach’s Mass in B minor, BWV 232, with a small subset of the SF Symphony orchestra on stage. I found the performance serviceable, but was distracted by the unusual visual effect of the location of the choir (I finally got used to it). Having grown up in Boston, I realized how spoiled I had been by Boston’s Symphony Hall, whose stage area is so much larger and where the acoustics are so much better.

Later in the program was the “Dream Pantomime” from Humperdinck’s “Hansel and Gretel”. My main reaction to this piece was “why was this on the program”? I found it neither musically nor experientially compelling, nor did I understand its relevance in a holiday program.

Later was a Martin-Blane arrangement of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”. I must admit that I literally winced at the sight of Alexander Barantschik, the Concertmaster (First violin, outside first chair) of the San Francisco Symphony, gamely and professionally playing a slightly schlocky arrangement. Again my Boston heritage came to the fore – I could think of nothing but how much more appropriate this would have been in a Boston Pops concert. The Pops are formed of a subset of the standard Boston Symphony Orchestra (all of the first chairs are excused) and some “ringers” – and perform a combination of classical “warhorses” and “lighter fare”, and their main seasons are summertime (when the main orchestra is in Tanglewood) and during the winter holiday season. Boston’s Symphony Hall is transformed from a classic auditorium to a music café-like venue, with tables of four spread throughout the floor after removing the regular rows of seats.

I bring this up partly out of personal nostalgia but also as a point of discussion and possibly feedback for the SF Symphony. One of the long-standing traditions at the Boston Pops is that the bass players wear Santa hats, they perform Leroy Anderson’s “Sleigh Ride”, and the whole tone is well-matched to the holiday festive spirit. From a marketing and positioning perspective the audience is self-selected to expect a lighter fare, and thus while there is “permission” for the orchestra and choir to perform a range of “serious” and “lighter” repertoire, the overall tone of the concert is festive. With last night’s concert I found the mix a little jarring.

The last piece (prior to the final sing-along) was an arrangement of “O Holy Night”, featuring Michael Taylor, baritone. Taylor’s voice was the most impressive of all the soloists in the evening, and it was an excellent way to close out the performance part of the concert.

The audience seemed to be full of friends, family, and supporters of the SF Symphony Chorus, and their enthusiastic applause compelled an encore, the “Dona Nobis Pacem” (“grant us peace”) from J. S. Bach’s e minor mass. I found this performance more compelling than the Bach “Gloria” that opened the second half – very nice choir lines and balance, both amongst the choir voices as well as vis a vis the orchestra.

All in all an enjoyable concert, despite the acoustics of Davies Hall. I recommend trying to catch this if possible to anyone who loves to sing, loves choral music, or just wants to get into the holiday spirit.

San Francisco Symphony
Choral Christmas Spectacular
4 out of 5 stars


Trad. (arr. Hillerud)
Veni, veni Emmanuel
“Prepare Ye the Way”
Trad. (arr. Willcocks)
“Good King Wenceslas”
Ave Maria
Pie Jesu
Gruber (arr. Sixten)
“Silent Night”
Gloria from Mass in B Minor
Ave Maria
Mendelssohn (arr. Willcocks)
“Hark the Herald Angels Sing” [sing-along]
Pantomime from Hänsel und Gretel
“Away in a Manger”
Blane, Martin (arr. Rutter)
“Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” from Meet Me in Saint Louis
“Carol of the Bells”
“When You Wish Upon a Star” from Pinocchio
“O Holy Night”
Trad. (arr. Willcocks)
“O Come All Ye Faithful” [sing-along]