A Journey Through Madison's Classical Music Scene
Dec 2, 2013
01:52 PM
Classically Speaking

Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra’s “Middleton Holiday Pops” Bigger—and Brassier—Than Ever

Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra’s “Middleton Holiday Pops” Bigger—and Brassier—Than Ever


From left to right, members of the Canadian Brass: Christopher Coletti, Eric Reed, Chuck Dallenbach, Achilles Liarmakopoulos and Caleb Hudson

For the last fifteen years, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra has presented “Middleton Holiday Pops,” a local tradition in kicking off the holiday season. The frothy mix of seasonal songs in a casual setting, with a couple of vocalists usually invited in, was always a great way to transition from Thanksgiving feast overload to all the year-end celebrations.

But director Andrew Sewell managed to take it up a notch this year: The event moved to the Performing Arts Center at Middleton High School, and the guests were none other than the Canadian Brass. Reportedly the Saturday matinee was within a couple of rows of being sold out, and Saturday night there wasn’t an empty seat in sight.

Perhaps it was the influence of the annual culinary overindulgence acting upon my subconscious, but it seemed as the first half unfolded that the WCO concert at this time of year is analogous to a holiday feast: Larger portions than we’re used to (that is, the number of players on stage), and a menu full of unusual enticements, sweet and savory. In other words, the program was not entirely devoted to holiday fare, and there was nothing wrong with that.

Indeed, Sewell opened with Gershwin’s Overture to Strike Up the Band, and a breezy “Winter Wonderland” led to another of the anticipated delights of this event, the Middleton High School Concert Choir. The venue’s stage has extended flanks on either side of the audience, which is where the choir was positioned for Randol Bass’s “Gloria.” This was the only instance of a downside of the hall, as the choir halves essentially faced each other behind Sewell as he conducted, while the orchestra sound came straight out from the stage. Thus the students were overbalanced by the ensemble in the grand opening and closing sections of this energetic work, but they handled the rhythmic ramblings and Latin text with aplomb.

But there was no denying that the Canadian Brass was the prettiest bow on this holiday gift, and they delivered on both halves of the program, with some occasionally overblown holiday arrangements by Bagley, then joined by the MHS Choir in Dedrick’s “Sleigh Bells.” Written for the Canadian Brass, it was neatly led by the Choir’s director, Tom Mielke. And what would Christmas be without the Grinch? The group delivered, vocally and instrumentally, in the delightful arrangement of Brandon Ridenour.

Fans of the Canadian Brass—and these would be of all ages, as the group was founded in 1970—received a couple of special gifts, beginning with the Dedrick arrangement of “Penny Lane,” giving newest member Caleb Hudson a workout on piccolo trumpet. Of course he nailed all the familiar riffs from the Beatles’ original, and then some.

The program was nicely rounded out in the second half with Sewell conducting “Festive Sounds of Hanukah” by Holcombe, the Canadian Brass returning for a plaintive “Shaker Suite” of Wright, and the title track of their new Christmas CD, Christmas Time Is Here, the well-known Vince Guaraldi chart from A Charlie Brown Christmas.

Much of the evening was informally emceed by Chuck Daellenbach, the co-founder, last remaining original member (and Wisconsin native) tuba player of the group. He may be the last link to the group the New York Times famously called “the Marx Brothers of classical music,” but the best present the audience received Saturday night was the evidence that all the younger members of the group have maintained both the level of impeccable musicianship and the familiar high-jinks.

Both were on vivid display in the official closing, the CB’s thoroughly unique ten-minute version of the opera Carmen. The expected standing ovation occurred after everyone could stop laughing long enough to get out of their seats. But Sewell sent us out with his traditional encore, Leroy Anderson’s “Sleigh Ride.”

All that is left to say is if you’re stuck for that last minute gift, tickets are a wonderful gift—and I’m still hoping for the night when the Capitol Theater is jam-packed for a WCO event. Are you listening, Santa?

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About This Blog

Years before I contributed my first classical review to the Los Angeles Times in 1988, I started a class in music appreciation for adults that had one aim: to put a few cracks in the “ivory tower elitism” I found pervasive in the classical music world since my boyhood days. Whether as a critic, program annotator or band director, that goal has never changed. After all, Mozart and Beethoven and the gang wrote their music for people like you—not critics or professors!

After growing up in the suburbs of New York City, and spending twenty years in and around Los Angeles, the last twelve years here leave me more amazed than ever at the musical riches of Madison. I’m a cheerleader at heart, because I always think more people would become classical fans if they’d give it a chance—but I’m also quick to tell you when you’re not getting your money’s worth. Classically Speaking brings you as much news and as many reviews as possible, and I hope you’ll join me for a fabulous musical journey.

–  Greg Hettmansberger
Follow Greg on Twitter @ghettmansberger

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