What pride we can take with the full splendor of the Conway Symphony Orchestra, each year at this season, giving us its gift of confidence in the superlative quality of its music, and warmth of holiday spirit, as each year the organization not only manages to repeat its blend of traditional pleasures with just the right balance of new music experiences to send us on our way. In its second concert of the season on Dec. 11, a postponement due to inclement weather, Principal Conductor Geoffrey Robson, led the group and welcomed guest artists the Arkansas Festival Ballet and the Voices of Central Arkansas children’s chorus in a program chock full of holiday delights.
The opening Sleigh Ride by Leroy Anderson, a local favorite, set us off in a jolly spirit. Adeste Fideles, in a fine arrangement by Morton Gould that allowed many of the fabulous orchestra colors both in sections and as solos to shine through complete to the final clarion chimes, continued the menu. The orchestra chose to repeat Around the World at Christmas Time, a medley that gave us moods of reflection, anticipation and memory with the choice of carols within the music.
A stroke of welcome surprise came not so much witg the playing of the J. S. Bach motet movement, Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring, but that it was all the more heartfelt with the bright voices of the children of the Voices of Central Arkansas group. Directors Dr. Sheri Cook-Cunningham and Dr. Paige Rose brought out the clear, innocent tones and clear rendition of the words in the sentiment of this familiar music, which to some ears expressed the earnest and strong desire that so many people around the world must be feeling in these turbulent times.
The children continued by assisting the entire auditorium led by – you guessed it — that "elf" from the North Pole — guiding us in a sing along of Christmas favorites. There must have been many good singers in the audience contributing enthusiastically not only to the entertaining carols of joy, but also to the remarkably sensitivity of the more thoughtful carols such as It Came Upon the Midnight Clear and the reverent Silent Night.
Finally we were ready for the introductory music to Act II of selections from Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker to follow in the second half of the program. Impressive was the somewhat new approach to this mood setting. It was a pleasure to watch the entrance of the many dancers both young and older show their top form and expression. Clara and her family, along with guests coming to celebrate at their Russian home, and some of the dancers who would present the familiar "character" dances of the "suite" that so many of us are familiar with. It was a pleasure to witness the ingenuity shown in new items of entertainment – the various games, mischief, and the three boxes with hidden surprise "toys" inside, the very littlest children with their gifts wrapped to give to the celebrators, and especially the wonderful eight young angels who spread across the stage. The orchestra was at its full splendid glory demonstrating why the Tchaikovsky music that we seem to know so well is such a masterpiece of a genius for 19th century orchestral writing. Perhaps we have become a little "too familiar" and accustomed to this music, to register our complete admiration. The horns, celeste, cellos, percussion and really all sections of the entire ensemble were lush and full for the entire evening.
After intermission we quickly returned to the utter joy of Nutcracker selections. Beginning with the Spanish dancers who characterized the specialty so well, there followed the lithe Arabian dancers. These two dancers, while quite masterful in their movements, nevertheless strangely almost never interacted nor made eye contact with each other, seeming to stay in their own private worlds, even with much of the stage vacant between them.
Totally in character, well-danced and expressing their holiday joy were the Chinese dancers with superb special drapes between them. The Flutes were equally fine and included an excellent male dancer. The Festival Ballet coped well with the lack of any male dancers for the Russian dance thereby omitting the highly athletic movements we associate with this genre. The Sugar Plum Fairy, both as a soloist and with her pas de deux partner, contributed a professional level of dance that earned well-deserved special audience applause. Finally the Waltz of the Flowers brought its expected full panoply of color and animated floral allure. All of this so well presented by the orchestra as to keep us enthralled for the entire evening.
Rebecca Miller Stalcup, Artistic Director, and Melinda Tobian, Ballet Mistress, of the Arkansas Festival Ballet, are both to be commended for their ingenuity in providing ever-new details in the choreography and concept of the Nutcracker plan for each year. But what a pity that the management of the Arkansas Festival Ballet continues to avoid giving any credit whatsoever to the dancers, all of whom gave their total commitment to the program. The names of the Voices of Central Arkansas children’s group and of course the orchestral players were listed. Surely the dancers and their families would have been proud to see their names in recognition of such devoted and high quality work. I have commented on this aspect before, and I would encourage the Festival Ballet to provide names in the future.
And after an evening so full of joy, color, passion, reflection and exuberance, the Conway Symphony Orchestra gave us just that last helping of playful spirit in A Rockin’ Christmas arranged by Sayre. Plenty of opportunity for brass, percussion, jazz style and for the full ensemble to leave us "rockin’" all the way home. One cannot leave without noticing the wealth of talent in so many forms in Conway, and to give a healthy "thumbs up" to the UCA Tuba-Euphonium Krewe who so festively welcomed us into the Reynolds Performance Hall lobby as we entered for the evening. Refreshments were provided and the CSO Guild, which has grown substantially, was able not only to display several tables of items for sale, but also to present the orchestra with a check for $10,000 from its fund-raising efforts this year.
Please visit the CSO website at www.ConwaySymphony.org. for information about the next concerts this season.