Plain Dealer: December 7, 2008

CityMusic Cleveland mixes festive holiday cocktail of new, time-tested ideas

Seeking to stand out from the Christmas crowd, CityMusic Cleveland has put together a creative yuletide event humorously titled “Not-Your-Usual-Holiday Concerts.” But while the program, first performed Tuesday night to a full house at Fairmount Presbyterian Church in Cleveland Heights and now being repeated around Northeast Ohio, is definitely unique, offering serious music in lieu of fluff, it isn’t entirely untraditional, either. And that’s a good thing.

First off, the format. Dressed in street clothes, conductor James Gaffigan follows the time-tested style of a fireside chat, offering informal narration like a music-lover eagerly sharing his personal favorites.

He makes for an engaging host, repeating one work at a faster tempo and replaying another simply for the fun of it. Once he’s run through the printed program, he then runs into the audience and engages in another familiar practice, letting listeners select encores from a book of Christmas carols.

Nor are these the only bits of holiday music. Corelli’s “Christmas Concerto” also makes an appearance, in a spirited account full of solos for concertmaster Ariana Kim, violist Jessica Oudin and cellist Keiko Ying. Like the Nativity scene the music seeks to depict, their performances are clear and tender.

In all others respects, though, the program marks new Christmas-concert territory, featuring selections from scores originally conceived for the theater. Turkish marches from incidental music by Lully and Beethoven kick off each half of the concert. Both receive stylish performances marked by a firm pulse and rousing percussion.

Gaffigan and the orchestra get to show off even more in Rossini’s Overture to “La Cenerentola” (“Cinderella”) and the “Gingerbread Waltz” from Humperdinck’s opera “Hansel and Gretel.” In both works, shifts in dynamics both gradual and sudden reveal a close musical partnership.

Most unusual, for holiday fare, are the third Entr’acte from Schubert’s “Rosamunde” and the suite from “Belshazzar’s Feast” by Sibelius. Yet in terms of substance, these are also the most nourishing.

In the former, a spacious melody for strings alternates with a churning tune for clarinet and oboe, alluringly delivered by Bill Kalinkos and Rebecca Schweigert. Flutist Heidi Ruby-Kushious, by contrast, is the star in the Sibelius, applying dusky, sensuous veneers to the Nocturne and “Khadra’s Dance.”

Pay no attention to the stories behind the music. (In “Belshazzar,” Khadra’s dance is her final act after being poisoned by a cobra, while in “Hansel and Gretel,” a witch tries to eat children.) Neither quite qualifies as your typical holiday message.

To reach this Plain Dealer reporter: zlewis@plaind.com, 216-999-4632

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CityMusic Cleveland

CityMusic Cleveland is a professional chamber orchestra that performs free concerts throughout Northeast Ohio,often accompanied by exhibits of local artwork.

Since exploding onto the scene in 2004, CityMusic Cleveland has won cheering audiences with beautiful music, brilliantly performed in familiar neighborhood settings.
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