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One of the nicest holiday gifts was presented last Tuesday at Fairmount Presbyterian Church when CityMusic Cleveland and conductor James Gaffigan presented their Not Your Usual Holiday Concert. If one wanted another name for this concert, it might be "an evening of delicious bon-bons." Most of the eight pieces that comprised the program are very seldom heard, which is not fair -- to the music, or audiences. They're delightful and deserve to be heard much more often! Bravo CMC and Mr. Gaffigan.

The opening work, March for the Turkish Ceremony by Jean-Baptiste Lully, also served to close the program, as after two encores of beloved Christmas Carols, the ebullient conductor announced. "Let's do the Lully again, I love that piece so much!" and so, we heard it again, and it was every bit as delightful as the first time around. The vigorous work, which featured lots of percussion (mainly cymbals) was originally incidental music for Molière's play Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme.

A touch of holiday cheer was provided by the women of the orchestra who mostly wore long gowns in vibrant colors, adding an extra bit of brightness to the cold, dark night. The performance of Rossini's Overture to La Cenerentola was preceded by a short demonstration of Rossini's famous crescendo technique. As does most of his music, this, too, bubbled with wit and charm throughout.

The wind players were given a chance to show off in the finale of Charles Gounod's Petite symphonie, providing perky and frisky notes highlighted by crisp articulation. It was delightful.

The real surprise for most listeners, I suspect, was the final work of the first half – music for the play Belshazzar's Feast by Jean Sibelius. If this had been a contest to name the conductor, I venture to say that unless one had previously seen the music, there would have been no winner. Who knew that the cold, aloof Sibelius from cold Finland could write such warm, exotic and sometimes mystical music? It was totally charming. There were four movements featured here: Oriental procession, another sort of 'Turkish' march; Solitude, a sinuous and lyrical interlude that exuded longing with a gorgeous duet for viola (Jessica Oudin) and cello (Keiko Ying); Night Music, which gave Heidi Ruby-Kushious (principal flute) the chance to define 'nocturne' with soothing and tranquil music of mystical inclination, and Khadra's Dance, which paired the winds in delightful duets (or sometimes solos) that were warm and exotic and definitely not Scandinavian!

During intermission, members of the very large audience chatted, ate a variety of wonderful cookies and inspected the art photography of Shaker artist Diane Schwartz.

Every child who takes piano lessons will at some time, play the Turkish March of Beethoven. Again, this is incidental music for a play – The Ruins of Athens. As festive and joyous as it was, at the conclusion, Mr. Gaffigan announced "Let's do that again—only faster!" So they did. This version, perhaps a third faster than the first time around, was really rousing.

Arcangelo Corelli provided the only 'real' Christmas music on the formal portion of the program -– his Christmas Concerto, Op. 6 no. 8. The nine movements alternate fast and slow tempos, beginning and ending with a fast vivace. One movement (I was so enchanted I lost count, sorry) was very like a moto perpetuo. Mr. Gaffigan drew lush sonorities from the orchestra as he conducted without a baton.

After acknowledging that his favorite composer is Franz Schubert, the young conductor then led a romantic and tuneful performance of Schubert's Entr'acte (Andantino) from the play Rosamunde. Little is known of the play itself, but several pieces of music survive. Bill Kalinkos, principal clarinet, Rebecca Schweigert, principal oboe and Ms. Ruby-Kushious contributed beautiful solos.

For whatever reason that Humperdinck's opera Hänsel und Gretel is affiliated with the Christmas holiday season (a warning to misbehaving children, perhaps?), nevertheless, it abounds with wonderful melodies that live on their own. The Dream-Pantomime is perhaps the most often played, but this time we heard a different and equally enjoyable selection -– the Knusperwältzer (Gingerbread Waltz). This is the music that is played when the witch tries to inveigle the slightly sleepy/dopey Gretel to 'come into my house.' With that sort of lively music as accompaniment, the old bat should have had a house full of happy children!

Because we were a good and appreciative audience, we were offered an encore—-a traditional carol. A member of the audience was allowed to choose from the conductor's book, and it was a great choice—-Joy to the World. Following that was Hark! The Herald Angels Sing. And then, Mr. Gaffigan, with a big grin, went into repeat mode, and we heard the Lully again. And we all went home, very happy, indeed.

The week of February 18 through 22, CityMusic Cleveland presents two of the greatest masterpieces of Chamber Music Literature: Schubert's Cello Quintet in C Major, D. 956 and Mendelssohn's Octet in E-flat Major, Op. 20. Guest artists will join with CityMusic musicians for the event. For specific dates and venues or to reserve free child care, visit the website

From Cool Cleveland contributor Kelly Ferjutz