The Music of Christmas – Day 19: An Orchestral Appreciation

In what seems like a former life, I once played in symphonic bands and orchestras. Starting in college band then moving on to community bands after graduation, back as an alum in orchestra, with a few years break in there, I loved playing in the percussion section. While it’s been a while now since I played, I still have a lot of love for orchestral music.

That holds true for holiday music, too. Whether it was the winter concert in college or playing on stage at local shopping malls, there was at least one concert a year with Christmas music. So for today, rather than pick a single song, here are performances of three songs that I remember from my orchestra days.

“Sleigh Ride”
By Leroy Anderson

The running joke in college was that if it was the Winter Concert, if the band didn’t play “Sleigh Ride” then the orchestra would.  This song was a favorite of our conductor, Dr. Nicholas J. Contorno, and while we joked about it, I actually did love this song. 

I usually played xylophone for this song — someone else would get the coveted whip part. And the horse neigh at the end would be played by whatever trumpet player claimed she/he could make it sound realistic. (Spoiler: it didn’t much of the time.)

After college, I was in a community band also directed by Nick (“Dr. C.” as he was affectionately known), and sure enough, “Sleigh Ride” was always played in December. Every once in a while, I’d get the whip crack (and once made my ears ring by hitting it too hard). But more often than not I pulled multiple duties since our percussion section was small. I’d have sleigh bells in one hand, a single bell mallet in the other, playing both simultaneously. Then sometimes I’d have to quick switch to snare drum or wood blocks for horse shoe effects.

Even in those situations I loved the song. So enjoy this performance by the Boston Pops Orchestra, conducted by the Master, John Williams.

“A Christmas Festival”
By Leroy Anderson

Another Leroy Anderson classic, this song is more than just a medley of familiar Christmas carols. No, he wrote an orchestral overture, weaving a musical story that starts strong, calms down in the middle, and ends with a flourish. “Deck the Halls”, “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”, “Silent Night” and “Jingle Bells” are but a few of the songs we hear.

I absolutely enjoyed how this song ebbs and flows. The drum roll at the beginning sets the mood. The trumpet call, the woodwind harmonies, the brass and percussion filling in — it’s beautiful. I particularly love how this song seems made for tempo changes — slowing down and speeding up for tension and release. I miss playing this song, and I rarely hear it these days. Every once in a while I’ll catch a snippet while walking in a shopping mall (in the Before Times). Thankfully there’s YouTube for when I want to hear it.

“C’est Noel! It is Christmas!”
By Andre Jutras

But finding a way to listen to “A Christmas Festival” is a piece of cake compared to finding a good recording of this one. Very few videos of this exist. I’d wager very few people know this song, even in the orchestral world.

Andre Jutras uses “He Is Born, the Child Divine” as the structure of this song, weaving in “Silent Night” and “Angels We Have Heard On High”. The choruses are bright and percussive, the verses, and especially Silent Night, are calm and reflective.

The song opens up with a great brass and chimes intro, leading into the chorus of brass and staccato percussion that just absolutely pops. The tempo and volume changes bring in different moods of Christmas, and it all ends in a reprise of the opening, with a grand flourish at the end.

If I remember correctly, I was talking with Nick in his office one day and mentioned I loved this song. A few days later, he pulled it out for the community band when we first started rehearsing for our winter performances. Nick was good like that — he listened and made sure that everyone was free to appreciate music in their own way.

Nick instilled in me a love of band and orchestra music that will never leave. Sadly, he is no longer with us, but his caring and compassion and love will remain as long as we remember him and the music he inspired. So this isn’t so much as an orchestral music appreciation as it is a Dr. C. appreciation. Thanks, Nick. I’ll keep your love of music with me for this Christmas and many more.

Tomorrow – an 80’s pop queen.