The program was billed as "The Holiday Concert," a presentation of the entity, Music@NCState. Wes Parker led the Jazz I Ensemble, and Paul Garcia directed the Wind Ensemble, both groups from the stage of Stewart Theatre. That venue proved once again that it has few peers for attendee accommodations. There was quite literally “not a bad seat in the house.” (It would be an unmixed blessing if a couple more f-stops of light could be furnished to the audience during performances. The near total blackout leaves the attendees “in the dark” as to any ability to consult printed program information.)
After a pleasing pre-concert warm-up by a small Jazz II Ensemble in the common area outside the theater, Parker launched the twenty members of Jazz I into a spirited arrangement of “Winter Wonderland.” The following “O Christmas Tree” began in “straight” fashion, and then proceeded in a stylized manner that one might expect from highly skilled jazz players, directors and arrangers. Parker featured his own solo trombone in this number. The group played the "Grinch’s Song," and they appealed to higher powers with “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen.” They honored Charlie Brown, and they closed with a Glenn Miller medley of Christmas favorites.
The work of the Combo deserves celebration. During the jazz half of the evening this Ensemble subset of two saxophones, trombone, piano, percussion and bass “roasted chestnuts by an open fire.” And you probably never heard “We Three Kings” in quite so swinging a manner. These numbers, as with all others during the program, were announced from the stage.
After intermission, Garcia and the Wind Ensemble opened with a full-bodied, even symphonic, arrangement of “Hanukkah Festival.” It is always amazing how good and “complete” some fifty well-led and prepared wind players can sound in a concert setting. One doesn’t tend to sit and mull over how good a given piece would sound if only a few strings were present. Having opened with the Hanukkah piece, Garcia insisted that the audience realize this was a “holiday” concert rather than a Christmas one. He then proceeded to present perhaps a dozen Christmas songs or fragments thereof.
Holst’s “Fantasia on Old Christmas Carols” proved to be an uplifting treatment of those many standbys. Featured here was smooth euphonium solo work in “Good Christian Men.” Perhaps half of the Ensemble’s playing was devoted to arrangements of the group, Mannheim Steamroller, with “Carol of the Bells” and “Stille Nacht” (Silent Night). The latter featured some of the men of the group in a vocalise using oohs and aahs rather than their regular instruments. The generally minimalist arrangement of this all-time most popular Christmas carol was startling and altogether enjoyable.
The Ensemble closed with a well-prepared reading of Leroy Anderson’s mandatory “Sleigh Ride.” So here was a fine Holiday concert, with Christmas ever lurking nearby.