BRSO presents formidable holiday concert

A local holiday season tradition, the Baton Rouge Symphony Orchestra’s annual “Christmas Brass, Percussion & Harp” concert once again filled the Cathedral of St. Joseph with a joyful noise.

As advertised, Saturday night’s performance was heavy on brass, featuring the instruments in a centuries-spanning program of sacred and secular music. The concert’s audience, including many families, occupied the cathedral’s pews to near capacity.

David Torns, the orchestra’s assistant conductor, led the 15-piece ensemble of trumpets, trombones, horns, euphonium, timpani and percussion through the holiday music mix. When St. Joseph’s organist Robbie Giroir joined in, as he occasionally did, the already formidable musical forces grew exponentially.

Between the ensemble performances, harpist Ashley Toman added sonic variety to the concert through her harp solos. Toman’s extensive repertoire of harp arrangements was especially helpful when the late arrival of a brass ensemble member pushed the concert’s starting time back 15 minutes. Both she and Giroir played solos during an unanticipated prelude to the scheduled concert.

“Christmas Brass, Percussion & Harp,” always by far the most popular offering in the symphony’s Lamar Family Chamber Series, found a fitting home at the Cathedral of St. Joseph. Between the building’s yellow brick walls, towering wooden ceiling and rock-solid floor, the brass instruments have a resonant, complimentary space in which to play.

Opening selection, “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” featuring the brass ensemble and Giroir up in the organ loft, was indeed joyful and triumphant. The natural grandeur of brass instruments also came forth in William Lucas’ harmony-rich arrangement of “We Three Kings.”

Often-played and easy to play though many of Saturday’s selections were, Torns and the musicians nonetheless performed spirited renditions of the old tunes. There were also fresh, sometimes rather daring new arrangements, including Toman’s solo harp performance of the Mel Tormé classic that’s been recorded by everyone from Nat King Cole and Tony Bennett to Trace Adkins and Clay Aiken, “The Christmas Song.”

Another tradition associated with the symphony’s annual holiday brass concerts is the inclusion of a few antiphonal selections. The term, antiphony, comes from Christian chant. It refers to two choirs performing the identical chant in alternation.

Saturday’s antiphonal works included 17th-century Italian composer Domenico Gabrielli’s “Canzon septimi toni,” No. 2. As the brass players stood in lines along the opposite side walls of the cathedral, Torns conducted Gabrielli’s ancient, even otherworldly music from the center aisle.

Making a concert of overplayed music fresh is a challenge, but programming arrangements that, in their attempt to be fresh, obscure beloved melodies nearly beyond recognition may be a step too far. The venerable “Silent Night” got the latter treatment, but the liberally changing tempo in “We Wish You A Merry Christmas” succeeded in freshening up this infectiously cheery carol thought to date to 16th-century England. And a swing version of “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!” easily became the concert’s jazziest, sassiest selection.

In another example of tradition, the conductor and the musicians joined Giroir in the organ loft for the night’s climactic finale, a performance of the chorus that closes part two of George Frideric Handel’s oratorio, “Messiah,” aka the “Hallelujah Chorus.”