BR Symphony’s concert a festive event

Traditions abound at the Baton Rouge Symphony Orchestra’s “Home for the Holidays” concert.

Two decorated and lit Christmas trees stood watch at each side of the stage. Christmas presents waited beneath the trees and snowflake patterns covered the stage floor.

Conductor Timothy Muffitt, the symphony musicians, the Baton Rouge Symphony Chorus and guest soloists Mara Bonde and Dennis Jesse presented a musical holiday variety show.

Another guest, Dan Borné, the voice of LSU football in Tiger Stadium, read the classic Christmas poem, “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” Borné sat in a chair beneath a Christmas tree, accompanied by the orchestra and four children who listened as they took seats on the stage floor.

Festive and serious selections filled the evening, beginning with a rustic holiday fanfare medley featuring ripe-for-the-season woodwinds parts.

While it’s not unusual for Muffitt to chat with the audience at concerts, he was especially talkative Thursday. The conductor introduced selections and, following the evening’s opener, borrowed a cell phone to snap a photo of the audience for posting on the orchestra’s social media.

After a lively instrumental performance of “We Three Kings of Orient Are,” soprano Bonde and baritone Jesse sang an operatic duet of “O Holy Night.”

The Symphony Chorus joined in next for some lesser-known seasonal sacred music by Francesco Durante. Muffitt quipped that Durante, an Italian contemporary of J.S. Bach and George Frideric Handel, was no relation to that great 20th-century American entertainer, Jimmy Durante. The four movements in Durante’s “Magnificat Suite” ranged from major-key joy to minor-key profundity. The vocal balance in the Symphony Chorus, dominated by female voices as it was Thursday, was unavoidably light.

Early movements in Durante’s suite, pleasant and competent though there are, stay squarely in a Baroque pocket without much distinction. But the deepest of the movements, “”Sicut Erat in Principio,” has a truly spiritual tone, effectively expressed by the orchestra and chorus.

Soloist Bonde and Jesse returned for music by Durante’s British-German peer, Handel. It was all voices on deck during four movements from “Messiah.” Jesse, performing with minimal orchestra accompaniment, sang forboding, dramatic sections of the piece before Bonde performed the joyful tidings of “Rejoice Greatly, O Daughter of Zion.” Of course, the “Hallelujah” chorus, including audience participation, put a triumphant cap on the “Messiah” excerpts.

Lighter notes in the concert included guest conductor Janice Pellar, winner of the symphony’s conductor of the day auction, and Bonde and Jesse in orchestra-accompanied chestnuts “The Christmas Song.”

A few of the latter quite nonoperatic songs, especially “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” and, a sly novelty famously recorded by a brilliantly coy Eartha Kitt, “Santa Baby,” took Bonde out of her element.

For a grand finale, everyone got in the act when Muffitt invited the audience to stand and sing a medley of even more Christmas favorites.