One of the magic powers of music can be the transformative makeover of a work so familiar it is cliché. Take the 200-year-old German Christmas carol, “Silent Night,” that holiday-season staple of grade school pageants, crossover albums and elevators.
The version delivered Saturday by the Terre Haute Symphony Orchestra was no one’s cliché. Arranged by Chip Davis, the founder of Manheim Steamroller, this “Stille Nacht” practically defines the magical musical makeover.
In fact, in an evening richly packed with musical highlights, the deceptively subtle “Stille Nacht” may have been the highest and brightest. Opening with simple solo keyboard, then cello, the Davis arrangement grows and metamorphosizes into a lush orchestral dazzler that sounds more like a cosmic jazz love song than a mere Christmas carol. To sit still for the THSO’s six-minute rendition – and really listen – wasn’t just to “get into” Christmas, it was to become Christmas.
Then again, the entire concert was something of a dazzler.
Maestro David Bowden led the orchestra with sensitivity through an imaginative mix of holiday-themed works, from the Great American Songbook, cinema, Hanukkah music and classical repertoire. In the second half of the program, Bowden temporarily doubled his responsibilities for “Skaters’ Waltz,” as 120 musicians filled the stage for a “side-by-side” that combined the THSO with the Indiana State University Symphony Orchestra. Bowden then turned his podium over to ISU Director Eric Rohde for the charming Frederick Delius “Sleigh Ride.”
Likely, though, it was guest artist Justin Moniz who most visibly wowed the near-capacity audience in Tilson Auditorium. Only 29, Moniz already inhabits the musical worlds of opera, Broadway, cabaret and choral. Using a hand-held microphone, the young tenor glided through Handel, “The Christmas Song” and two Hanukkah numbers – sung in Hebrew with a little Tevye-like dance step. He then turned “Angels We Have Heard On High” into the sort of showpiece that wins the finals of “The Voice,” hitting a high D-sharp that is well into soprano territory.
And there was more to come in the second half of the concert. Moniz helped the audience through the annual THSO holiday sing-along, performed a lovely “White Christmas,” a dramatic “Bring Him Home” from “Les Miserables” (his pianissimo last notes were heartbreaking), then pulled out all the stops for the evening’s final work, “O Holy Night.”
In the closing phrase, “O night divine” Moniz pinned nothing less than an F over high C. (Can Mozart’s “Queen Of The Night” aria be far behind?)
Other noteworthy performances in the THSO holiday concert were an Eddie Ludema solo on piccolo trumpet (Mouret’s “Rondeau,” aka “Masterpiece Theater”) and a gorgeous arrangement by violist Dan Powers of Gustav Holst’s “In The Bleak Midwinter.”
Two especially touching moments also added an appropriate solemnity to the evening. THSO principal cellist SeungAh Hong offered a poignant, warmly human “Ave Maria” that was dedicated to the late Terre Haute arts patron, Dorothy Drummond. And Bowden, whose considerable artistry and good cheer sometimes make it easy to forget his huge, tender heart, softly advised the audience to use the concert and the season to “get quiet and think about what matters most to you in your life.”