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At Strathmore, Washington Symphonic Brass sound their holiday horns

By Charles T. Downey,

One of the benefits of life in Washington is a surfeit of talented brass players, employed by the area’s orchestras and military service bands. Many talented musicians from the Army and Marine bands, and some from farther away, were featured in the Washington Symphonic Brass’s Christmas concert at Strathmore on Tuesday night. Some of these players will be heard on Christmas Day itself, playing at services in the city’s churches.

Phil Snedecor, the lead trumpeter and artistic director, contributed many of the carol arrangements, which avoided most of the chestnuts in favor of tunes from France, Finland and Poland. Commercial favorites were snuck into medleys, like the Hollywood-style “Christmas Memories,” which had a hilarious bit for tuba in “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” and kazoo parts added to “The Chipmunk Song.” For some pieces, musicians were placed strategically around the hall, creating striking antiphonal effects in the setting of “I Wonder As I Wander.”

Whether this sort of concert comes off as comforting nostalgia or cringe-inducing kitsch depends on the listener, but no one attends something like this without knowing what to expect. Snedecor’s arrangements treaded close to the edge of good taste in mash-ups of some tunes, like “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” crossed with “Simple Gifts” and “Carol of the Bells” with “God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen.” Then he leapt across the divide with a bizarre, seven-minute distillation of the main theme of the final movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, complete with a swing break in the middle. One felt slightly bad for the members of the National Philharmonic Chorale, who sang in only a couple of numbers and otherwise sat silent.

Downey is a freelance writer.

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