The McLean Orchestra presented a spirited Christmas concert, complete with sing-along carols, to a capacity audience Saturday night at Langley High School. Not much of the music challenged the intellect, but most of it was well-performed and all of it was perfectly in the spirit of the season.
A short first half began with the Polonaise from Rimsky-Korsakov's Christmas Eve Suite and a cute pairing of Leroy Anderson's 100 percent American "Sleigh Ride" with the Russian equivalent, Prokofiev's "Troika" from the Lieutenant Kije Suite.
The trumpets and percussion were excellent in these works, and the overall level of playing was good, although it took some time for the tempo of "Troika" to settle in.
Robert Aubry Davis, resplendent in a red-bordered white satin scarf, provided narration for "The Littlest Angel," the story by Charles Tazewell and music by Franklin Lockwood.
Music Director Arnald D. Gabriel did a fine job coordinating the narration with the music.
Davis's narration, although clear, energetic and evocative, tended to sound a bit tongue-in-cheek. There was always a little laugh, a little coy tone to his voice that at times conflicted with the attitude of the music.
Davis's treatment of "The Christmas Story According to St. Luke," a medley with chorus and orchestra by Robert Wagner, was more straightforward, and thus more effective. The quality of the composition, which included a variety of carols forgettably linked together, was pretty average, and did nothing to enhance the familiar words. It was just mall music.
The chorus was the McLean Choral Society. Gabriel turned over the baton to its conductor, Thomas Beveridge, to continue with two selections from Vivaldi's "Gloria." They sang with good diction but with a soft sound that was easily dominated by the orchestra at its quietest.
Not much happened musically in "Gloria"; it just seemed to go on its Baroque way with little intervention from either performers or conductor. But Holst's unaccompanied carol "In the Bleak Midwinder" was a perfect gem. Another carol, "A Virgin Unspotted," was also nicely performed, and the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel's "Messiah" was crisp and well-paced (and nobody stood up! Hallelujah!).
Gabriel returned to conduct "Let There Be Peace on Earth" and then the caroling began. The carols were an arrangement by Gordon Munford that included snippets from "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" to set up each successive carol. The modulations from key to key were pretty clumsy, but the idea was good, and the audience joined in with enthusiasm.
In order to hold more than 100 singers on the stage, the orchestra was set up in a somewhat unusual manner, with the first violins and cellos in front on a platform a foot and a half lower than the stage, the rest of the orchestra, including second violins and violas on the stage, and a large space (when there was no chorus) between the back of the orchestra and the reflecting panels. Perhaps it was because the inside strings (seconds and violas) had more prominence, or because the distance in front of the reflectors reduced the focusing effect on winds and brass, but the instrumental balance was terrific, and produced the best overall orchestral sound from this group heard so far.