Musicians fill center with seasonal sounds

Some of the best work of Sunday's Kansas University Holiday Vespers happened months before the concert.

Though the 225 singers and the orchestra gave festive performances, the music selected for the concert -the 80th annual at KU - almost guaranteed a crowd-pleaser. Only a real scrooge couldn't have found something to enjoy.

From the beginning, the Symphonic Choir, under the direction of John Paul Johnson, was stationed at posts around the Lied Center, enveloping the audience in the beautiful "Jesus Christ the Apple Tree" by Elizabeth Poston. The men of the choir, still positioned around the hall, also were stunning on Franz Biebl's "Ave Maria."

However, the trade-off of having choir members dispersed throughout the audience was that the group had problems staying together in a few spots, at least during the evening performance. It's no doubt difficult to stay together when, in some cases, hundreds of feet separate singers.

Other particularly engaging pieces were "Fantasia on Christmas Carols" by Ralph Vaughan Williams, which featured a solid solo by Jeffrey McEvoy, and "Joy to the World," a jazzed-up version of the tune sung by the KU a cappella group Genuine Imitation. Who can resist a Christmas carol that features beat boxing?

Even the pieces that weren't traditional holiday tunes were accessible for the audience. Johann Strauss Jr.'s "Kunstlerleben Waltzes" were playful, while Symphony Orchestra conductor Nicholas Uljanov directed the audience in how to clap along with Johann Strauss Sr.'s "Radetzky March."

While much of the music was centered on Christmas, the choir may have hit its stride on a Kwanzaa song. "Harambee - A Call to Unity" featured simple, locked-in harmonies, and the directing (or was it dancing?) of Paul Tucker, assistant choir director, sold the Gospel-like tune.

Unfortunately, there were two elements to the show meant to engage the audience that didn't quite work. On four traditional carols, directors invited the audience to sing along using song sheets provided at the door. However, few in the audience appeared to have received the sheets, making the sing-along difficult on lesser-known verses of songs such as "O Come, All Ye Faithful."

Also, an actor with a stage-prop gun who slinked his way around the stage on Johann Strauss Jr.'s "Auf der Jagd" ("On the Hunt") seemed a little too gimmicky even for a family-friendly holiday concert.

For those who attended Sunday's performances, and for those who will hear the Holiday Vespers during rebroadcasts on Kansas Public Radio, the music should serve both as a kick-start to get in the holiday mood and a reminder of the talent that exists at KU.

It's performances like Vespers that give music-lovers a reason to live in college towns like Lawrence.

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