Review: Philharmonic’s Home for the Holidays

Friday night the Lexington Philharmonic Orchestra launched its new Christmastime show, Home for the Holidays, which falls somewhere between the University of Kentucky Choirs’ holiday Collage, the Kentucky Christmas Chorus and the Philharmonic’s own Candy Cane Concert.

Where exactly it falls was still something of an open question after Friday’s performance.

It was a concert that certainly had its moments featuring some cool arrangements of familiar songs and local school and community groups well worth hearing. What the night lacked was cohesion, a real sense of purpose beyond throwing a lot at the stage for a holiday extravaganza.

Candy Cane, part of the Phil’s family series, is where the orchestra used to put on its holiday extravaganza. And there were actually several elements in Friday night’s event that will be included in Sunday afternoon’s Candy Cane performance – including several appearances by Diana Evans Dancers, WLEX meteorologist Bill Meck reading Twas the Night Before Christmas and the concert-closing A Holly & Jolly Sing-Along.

Home for the Holidays supplemented that material with some highlights like great arrangements of Once in Royal David’s City and I Saw Three Ships featuring the Alluring Handbell Choir and a René Clausen choral version of O Holy Night that the Lexington Singers and Philharmonic navigated with beautiful subtlety – something of a refreshing change from the soloist spectacular, which is how the number is often presented.

Less successful uses of the singers were in a few humorous numbers: You’re a Mean One Mr. Grinch and PDQ Bach’s Good King Kong Looked Out. They were delivered with enthusiasm, but quite hard to understand, so the laughs were mostly lost. A lot of the fun of the evening came from Rockettes-like performances from the Diana Evans Dancers, including a high-kicking line on Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

The baffling thing about the dancers’ performance was the lighting. For much of their time on stage, Evans’ crew was stuck in shadows at the front of the stage. It was a shame we had to strain our eyes a bit to see their bright performances.

Other guests acquitting themselves nicely were the Lexington Catholic High School Choir, vocal majors from the School for Creative and Performing Arts and brass musicians from Scott County High School. The Lexington Catholic singers, in particular, presented a very mature performance.

After a weekend of small, baroque renditions of George Frideric Handel’s Messiah, the Philharmonic itself delivered some big, cinematic performances through the evening, including Randol Bass’ setting of Twas the Night Before Christmas.

So there was a bunch to like Friday night. But it just never came together.

There were moments it seemed the idea was taking a fresh look at familiar songs such as Hershy Kay’s Variations on Joy to the World, times it seemed the idea was showcasing local talent like Alluring, times it seemed like a community sing along and times it just seemed like a glorified Candy Cane Concert.

Since coming to Lexington in 2009, Philharmonic music director Scott Terrell has made a lot of changes with the orchestra. Most, like the downsized Messiah last weekend, have come across as a well-articulated artistic vision.

If there are future editions of Home for the Holidays, maybe they will gain focus and cohesion and become a compelling articulation of the orchestra’s take on the holiday spectacular. But this was the rare time in Terrell’s tenure a show has just felt like change for change’s sake.

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