Pine Bluff Symphony Orchestra delights with Christmas concert

The Pine Bluff Symphony Orchestra under the direction of conductor Charles Jones Evans bestowed an early Christmas present to the large crowd that gathered in the auditorium of the Pine Bluff Convention Center on Saturday night in the form of Holiday Traditions: Music of the Season.

The orchestra’s annual holiday extravaganza offered a rich feast of seasonal offerings that were augmented by dancers from the Arkansas Festival Ballet; the Bells of Hope handbell choir from First United Methodist Church in Monticello; local baritone Matt Soto; and Jennifer Fox, who recited ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” to the accompaniment of the symphony.

The concert began with a spirited performance of Overture to the operetta Die Fledermaus by Johann Strauss Jr. The string section centers this piece with a beautifully flowing melody that is accented with contributions from the woodwind section, most notably the clarinets and oboes.

Evans said that while the piece was written to evoke New Year’s Eve in Vienna, Austria, it has since become evocative of the holiday season as a whole.

Soto thrilled the audience with his rendition of the soaring yet plaintive Ave Maria by Franz Schubert, ably backed by the spot-on harp performance of Ann Knight Cooney and the rest of the orchestra.

Soto’s strong vocals were again the centerpiece for the symphony’s performance of Irving Berlin’s nostalgic Christmas classic White Christmas.

The Bells of Hope accompanied the PBSO in the performance of Coventry Carol arranged by John Bartsch, and Carol of the Bells by Leontovich and Wilhousky, arranged by Hayman; and were the sole performers of Angels Sang at Bethlehem by Matthew Prins.

The handbells introduced Coventry Carol and were soon joined by the mournful notes of the cello, followed by the violins playing in a minor key. The extreme sorrow evoked by the piece is due to it being written in the 1500s as a commemoration of the murder of children by order of King Herod after the birth of the baby Jesus.

The second half of the concert was easily the most fanciful and visually beguiling as Scenes from Act I of The Nutcracker by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky were brought to life with very nearly the entire company of the Arkansas Festival Ballet taking to the rather narrow onstage space between its edge and the orchestra.

Scene No. 6, Clara and the Nutcracker-Midnight, brought easily 40 dancers to the stage, made up of groupings of girls ranging in age from toddlers to young women and several men there to play key roles in the ballet.

As the scene unfolds, the story’s protagonist, Clara, is given a traditional wooden soldier nutcracker by her Uncle Drosselmeyer at a Christmas Eve party.

As the PBSO robustly plays Scene No. 7, The Battle with the Mice takes center stage as the mice under the command of the Mouse King take on the toy soldiers led by the Nutcracker who was magically brought to life by Drosselmeyer.

As the scenes continued to unfold the dancers amazed the audience with their ability to perform difficult routines in a very confined space.

The always popular PBSO rendition of Sleigh Ride by Leroy Anderson was accompanied by the requisite sound effects of sleigh bells, cracking whips and the whinny of a horse.

The Twelve Days of Christmas, which was the sing-along selection, closed out what was a thoroughly entertaining performance by the Pine Bluff Symphony Orchestra.