Reviews ...

Christmas Gift to Melrose -- MSO Holiday Pops

... the Melrose Symphony can do no wrong ...

By Jackie Wattenberg

If S. Claus himself had flown down into Melrose Saturday night, he would have found a chilly welcome -- not from the sudden cold that hit us, but because almost everybody in town was at the Melrose Symphony Orchestra's "Holiday Festival Pops" in Memorial Hall. All except for those who had gone the night before. Full houses both nights and standing room only Saturday for more than a dozen late-comers, who sat on the stairs.

The charming, young conductor, Yoichi Udagawa, was back on the podium, sharing it with hefty Jim Capone and his marvelous Acme Big Band.

Glenn Miller, Harry James and Count Basie were alive in that hall, their music played with great swinging rhythm and spirit by all the 15 band musicians; Jim Capone himself plays a smooth meandering sax.

Tables before the stage for drinks and snacks took up quite a bit of room, but the hall for two nights was overflowing with devotion to this symphony. Astonishing. And gratifying.

Well, there's no local college, only one theatrical production by adults each year, one big dance program, the Nutcracker. There are other musical groups in town and nearby, but none that inspires such loyalty as the Melrose Symphony. Of course, they've had 60 years to build up their audiences.

As one musician put it, on evenings of concerts by the Melrose Symphony, this is the place for anybody who is anybody to be. And it was fun! Not a great musical evening, but Classical Lite. And, for the throngs who cheered the Big Band, the swinging and swaying of the '40s style music was a winner. Plenty of grey and white heads suggested that they had once danced "swing" to those numbers, and might have again if only there had been room on the floor.

Udagawa directed a few very light pieces; several sections from Bizet's "L'Arlesienne Suite." The Adagietto was nicely subdued, the Fandango in bright march tempo; flutes shone in many spots, but these flutes always shine. A "World Premiere" of a "Holiday Overture" by Jun Toguchi, a friend of the conductor, proved a pleasant little piece, if a little long for its development.

In the spirit of informal conviviality, Udagawa told a joke before lifting his baton for "Skater's Waltz," familiar but ever charming. A man was ice fishing, he said, when he heard a deep voice warning "There are no fish down there!" The voice of God speaking to him, he thought, till the voice called, "No fish down there -- and I'm the skating rink manager!" The young conductor has captured his audience, by improving the orchestra sound and by his easy, chatty manner.

Band leader Capone also was relaxed and amusing, and played some of the renowned oldies -- Two O'Clock Jump, Take the "A" Train, and recalling "Casablanca," that film's "As Time Goes By." (After which a man shouted "Play it again, Sam!") All the band soloists played expertly, with jazzy freedom and inventiveness. And all rated applause.

The crowd gave standing ovations after every group Saturday evening, whether classical or pop.

A good line from Capone: "It is nice to be important, but it's more important to be nice." A warm "Auld Lang Syne" for the end of this millennium ended the band's session. Udagawa stood behind the band conducting a portion of his orchestra, but the great brass and horns pretty much drowned them out.

Then they came forward with their best of the orchestra's evening, Sounds of Hannukah; a medley of Christmas favorites and finally a Christmas Sing-Along for carols whose words were in our programs.

Some wished for more Christmas music, perhaps a singer for the lovely carols. They could have added to the Christmas spirit. But the program was explicitly termed a "Holiday Festival Pops," not a Christmas program. And the audience offered glad tidings. The Melrose Symphony can do no wrong, and will be welcomed royally into the 2000s.

December 27, 1999  

Originally published in
Reprinted in the Melrose Mirror with permission of the Melrose Free Press.

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