Reviews ...

Joyful holiday gift

... the crowds come out for Yoichi's holiday fun

by Jackie Wattenberg

The annual Holiday Pops of our own Melrose Symphony Orchestra (MSO) was a sparkling event -- large, bright-lighted snowflakes between broad red ribbons on the handsome facade in Memorial Hall, sparkling music of the season, and of course, brightest sparkle of all -- our conductor, Yoichi Udagawa.

His charm and success with our symphony orchestra again brought full houses on both Friday and Saturday evenings last weekend. Starring with him, and a big hit of the evening, was gospel singer Renese King. Between the singer and conductor, the audience was on its feet most of the evening, offering standing ovations. Melrosians love the Pops!

Opening with the Mozart overture to "The Magic Flute," Yoichi said with a smile, "This has nothing to do with Christmas!" So, he renamed it "Santa's Magic Ride!" Closer to Christmas was the "Hansel and Gretel" prelude by Humperdinck, with a beautifully sustained horn solo by Annalisa Peterson. The many themes of the work were carefully interwoven. A new piece by Kenji Kikuchi had its premiere performance, a lively, originally sketched-out small work, followed by "Jingle Bells Forever" in which Yoichi spun around to lead the audience in clapping. Audience performance had a fine subito staccato quality, sustaining, under the conductor's hand, to a high level of fortissimo.

As almost always, Yoichi even told a Christmas joke. Keep reading, and you'll find it.

Renese King came on stage in a ravishing orange gown, mike in hand, and began to sing a lovely, clear soprano voice that soared to high tones with ease, a well-trained voice appealing in its full range. Suddenly she began to do jazzy-gospel tricks with it, wrapping those lovely soprano tones in forte leather, dipping around in a collage of tones and dynamics that brought the house down. Her songs included messages of Noel, which she put over with affecting style.

The orchestra had to jump into quick licks of jazz or gospel, which they accomplished suavely under Yoichi, confident with classical or jazz, and at home with gospel since he himself sings with a gospel group. Ms. King several times hit a very high note with stunning impact. Near the concert's end she returned -- to resounding applause -- to sing the gentle "Little Durmmer Boy," beginning with her soft lyrical tones. But startling to some of us, she began to belt out the delicate phrases, the orchestra right with her. The audience loved it -- this was a pops concert, after all. But seated by serious music lovers, I found it hard to enjoy the song with a wincer on my left and a wincer on my right!

As customary, the program concluded by including a selection celebrating Hanukkah, as well as a sing-along of Christmas carols, with words for us printed in the program. A closed mouth was nowhere in sight or sound. One last cheering standing ovation for the singer, for Yoichi and the orchestra, which deserved it, and for the players who were all in snappy good form all evening.

Yoichi's joke told in his disarming light style: A man visited a town in Texas, and saw a nativity scene in which the Wise Men stood dressed as firemen.  Asked why, the Texas native, in Southern accent, replied, "Just as the Bible described it -- 'the Wise Men came from a-faar!'"

These holiday pops are proving to be such sellouts that many people reserve their seats a year ahead. Yoichi Udagawa is certainly a Christmas gift to this city.

Reprinted with permission from the Melrose Free Press

January 5, 2006

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