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"Holiday Sparkle" too diffuse to reach its full shine (review)

The National Arts Centre Orchestra “Holiday Sparkle”
with Emilie-Claire Barlow and David Myles
NAC Presents
NAC Southam Hall
Friday, December 18, 2015 – 7 p.m.

View photos of Emilie-Claire Barlow with the NAC Orchestra in "Holiday Sparkle"

“When we said 'Holiday Sparkle', we meant it”, vocalist Emilie-Claire Barlow told the audience at the NAC Orchestra's Christmas show. There was even an orchestra dress code for this show that encouraged sparkly fabrics, she explained – and her own bright gold sequined dress had no problems fitting in.

Emilie-Claire Barlow sounded at ease with the large sound of the NAC Orchestra, her strong and flexible voice easily hitting the high notes ©Brett Delmage, 2015

But while visually the show did indeed sparkle, musically it dragged. This was not because of the musicianship: both the orchestra and the featured musicians sounded crisp, enthusiastic, and well-coordinated, but rather a programme that lacked focus and diffused its energy into too many paths.

The NAC tried to reach the singer-songwriter and roots audiences with Maritimer David Myles; the classical audience with Ralph Vaughan Williams; and the jazz crowd with Barlow, and didn't give quite enough to any of them in the 100 minutes of music to be really satisfying.

The show opened with two pieces by the orchestra: a pleasant medley of Christmas carols (appropriate as an overture), and an unexciting “Fantasia on Greensleeves” by Vaughan Williams. Then Myles sang four original songs, mostly from his recently-released It's Christmas album, including “It's Christmas”, “The Gift”, and the delightful Roger Miller-influenced “Santa never brings me a banjo”.

Myles easily charmed the audience and evoked classic Christmas warmth in an unhackneyed way, and well deserved the enthusiastic applause he received. But he almost looked lost on the huge stage, and the music he sang didn't need the power nor the diversity of the orchestra: he would have sounded better on a smaller stage with at most a string quartet, or just his guitar and a bass player.

The first set closed with conductor Alain Trudel's adaptation of a Ukrainian folksong, “Kozachky”, performed with verve and drama, and fully using the orchestra's capabilities with its strong dynamics.

The second, longer, set was the jazz show. The orchestra opened with a medley of tunes from A Charlie Brown Christmas, paying tribute to that music's 50th anniversary, and keeping the playfulness and charm of the original. Pianist Amanda Tosoff particularly shone on “Linus and Lucy”.

Then Barlow entered to sing three songs from her recently-released album, Clear Day, which had been arranged for orchestra and her jazz quintet. “On A Clear Day” was hopeful and exultant, the arrangement fitting the grandeur of the full orchestra, while still allowing for the easy familiarity between Barlow's voice and Kelly Jefferson's tenor sax in exploring the melody. Barlow sounded at ease with the large sound of the orchestra, her strong and flexible voice hitting the high notes with no audible strain at all.

“Midnight Sun” had a more sensual feel, with the orchestra enhancing the Latin beat of the music. It slowed down at the end to a sweet, intimate ballad, and ended with one last held note from Barlow. “Si j'étais un homme” by Quebec songwriter Diane Tell was more oversize in feeling and orchestration, with strongly heartfelt vocals, and featuring Reg Schwager in a delicate and finely-attuned guitar solo. I found it a bit too theatrical for my taste.

Then the show went back to its holiday theme, with many pieces from Barlow's previous Christmas album, “Winter Wonderland”. She and her quintet dropped the orchestra to sing the swinging “Let It Snow”, with Jon Maharaj on bass and Fabio Ragnelli on drums keeping the momentum going nicely, and Tosoff contributing a sizzling piano solo.

One of the highlights of the show was when Myles came back to sing a duet with Barlow on “What are you doing New Year's Eve?”. It was a graceful collaboration, their voices melding beautifully, with just strings in the background. They gave the polished lyrics to the jazz standard an unfeigned and gentle reading and wowed the crowd, evoking extended and very strong applause.

“Little Jack Frost”, Barlow's “bah humbug” winter song, was another quintet-only piece with piano, bass and guitar dancing around each other to add to the bouncing, happy feel.

“The Christmas Song”, on the other hand, used the full orchestra to provide a rich and dramatic background for Barlow's wistful evocation of an ideal Christmas.She followed that with an intense ballad, “Jardins d'hiver”, from her Seule Ce Soir album, whose romantic theme was enhanced by the simple arrangement, emphasizing the deep power of the orchestra's strings section.

“Winter Wonderland” was introduced by quietly intense guitar, but quickly developed into an full-out collaboration between Barlow, her quintet and the orchestra, with the swing in her voice matched by the swing of the orchestra as she shimmied to the music for a lovely evocation of the beauty of ice and snow.

The last song on the program was a classic holiday number, “Sleigh Ride”, reorchestrated as a samba. It was an interesting idea and it was certainly performed with verve, but I thought the very fast tempo was too rushed for the material and lost a lot of the Latin feel.

After strong and extended applause, Barlow invited Myles back on stage to sing a last carol as a closer, accompanied by the orchestra and with the audience invited to sing along. A fine idea, but why did they pick “Silent Night”? That has to be one of the dullest and least jazzy Christmas carols ever, with a boring melody that has no dynamics for the orchestra to pick up on. They could have picked “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”, with some decent brass sections, for example, or “We Wish You a Merry Christmas”, which was in the opening orchestral medley.

“Silent Night” ended the show on a rather flat note, and didn't appear to get much audience participation. One felt that the standing ovation the audience gave the musicians at the end was more for earlier highlights in the show than this particular song.

Holiday shows can be difficult to program: they need to reach a wide audience, and in keeping with the family-oriented and religious orientation of the season, their choice of material tends towards slower numbers with a heavy dose of sincerity and sentimentality. You don't generally put on your dancing shoes at these shows, or play anything too edgy or too challenging.

When this show was good, it was excellent, but it lacked focus and direction. There was little opportunity for the musicians to step out and do interesting things, or to show off many of the orchestral arrangements in Barlow's new album. Ultimately, the sparkle was there, but not consistently.

    – Alayne McGregor

Read OttawaJazzScene.ca's interview with Emilie-Claire Barlow about her new CD, Clear Day: