The Toronto Symphony Orchestra with Jann Arden (vocalist), Steven Reineke (conductor), and the Etobicoke School of the Arts Chorus at Roy Thomson Hall; Dec. 14.
At the announcement of the TSO’s 2016/2017 season, I was a little confused by the choice of Jann Arden for a Pops Christmas concert. She holds an iconic place in Canadian culture and music. Even though she released a Christmas album in 2015, her music is not exactly the happiest music; she is known for her thoughtful ballads. I wasn’t quite sure how this would all play out. I’m happy to say Jann Arden is freaking hilarious and loads of fun.
Roy Thomson Hall was packed with revelers. Steven Reineke is a draw by himself; however, many people were there to see Arden in action. There were also quite a few parents of the kids who make up the Etobicoke School of the Arts Choir (ESA). Reineke programs his annual holiday concerts with the same choir. I was surprised that David Ambrose is no longer at the helm of the choir; Megan Benjafield now helms the choir. Hat tip to her for preparing these kids well.
With the choir behind her, Arden spent time spinning around to sing to the Choir, the side seats, and the orchestra. “How’s my bum?”, she asks the choir, huge laughs filling the auditorium. “You guys are everywhere. It’s unnerving up here”, she says spinning around, acting discombobulated. She’s quick, witty, and perfect for a space like Roy Thomson. She totters around the stage throughout her performances, taking time between each song to mock her band, the orchestra, the audience, and herself.
Steven Reineke dances his way through pops concerts at the TSO. His charisma and charm are epic, but so is his musicality. Reineke has a physical vocabulary that appears every time he conducts. He dances on the podium unlike any other conductor I’ve seen; shaping the sound and giving it energy that is infectious. He finishes songs with his baton pointed upwards, his right hand extended up like Freddie Mercury. And, he sways; which is especially noticeable whenever there is a smooth jazzy bit or bossa nova going on in the music. A good chunk of the visual entertainment is watching him have a great time up there.
A few of Arden’s greatest hits made the concert providing a break from the Christmas sound. Her number one song “Insensitive” and the popular “Good Mother” made an appearance. I haven’t heard these songs in years; they were popular when I was very small. They added a nice bit of nostalgia. Arden notes it too, looking back at these songs that would change her life from living in a basement to touring the world.
“It’s such a privilege to sing with this many people,” she says. “This is an opportunity that doesn’t happen very often for pop artists.” Arden isn’t like most pop artists though. In 2002, she recorded a live album accompanied by the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra. Magic can strike twice for Arden it seems; there is something distinctly magical about so many players behind a good band.
The sweetest moment of the evening was “O Holy Night”. Arden’s voice was clear and powerful. Accompanied by the choir, the sound filled the space beautifully. Appropriate ornamentations in the brass and higher woodwinds made the piece shimmer underneath the vocal work. On long notes, Arden squishes the sound into her nasal register. While not entirely unpleasant, it’s distinctly not a choral sound.
Reineke seemed a little off his game, relegated to a secondary position behind the band and Arden. His usual charismatic self was subdued until the second half with “ We need a little Christmas” from Mame and a beautiful “Harry Potter sounding” arrangement of “Carol of the Bells” (which, oddly enough, did not include choir). A strange triple beat entrance set off an early cello entrance at the beginning of “A Charleston Christmas”. The orchestra was fun and bouncy. Special shout out to Gordon Wolfe for wrapping his trombone slide in Christmas lights. And mad props to Kent Teeple who was forced into impromptu Maritime fiddling by Arden.
The Etobicoke School of the Arts Choir sung mostly SAB arrangements to the music. David Pierce, a Canadian Composer, was responsible for all the musical arrangements of the night featuring Arden. He is best known for leading the music of the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Games. HIs arrangements are dreamy stuff for pops orchestras. The choir was articulate and manicured; almost too much. The accents, lifts, and articulations were superb. The overly technical approach to the music made them sound mechanical at times. They sounded the best at the end of sounds when they could let loose, and of course, when Santa arrived.
In tradition, Santa Claus made an appearance. While everyone is focused on the jolly guy, I’m always loving the choir. He always enters to the main theme from “The Polar Express”, full of lovely joy and bright open sound. The last few minutes of the concert are such joy. Communal singing is always a pleasure. What better way is there to end a holiday concert than with “We wish you a merry Christmas”? I had a great time. Christmas Pops are the best way to mark a season.