CD Review: Julie Giroux Presents: Concert Band Christmas Gone Crazy
University of Texas at El Paso Symphonic Winds, Ron Hufstader, Conductor
Mark Masters Recordings (2011)
December (and, increasingly, November and even October) are already awash in Christmas music. This is especially true of the concerts (“Winter,” “Holiday,” “Christmas,” “Seasonal,” “Festive,” or what have you) that so many band directors must put on at this time of year. Many of us find ourselves either repeating standard Christmasy repertoire that has worked in the past, or at a loss for something new. In this latter department, the pieces on Julie Giroux Presents: Concert Band Christmas Gone Crazy are a welcome departure from the existing repertoire. The CD cover boasts of “Christmas carols like you have never heard them before!” To a large extent, this is true: Giroux has at least created sophisticated new arrangements of classic carols, and has gone beyond simple arrangement to create truly original treatments and mashups in many cases. All of them would enliven and diversify any holiday program.
Several of the carols featured on this album hew relatively closely to their originals, or at least focus almost solely on the single melody. Giroux brings them to life very naturally through her deep understanding of wind sonorities and symphonic style. “Silent Night in Gotham,” “All Through the Night,” and “The First Noel” all fall into this category. The flugelhorn solo in “The First Noel” is a particularly effective touch. “Merrily on High” begins as a familiar, stoic brass chorale, but is given an adrenaline shot when the percussion announce a key change and the clarinets speed away in their high register. “The Little Drummer Boy’s Bolero” gives us a taste of Giroux’s mashup abilities as she easily combines the familiar Christmas carol with Ravel’s famous Bolero.
Giroux dips into jazz style in “Hark! Those Jingle Bells Are Smokin!” and “I Got Rhythm For Christmas.” The latter is effectively two pieces: a Latin version of Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring followed by a swing romp through “Carol of the Bells.” “Hark!” opens sounding like a typical 6/8 folk song treatment for band before sliding smoothly into a heavy swing. This cranks up to full kick-line power by the end.
The remaining tracks feature some combination of styles or quotation of multiple sources, ranging from more Christmas carols to some Mussorgsky. “Peter Patapan” begins with a recorder and drum duet taken from the French carol “Patapan.” This is later contrasted with moments from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker, especially the “Arabian Dance,” as well as “We Three Kings,” all of which accelerates to a festive Russian dance at the end. “Christmas with Mozart” is a mishmash of Christmas tunes in a Mozartian style, glued together by quotes from Mozart and other classical composers. “What Child Is That Playing Carol of the Bells?” is a sophisticated mashup of “Carol of the Bells” and “Greensleeves,” and probably the most effective piece of music on the album. It starts as a lyrical piece, stretching its arms languidly, but then doubles down on the “Carol of the Bells” ostinato, accelerating to a finish. Giroux’s treatment of “The 12 Days of Christmas” avoids the monotony of repetition by varying the instrumentation for each of the days. It also substitutes other music for parts of the familiar tune, giving, for example, a quote from Swan Lake in place of the phrase for “seven swans a-swimming.” The album ends with “Christmas & Sousa Forever!,” which weaves Christmas carols into the Stars & Stripes Forever without ever missing a beat.
The music is able to speak so clearly for itself thanks to the very fine playing of Ron Hufstader and the UTEP Symphonic Winds. Unfortunately, I’m a little late to the party on this album, having just learned about it in December 2017, despite its 2011 release, so this playing and this music has gone relatively unheralded for far too long. It thus bears repeating that all of this music will add welcome variety to your December concert. In addition, your players will likely roll their eyes a little bit less at the idea of playing Christmas music thanks to Julie Giroux’s thoughtful and witty treatments.