Christmas from the Daines Concert Hall with the American Festival Chorus and Orchestra at USU is playing for the eleventh year and it’s not a concert you want to miss. It’s as good as any my husband and I (both very interested in music) have ever seen, including those done by the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square. It shouldn’t surprise anyone, however, as the past director of the Tabernacle Choir, Craig Jessop (Dean of the Caine College of the Arts at Utah State University), is at the helm – and wow, does he know how to put on a show. This year’s concert is no exception. The program has a little bit of everything: Christmas carols, classic favorites, new arrangements, and audience participation. There is something for all tastes and ages, and every number is done superbly.
The 200+ audition choir is not only joined by their 65-member world-class orchestra (made up of USU faculty, regional professionals, and select students) and the remarkable Westminster Bell Choir, this year’s concert features the talented 16-year-old Utah native Lexi Walker. Walker sparkles every time she steps onto the stage. With the poise and talent of someone with decades of stage experience, she sings like an angel and entertains the large crowd with ease. When Jessop introduced her, he said that her voice reminded him of a cross between Julie Andrews and Barbara Streisand – big shoes to fill for someone so young. However, she lives up to the comparison and transitions from soaring classical tones to crisp belt sounds seamlessly. Her energy and enthusiasm are contagious, and I loved it when she slipped off her high-heeled shoes and danced into the audience during her upbeat performance of “Jingle Bells”.
The arrangements written for Walker show off all the best parts of her voice and many of them include the amazing choir. What singer wouldn’t want a choir like that singing back-up? Many of my favorite numbers on the program are arranged by singer/song-writer Kurt Bestor. His arrangement of “A Wexford Carol” is hauntingly beautiful and his version of “Gesu Bambino” allows Walker to let her lyrical soprano voice float over the choir’s rich chords, with stunning variations on the beautiful melody. The most unique number is “The Prayer,” where Walker sings a duet with the first chair violinist, Meredith Campbell (concertmaster of The American Festival Orchestra and the Orchestra at Temple Square). Where we are used to hearing another voice in the familiar song, we are treated to the rich, full tones of this world-class violinist in an arrangement that is unforgettably exquisite.
The orchestra is magnificent all evening and plays all but two numbers on the program. Expertly conducted by Jessop, they transport the audience from Logan, Utah to famous symphony halls all over the world. Boyd Edwards, a violinist participating in this production, says that “it is such an honor and privilege to be part of the amazing productions here in Logan”. For such a small valley, we have big talent. That goes for the choir as well. Singers come from a 90-mile radius, but most of them are from Cache Valley and many I know personally. The choir raises the roof with Mack Wilberg’s (Director of the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square) arrangement of “Angels We Have Heard on High,” makes the audience feel nostalgic with “White Christmas,” shows their vocal skills with “Carol of the Bells” and “Carol to the King,” and wraps us up with the beauty and warmth of the season in John Rutter’s “All Bells in Paradise”.
“All Bells in Paradise” is one of the numbers that features the Westminster Bell Choir. Directed by Cathy Ferrand Bullock, they are an interfaith group sponsored by Logan’s First Presbyterian Church. The choir capably rings five octaves of English handbells and handchimes. They are beautiful on their own (“Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming”) and an impressive addition to many other songs on the concert. I did have a little harder time hearing the bells this year, but we were sitting further back in the hall instead of directly under them, so that could be why.
From the opening strains of “Joy to the World” to the final chords of “Angels We Have Heard on High,” the audience is on the edge of their seats during the entire concert. The acoustics in the fairly recently remodeled Daines Concert Hall are perfectly suited to the choir and orchestra’s needs and the sound feels like it is completely enveloping you. I loved every minute of it and found myself moved to tears more than once.
So, if you love Christmas music, enjoy the sounds of a well-directed choir and orchestra, and want to be thoroughly entertained for a few hours, you need to experience the American Festival Chorus and Orchestra. There are only a handful of tickets left for Christmas from the Daines Concert Hall, so hurry over to their website. If you missed this one, you will have future opportunities to hear these fine musicians because they perform year-round, and every concert I have attended has been equally as professional and entertaining. I love that I don’t need to drive to Salt Lake City to enjoy an excellent night of music. In fact, if you live in Salt Lake, it might be time for you to drive to Logan to experience it for yourself.