CSO welcomes Yule in family-friendly fashion

Sat Dec 19, 2009 at 11:34 am

By Wynne Delacoma

The Nutcracker
and A Christmas Carol have been seasonal traditions a lot longer than the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s annual set of Welcome Yule! performances. But for a zesty little evening of high-spirited Christmas music, dancing and a cliff-hanger skit about Santa Claus and his malfunctioning GPS, Orchestra Hall is the place to be.

This is the 15th anniversary of Welcome Yule!, and the show, which runs through Dec. 23, felt both finely tuned and extremely fresh at its opening performance Friday night.

The CSO had experimented with Christmas programming over the years, but not until Duain Wolfe arrived as director of the Chicago Symphony Chorus 16 years ago did it find a winning format. Wolfe is the force behind the family-friendly Welcome Yule! programs, and he has polished them to a high sheen. With his neatly trimmed beard and bald pate, Wolfe can look like a slimmer version of Santa Claus himself. And he is a gifted program host, entirely at ease talking with actors and audience. He also has an unerring sense for finding the right balance between silly, snappy patter and serious musicianship.

Welcome Yule! works because, like a gourmet feast, it is made of top-quality ingredients. The eight dancers who came and went in a seemingly endless variety of costumes and dance styles belong to some of the city’s top dance troupes. With Chicago’s South Side echoing nicely in his flat vowels, actor Tim Gregory (also the show’s stage director) was endearingly officious as a cop trying to cover for a late-arriving Santa Claus. The evening’s child actors were disciplined and never cloying.

Sometimes when actors and dancers join a symphony orchestra, they seem to disappear against a background of music stands and seated musicians. But the black flooring installed at the front of the Orchestra Hall stage guaranteed that, for most of the audience, the actors and the dancers’ choreography by Harrison McEldowney would be clearly outlined against a smooth, dark background.

The musical fare didn’t exactly challenge a chorus and orchestra capable of wrestling Mahler’s complex symphonies into sublime submission. But the CSO members who made up the Welcome Yule! roster seemed to get into the spirit of things. Gary Fry’s musical arrangements had colorful touches, with a bit of Bach or a tidbit from Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker flashing by. The Chicago Symphony Chorus sounded elegantly ethereal in Silent Night and O magnum mysterium.

But they were even more impressive during the more light-hearted second half of the evening. Only a chorus born and bred on Bach and Mahler could send out the comic patter of The Day Before Christmas by Donald Sosin and Joanne Seaton with such precision. Divided into four groups, they evoked all the chaos of too long a day at the mall. We didn’t miss a word of their yearning for a cup of coffee, their laments about failing to shop in September, the occasional sharp bark of an irritated dog and mewling of a stepped-on cat.

Fry is also director of Voices Rising, the children’s chorus based at the Midwest Young Artists program on the North Shore. Joining the Chicago Symphony Chorus after intermission, they added a light but full-bodied sound to the musical mix.

Welcome Yule! will be performed 1 and 4:30 p.m. Saturday and Wednesday; and 3 p.m. Sunday, Monday and Tuesday. www.cso.org; 312-294-3000.

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