It was with a mixture of incredulity, excitement and trepidation that I presented myself, dressed a bit like a Christmas elf, for Ashford Sinfonia’s Christmas Spectacular at the Tower Theatre in Folkestone on 21 December. I hadn’t played in a concert in a “proper” venue for over 40 years and I’d found much of the music very – ahem – challenging in rehearsal.
In the event it was an unexpectedly upbeat (pun very much intended) occasion with a full auditorium and a delightful family atmosphere. The orchestra was there as a guest of Hythe Salvation Army band, of which our conductor Wesley Carroll is a member and is conducted by his father Richard. Many Carrolls across three generations took part along with lots of other Salvation Army clans and we were all made to feel part of a joyful extended family – especially over a splendid buffet tea between the rehearsal and the concert.
The orchestra played three pieces and accompanied some audience carols. Of these the theme music to the 2004 film The Polar Express, by Alan Silvestri and Glen Ballard, arranged by Jerry Brubaker, was, from where I was sitting anyway, definitely the most demanding. Stringed instruments do not play comfortably in keys with half a dozen sharps or flats and in a very high register – and the piece requires all of that and more. We had, however, worked very hard at it both together on Monday evenings and in many manic practice sessions at home. On the night it seemed to come together surprisingly well, with some lovely work from the brass and woodwind sections, and was – although I never thought I’d say this – finally quite fun to play. It seemed to go down well with the audience too. Also enjoyable was A Most Wonderful Christmas, a collection of familiar melodies with lots of tempo and key changes. And as for the Christmas Medley, written and arranged by Wes, well it was such a joy to hear his fabulous piano continuo that it was quite hard to concentrate on one’s own part.
Wes’s outstanding pianistic ability also shone through in the semi-improvised accompaniments to the three Christmas songs warmly sung by Steve Hawkins and in music to accompany the collection taken by the Salvation Army – to be split between Folkestone and Hythe Operatic Society which runs the Tower Theatre and the Army’s own causes.
The Salvation Army band itself delighted us with Joy to the World as well as playing with us in A Most Wonderful Christmas and their choir gave a lot of strength to audience (and sometimes orchestra) singing.
Other highlights included children singing Away in a Manger, three young girls performing with tambourines, Richard Carroll’s expert compering, and thoughtful seasonal inputs from Salvation Army leaders.
All in all it was a highly successful evening and I hope very much that I can look forward to taking part in a similar Spectacular in eleven months’ time. I’ll keep practising my seventh position semi quavers in F sharp major meanwhile.