By Ashleah “Bob” White, Staff Writer
Scattered lights were like stars behind the stage, protected by white, sheer curtains vaguely shaped like Christmas trees. A single wreath decorated with poinsettias and a bow held the spotlight, but the glow of excitement radiated from the show.
Saxophones, violins, and voices all filled the Blanche M. Touhill Performing Arts Center of the University of Missouri-St. Louis last Sunday afternoon with sounds of the season. “Jazz for the Holidays,” the name of the program that was open and free to the public, gave the gift of music to 1,400 attendees.
The UMSL Jazz Ensemble, Vocal Point, and the University Orchestra performed under the direction of Jim Widner, Dr. James “Jim” Henry, and Dr. James Richards. The University Orchestra also took guidance from the Arianna String Quartet.
It was a full house but a tough crowd. Most of the audience’s faces were too focused on the music to permit smiles. Despite their poker faces, the fans cheered when they could. Whistles indicated particularly intriguing performances.
“Jazz for the Holidays” offered traditional tunes like “Silent Night” and “Let It Snow,” presented by the Jazz Ensemble and Vocal Point. The most vibrant responses, though, were for the more obscure selections: the University Orchestra’s performance of Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s “Serenade” and Vocal Point’s rendition of “Carol of the Russian Children/The Sleigh,” arranged by Derrick Johnson.
Feet in the audience started tapping when the Jazz Ensemble started playing “Jingle Bells/Good Swing Wancesla.” Some people clapped in time with Ken Kehner on piano and the Jazz Ensemble’s version of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.”
Nothing received more audible praise, however, than Henry’s cover of “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch,” by Albert Hague and Dr. Seuss. Laughter and applause were continuous for three minutes thanks to Henry’s impressive moonwalk and untamable jazz hands. Enthused and impressed, the audience gave a standing ovation, even with two songs left in the program to go.
Though the music was amazing, something better was on stage: love. Widner’s eyes smiled each time he spoke; his thank you’s felt more than sincere. When Henry informed the audience he wants his students to live out their dreams of singing at Carnegie Hall, he seemed genuine.
The best moments, though, occurred all throughout the set list. If one group was performing, the other two would become its audience. Many students on stage smiled; some closed their eyes and nodded their heads to the music. This family of music embodied the holiday season. With that passion, next year’s performance will be magical.
Many students in Vocal Point are also part of UMSL’s University Singers. The University Singers are a 45-voice auditioned concert choir that is also open to students of all majors, according to the Department of Music’s UMSL web page. The group has the opportunity to perform on the Carnegie Hall stage, which Henry compares to the orchestra equivalent of playing at the Super Bowl.
The opportunity to travel to New York City for this privilege is about $1,600 per student. To be able to take every member, Henry asks all to contribute to the group’s Crowdfund page, which can be found at crowdfund.umsl.edu, to reach the total goal of $15,000. The Crowdfund campaign ends December 31; the trip will take place March 23-27.