The annual Christmas Concert always showcases a range of ensembles, large and small, and the Symphony Orchestra is now very large indeed. Even more impressive is that all the key players are pupils with only a very small scattering of teachers and local musicians to fill out the textures. Few schools outside specialist music schools could boast the quartet of horns who opened Marcus Pashley’s beautifully shaped rendering of Humperdinck’s “Hansel and Gretel” overture. The players really captured the echoes of Wagner’s “Die Meistersinger” and a huge audience warmly applauded this full-toned performance. Even more popular was the selection from “Les Misérables” with some excellent work from percussionist Tom Hollister; I was perhaps the only listener who would have preferred Schoenberg to Schönberg, but not even Marcus Pashley could tackle the Second Viennese school on one rehearsal a week.

The smallest ensembles were wind and wind with piano quintets but we heard ten different players, such is the depth of talent among our wind soloists. In a Mozart movement Ben Rudolf played stylishly with real light and shade and the wind players blended mellifluously, while retaining the individual timbre of their instruments. Especially welcome was the way Tim Ayling ensured his horn did not brassily stand out from the texture. The talents of five of our best wind soloists were, I felt, somewhat wasted on a curious transformation of “choons” from Beethoven’s Fifth symphony into a Bossa Nova by Tim Greaves. There was still much pleasure to be derived from the sense of rhythm and lovely tone of these five players.

Many of Cranleigh’s musicians are remarkably versatile and thus spend most activity times in rehearsals on top of their individual lessons and solo practice.  One such is Ben Rudolf, who led the string orchestra in part of Grieg’s ‘Holberg Suite’: his hardanger fiddle-style solos in the “Rigaudon” sounded, appropriately, like a sort of Norwegian drunken sailor’s hornpipe.  Another fine moment was the ’cello duo from Paul Gallagher and Louisa Golden.  Kevin Weaver’s performance was more Grieg than Holberg (the latter was the founder of modern Norwegian and Danish literature who died in 1754), full of romantic ardour, and yet keeping the rustic flavour in the “Gavotte”. It was good also to hear the pizzicato bass in the “Sarabande” made clear, for once.

The last time I heard Moross’s theme from “Big Country” was in a dubious dive bar in New York played by a keyboard and percussion duo, the Lounge-o-leers. The grandeur of its big tune was better captured by the Symphonic Wind Band under Ruth Miller and the perfect tuning (to my ears, at least) of so many young players was quite remarkable. This seemed almost a warm-up, however, to a confidently brassy and funky rendition of music from ‘The Incredibles’ by award-winning film music composer Michael Giacchino. The world of composing has changed a bit since the time of Bach and this 44-year-old American’s first major work was for a video game soundtrack.  Obviously music for a Disney movie will not sound like Brian Ferneyhough or Boulez but there was a healthy Bernstein influence here and one might hope that as Disney’s “Fantasia” led earlier generations to Dukas via Mickey Mouse, so such large-scale film music might sow a seed in the ears of the rap generation.

The Cranleigh conductor with the best baton technique and most charisma remains the legendary Bob Wilson and his Concert Band gave us a jolly Christmas medley such as one might hear at Radio City Music Hall on Sixth Avenue.  He then led the Big Band in an idiomatic interpretation of “The way you look tonight” before Jon Oldfield joined them for “Beyond the Sea”.  This was simply fabulous.  Jon’s stage presence is irresistible and his microphone technique helped ensure his light but strongly focused tenor projected naturally. After hearing this, I expect the audience to have snapped up all tickets for next term’s musical (“The Producers”) already. A fresh angle to this performance was the use of the orchestration for the Robbie Williams cd, with wind and strings added.  Jon is a more subtle singer than the Take Thatster and I expect he listened to Kevin Spacey’s impersonation of Bobby Darin as well as Darin himself before putting his own jazzy spin on it.

The band ended the enjoyable evening with a Christmas medley, including a ‘Jingle Bells’ with pizzazz and a stirring “Adeste Fidelis”. The traditional fake snowfall (supplied, as was the excellent lighting, by Mark Jenkins and team) was this year aimed entirely onto Tom Hollister. If he never sang ‘Walking through the Air’ as a boy treble, he was certainly the snowman himself on this second day of December.

PJL