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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: ‘Swing for the Holidays’ swings indeed in Green Bay

Critic At Large

Green Bay Jazz Orchestra

Program cover with introductory moments for “Swing for the Holidays” at Weidner Center. (Warren Gerds)

GREEN BAY, Wis. (WFRV)

Imagine a sports car, built for speed and power and flash and flair.

Put it on city streets.

Boy, it’s hard to hold that baby to 25.

That’s one set of thoughts about a concert that took place Thursday night with 19 instrumentalists and a vocalist performing around the theme of “Swing for the Holidays.”

An imagined setup: A style of jazz music, swing, is the sports car. The city streets are the original compositions of evergreen holiday music.

The Green Bay Jazz Orchestra played the familiar holiday music popped into gear.

The setting was Cofrin Family Hall in the Weidner Center for the Performing Arts at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.

Most of the musicians are faculty or products of UWGB Music. There is no other jazz outfit like the Green Bay Jazz Orchestra around these parts – a significant number of mature, seasoned, skilled, knowing and sharing players operating as a team. Gathering these musicians takes some doing, and it has to be for a special program.

It takes such an “instrument” to handle the featured selection of Thursday’s concert, “The Nutcracker Suite,” in which jazz whizzes Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn re-invent the classical music of Peter Illyich Tchaikovsky from the enduring ballet.

Ellington and Strayhorn’s music operates on side streets they constructed themselves. Regular folks wouldn’t readily recognize the sights, save for a few thingies here and there. In their “Nutcracker,” the two are off having funsies, playing with nine of the bonbons Tchaikovsky created. The Ellington/Strayhorn imagination makes his theirs.

In one case, they tease. In “Sugar Rum Cherry,” the Sugar-Plum Fairy is more than a tad sultry.

The “Nutcracker” piece is a half hour of jazz complexities, with solos woven throughout by fine players and a lot of Ellington/Strayhorn oomph.

Most recognizable is the “Chinese Dance,” in which it seems Ellington/Strayhorn recognized Tchaikovsky was not that far off from jazz. Thursday, the hopping byplay was colorfully performed by saxophone (Steve Johnson) and clarinet (Eric Hansen).

Watching over the “Nutcracker” performance was a projected image of Duke Ellington wearing a computer-placed Santa hat.

More projections, with animation, were part of the atmosphere for each of the rest of the program’s selections. For “Oy Chanukah,” of Hebrew origins, a spinning dreidel was shown. Accompanying “Blue Christmas” was an overview of a village under a crescent moon. The image for “O Holy Night” was setting of a fireplace in a comfy, holiday-decorated room. Snow scenes were abundant for “Let It Snow,” “White Christmas” and more.

Adam Gaines of the UWGB faculty led the orchestra firmly and surely. Out front was Courtney Sherman, also of the UWGB faculty, with her clear, bright, flexible voice.

Using scores as her road map, Sherman sang familiar songs perked up in jazzy ways with that sports car behind her adding layers of zip in its own way.

This is just me: Just once for the sake of programming change of pace, it would have been nice to hear Sherman solo without the orchestra – and no microphone, either – to let fly with her vibrant voice in that hall with the wonderful acoustics. But swing is the thing with this show, so that might be too much out of character for the theme.

While Sherman might want a few milliseconds back in her performance, she delivered big near the end. First, she went toe to toe with a rising surge of the orchestra to close “O Holy Night” with such intensity that her voice was one with the orchestra. And then she closed “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” with a super-long powerhouse note of luster.

The “Swing for the Holidays” program – called the “newest tradition” on campus – is part of UWGB Music’s explorative “6:30 Concert Series” held in the adjoining, smaller Fort Howard Hall. This was a charged event, with proceeds going to support the performances that have free admission.

***

Green Bay Jazz Orchestra

– Winds: Eric Hansen, clarinet; John Salerno, alto sax; Ladislava Gaines, alto sax, recorder; Steve Johnson, tenor sax; Ken Barhite, tenor sax, clarinet; Jen Johnson, baritone sax, bass clarinet

– Trumpets: John Daniel, Adam Gaines, Patrick Phelan, Marty Robinson

– Trombones: Eric High, Bill Hill, Mike Hogan, Andy Zipperer

– Rhythm: Greg Pagel, piano; Matt Hillman, guitar; Andy Bader, bass; Bill Sallak, drums, percussion; Tony Fenner, drums, percussion

Program: “Swing for the Holidays”

Director: Adam Gaines

Part I

+ “The Nutcracker Suite” – Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, arranged by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn

   Overture

   Toot Toot Tootie (Dance of the Reed-Pipes)

   Peanut Butter Brigade (March)

   Sugar Rum Cherry (Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy)

   Entr’acte

   Volga Vouty (Russian Dance)

   Chinoserie (Chinese Dance)

   Danse of the Floreadores (Waltz of the Flowers)

   Arabesque Cookie (Arabian Dance)

Part II

+ “Oy Chanukah” – Traditional, arranged by Steve Erikson

Courtney Sherman, vocalist:

+ “Let It Snow” – Sammy Cahn, Jule Styne, arranged by Rimantas Giedratis

+ “Blue Christmas” – Billy Hayes, Jay Johnson, arranged by Chris Hansen

+ “Last Christmas” – George Michael, arranged by Jesper Riis

+ “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” – Hugh Martin, Ralph Blane, arranged by Frank DeVol

+ “White Christmas” – Irvin Berlin, arranged by Roger Holmes

+ “O Holy Night” – Adolphe Adam, arranged by Ed Wilson

+ “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” – Eddie Pola, George Wyle, arranged by Denver Bierman

Encore

+ “White Christmas” – Irvin Berlin, arranged by Roger Holmes

***

NEXT (6:30 series): “Words & Music: A Program of Monologues,” a joint event with the “Think Theatre” series, Feb. 11.

THE VENUE: Cofrin Family Hall is one of three performance spaces within the Edward W. Weidner Center for the Performing Arts at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. At its maximum capacity setup, the hall seats 2,021 over its three levels of maple-and-burgundy seats. Opened Jan. 15, 1993, the hall was built to adapt to the needs of orchestra concerts, operas, musicals, plays and organ, band and choral concerts. For acoustical properties, wood is emphasized on the seats, mezzanine and balcony surfaces and walls near the stage. Many surfaces are curved to help shape the sound. Wood is featured for an aesthetic reason, too – a “from here” aura of woodsy Northeastern Wisconsin.

THE PEOPLE: The name Cofrin relates in great degree to A.E. Cofrin, founder of Fort Howard Paper Co., and his son, Dr. David A. Cofrin, who was instrumental in building the Weidner Center through multi-million-dollar donations. A friendship developed between David A. Cofrin (1921-2009) and Edward W. Weidner (1921-2007), the beloved founding chancellor of UWGB. Weidner spoke slowly and carried a big idea. Weidner arrived when there were no buildings on the present-day campus on rolling hills near the shore of Green Bay. His interests ranged from academia to birding to sports. He loved building projects. It was in his blood. He guided the building of the Weidner Center, so named from early on in construction. Weidner admitted his eyes welled once when driving to a performance and seeing a green sign along the highway: WEIDNER CENTER.

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