Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: ‘Swing for the Holidays’ Lights Up Green Bay’s Weidner Center

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These titles could get you humming or singing: “White Christmas,” “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” “Jingle Bells,” “Sleigh Ride,” “Let It Snow,” “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”

Very simple stuff, correct?

Place the songs in front of a jazz orchestra.

Add a singer with a bright and supple voice.

Put them in a showcase performance hall.

Now you have “(There’s No Place Like) Swing for the Holidays Featuring the Music of Ella Fitzgerald,” a concert presented Wednesday night by University of Wisconsin-Green Bay Music in Cofrin Family Hall of the Weidner Center for the Performing Arts.

This Christmas concert had swing all right.

There were signals from the stage that the concert will have a future on the UWGB performance calendar – hopes that it will become a tradition.

It certainly is distinctive for this region – Christmas standards (mostly) presented with jazz flavors by established musicians of the region and featuring a singer who is easily understood.

Courtney Sherman was introduced with, “She can and will sing anything.”

Dec. 1 on the same stage, Sherman sang the soprano part of the lofty “Messiah” and was quite into the work. Wednesday, Sherman finessed entirely different music in smooth, flowing, rhythmic, lively and often dynamic ways.

She ended “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” impressively with a huge, long note that you would hurt yourself trying.

Sherman sang in front of the Green Bay Jazz Orchestra made up of members of the UWGB Music faculty along with alumni and expertise from the region. Leading was Adam Gaines, who set the downbeat and was among the many players with solos throughout the performance.

From the get-go, my feeling was the playing was a notch hot for the house. Hot = loud. Yes, the music was jazz with muscle, but sound really flies in the Weidner main hall.

At the core, it was a remarkable event. The concert was part of UWGB Music’s “6:30 Concert Series,” an eclectic array that normally is presented in Fort Howard Hall of the Weidner Center. This concert was placed in Cofrin Family Hall because of an expected larger draw. Kelli Strickland, Weidner Center executive and artistic director, said Wednesday’s audience was 2½ times what Fort Howard Hall holds – or more than 600.

The stage was dressed for the occasion. Two Christmas trees were adorned with white and green lights (UWGB’s colors). Players’ bandstands included strings of multicolored lights. For each half of the program, Sherman dressed differently – first in a black dress with a snow-crystal pattern effect and then in a royal purple lamé dress and with sparkly red shoes. In any song that had reference to snow, large images of snowflakes were projected on the side walls. As the concert progressed, lighting on the stage’s back curtain changed colors, sometimes as solids and sometimes in bands of red and green. Adam Gaines, prominent in leading the orchestra, wore a sparkling red vest. In other words, the show was visual, too.

Popular music was taken to adventurous places out of the mainstream. For instance, “O Holy Night” – with the “O” – would be a sacred version of the hymn. In the concert, it was jazzified under the title of “Oh Holy Night” – the difference-making “Oh” meaning the song comes with a beat. Sherman remarked after her performance that it was “one of the more happening ‘O Holy Nights’.” She seemed to be searching as the song progressed.

The program’s reference to Ella Fitzgerald gave Sherman the opportunity to perform in Fitzgerald’s easy-going style and add a few touches without copying the Fitzgerald voice.

The orchestra mostly hit on all cylinders in zesty treatments of popular songs – four times in instrumentals. A Stan Kenton medley proved to be hard. One twist was Mel Tormé’s famed “The Christmas Song,” not sung, but as a sing-along in heads (“Chestnuts roasting on an open fire…”) as the orchestra mellowed along.

***

Program

(Sung by Courtney Sherman except where noted)

Part I

“Christmas Visions” – instrumental medley arranged by Bob Lowden

“I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm” – Irving Berlin, arranged by Alan Glasscock

“Sleigh Ride” J. Mitchell Parish and Leroy Anderson, adapted by Rimantas Giedratis

“Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” – John Marks, arranged by Frank DeVol

“Christmas Time is Here” – instrumental by Lee Mendelson and Vince Guaraldi, arranged by David Pugh

“Jingle Bell Rock” – James Boothe and Joe Beal, arranged by Jesper Riis

“Blue Christmas” – Billy Hayes and Jay Johnson, arranged by Chris R. Hansen

“Cool Yule” – Steve Allen, arranged by Aaron Hettinga

“White Christmas” – Irving Berlin, arranged by Roger Holmes

Part II

“Jingle Bells” – James Lord Peidmond, arranged by Brian Setzer

“Winter Wonderland” – Richard Smith and Felix Bernard, adapted by Myles Collins

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

“Kenton Xmas Medley” – instrumental arranged by Stan Kenton

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

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

“The Christmas Song” – instrumental by Mel Tormé and Robert Wells, arranged by Paul Jennings

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

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

Encore

“White Christmas” (Reprise) – Irving Berlin, arranged by Roger Holmes

***

Green Bay Jazz Orchestra

Director: Adam Gaines

Vocals: Courtney Sherman

Saxophones: John Salerno, alto 1; Ladislava Gaines, alto 2; Steve Johnson, tenor 1; Ken Barhite, tenor 2; Jennifer Johnson, baritone

Trumpets: Patrick Phelan, John Daniel, Dan Marbes, Adam Gaines

Trombones: Bill Hill, Kelly Galarneau, Bill Dennee, Eric High

Horn: Michelle McQuade Dewhirst

Tuba: Michael Draney

Piano: Christine Salerno

Bass: Andrew Bader

Drums and percussion: Bill Sallak

Drums: Tony Fenner

Guitar: Matt Hillman

***

NEXT in “6:30 Concert Series”: “a very small constortium,” Feb. 12.

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.

Contact me at warren.gerds@wearegreenbay.com. Watch for my on-air Critic at Large editions on WFRV-TV at 6:20 a.m. Sundays. My latest book, “I Fell Out of a Tree in Fresno (and other writing adventures),” is available in Green Bay at Neville Public Museum and Bosse’s.

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