A fierce winter storm raged outside the Ryman Auditorium on Thursday night, but inside the hall, all was calm, all was bright. That, at least, was the premise of “Sugar Plums,” Nashville in Harmony’s terrific holiday show.
Nashville’s premier GLBT chorus staged Thursday’s concert as a kind of old-timey radio program. An onstage radio host (played with considerable fun by TV personality Chuck Long) announced songs, introduced guest artists and provided periodic updates on an impending (fictional) snowstorm. His cold-weather reports perfectly (and often comically) set the stage for the evening’s seasonal songs and carols.
Long, for instance, told the crowd that snow had stranded the chorus’ buglers at the Waffle House in Waverly. Conductor Don Schlosser then launched into one of the most remarkable performances of the evening, an a cappella rendition of Leroy Anderson’s “Bugler’s Holiday.” In this dazzling vocal display, the chorus expertly mimicked the sounds of a large brass band, with the singers providing their own “zum, zum, zum” accompaniment to support intricate, interweaving vocal lines.
The chorus was just as impressive during its second-set rendition of “Deck the Halls,” a performance that featured glistening, melismatic “fa-la-la-la-las” and fancy, choreographed hand gestures.
Nashville in Harmony is celebrating its 10th anniversary this season, so naturally it’s doing everything in a big way. On Thursday, that meant performing with a roster of celebrity guests. The most impressive of these stars was the singer J. Karen Thomas, best known for her role on the hit ABC show Nashville (her co-star Chris Carmack also got a brief walk-on).
Thomas opened with a medley of Carpenter hits – “Chestnuts Roasting On Open Fire,” “I’ll Be Home For Christmas,” among others – and she sang every note with style and flair. You definitely got the sense that she grew up listening not to Karen Carpenter, but to Nat King Cole. She sang “Santa Baby” with a smoky alto – this time she seemed to be channeling not Karen Carpenter but Eartha Kitt. Guitarist Richard Smith provided Thomas with bright, rhythmically vital accompaniment.
Smith also made a big impression in his duets with cellist Julie Adams. They were especially memorable in “Little Drummer Boy,” with Smith’s fleet-fingered accompaniment having an exotic flavor.
The real stars of “Sugar Plums,” of course, were the choristers, and they were at their level best in songs of heartfelt immediacy. They sang Vince Guaraldi’s “Christmastime is Here” (from A Charlie Brown Christmas) with simplicity and sweet feeling. Their interpretation of “Believe” (from Polar Express) was notable for its warm expression.
The chorus’ rhythm section – pianist Bob Esparza House, percussionist J.J. Street and bassist Jonathan Price – provided steady and beautifully nuanced support throughout the concert. Saxophonist and clarinetist Max Niederle, violinist Rebecca Waine Mogey and the irrepressible vibraphonist Gregory Price also gave worthy performances.
Nashville in Harmony began 10 years ago with just 19 singers, barely enough to cover all the vocal parts of its repertoire. The group now boasts over 140 singers, and it has won a slew of awards, including the Nashville GLBT Chamber of Commerce’s “Leadership in the Arts” award. On Thursday, Mayor Karl Dean even stopped by to pay his respects. Like the rest of us, Dean probably suspects that Nashville in Harmony is just getting started. One can only imagine what the next 10 years will bring.