Review: 2015-1 Dickinson Christmas Extravaganza

Just as promised, the Christmas Extravaganza, held on December 12, was spectacular and exciting!

The concert opened with Lance Luce, guest organist in his third concert with DTOS, who also served as the emcee for the evening, at the mighty Kimball organ rising up from below the stage playing a wonderful rendition of We Need a Little Christmas, followed by Let It Snow and Winter Wonderland. Ironically, it was 630 the night of the concert! His next pieces, Do You Hear What I Hear? and The Little Drummer Boy, featured the drums and cymbals – technology from the 1920’s.

Then entered Mary Ellen Schauber, critically acclaimed soprano with an impressive regional operatic portfolio, who sang a beautiful arrangement of Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas, accompanied by Lance on the Dickinson Kimball.

Lance then performed 2 more pieces that were reminiscent of his earlier days in Detroit at Hudson’s Department Store – Here Comes Santa Claus and Santa Claus is Coming to Town.

Justin DeMartino, local performer from Sight and Sound Theaters (“Joseph”), sang White Christmas, accompanied by Lance.

Lance’s next piece required 3 hands! Composer Leroy Anderson’s Sleigh Ride featured two sets of the Kimball’s sleigh bells as well as the glock, xylophone, and the “slap.”

Next up on the program was violinist Alexander Weir, a junior at Archmere Academy, who has been studying classical violin since the age of 3. Alex delighted us with Some Children See Him, a beautiful blend of the violin and organ.

Once again featuring the Kimball’s two sets of sleigh bells, Lance then entertained us with Percy Faith’s Brazilian Sleigh Bells.

Next, a real treat, O Holy Night, featuring Lance on the Kimball, Alex on the violin, and the 27 member Choir of St. Joseph on the Brandywine Church, led by Mary Ellen and accompanied by Michael Marinelli on piano, and Moonstriker, a progressive rock band based out of South Philly. It was if they had rehearsed this for days. Surprisingly, Lance said that very little rehearsal was required, which was indicative of the quality of the talent assembled for this extraordinary performance.

During intermission, several members of the audience volunteered their critique of the performances, stating that the organ was too loud and overpowering the choir and soloists. I must say that I disagreed. The organ was the reason I was there! I thought the blend was just fine.

Lance opened part two with a bold version of Angels We Have Heard on High, as he and the organ rise from below the stage. “This job has its ups and downs,” quipped Lance. The audience was offered the chance to sing or hum along for the carol medley, which included Silent Night (featuring the chimes), It Came Upon the Midnight Clear, Away in the Manger, The First Noel, O Little Town of Bethlehem, Hark! The Herald Angels Sing (featuring the horns), We Three Kings (beautifully blending the right and left divisions), and culminating with a crescendoed Adeste Fideles – O Come All Ye Faithful (featuring the full organ). Throughout the medley, Lance highlighted many different divisions of the organ, with a blend of soft and reticent to bold and boisterous.

Joel DeMartino, one of the members of the Moonstriker Band, joined Justin for a beautifully harmonious rendition of Once in Royal David’s City. The second verse was performed by the full ensemble – Lance on the organ, Alex on the violin, Michael on the piano, the Choir (directed by Mary Ellen), and Joel & Justin. While the third verse was non-traditional, the entire piece was, perhaps, one of my favorites of the evening.

Lance then performed O Christmas Tree, featuring both brass and strings and the Mighty Kimball’s harp at the end.

Alex and his violin joined Lance and the organ for a exquisite arrangement of What Child Is This? For the second verse, Lance played the traditional version, while Alex performed a handsome violin descant.

Lance then introduced his next solo piece as “a very serious piece” and a “good piece of classical music” – a splendid rendition of Jingle Bell Rock, which not only showcased the magnificence of the Dickinson Kimball, but also the enormous talent that Lance brings to the console.

Mary Ellen, once again, joined the stage for The Christmas Song: Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire. Her splendid “voice of distinction” was beautifully accompanied by Lance, also highlighting his abilities as a soloist and accompanist. Lance followed up with a glorious, yet jazzy presentation of Mary’s Little Boy Child, showcasing the organ’s drums and bells, ending with a full organ crescendo.

The final piece of the program was Joy to the World – but not the one that we would expect to hear at a Christmas concert; rather, the 1970 version released by Three Dog Night, performed by the full ensemble, including Mary Ellen & the full choir, violin, piano, organ, Justin & Joel, and Moonstriker Band. Verse three reverted to the more traditional Christmas version. The audience responded with a standing ovation! The encore piece was Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s “Messiah.”

After the concert, I had the opportunity to speak one- on-one with Lance. Lance has been a soloist on the organ since the age of 13 and a church organist since the age of 16. I asked him to explain the organ’s tone for the evening’s performances. He said that he used heavy vibratos throughout the evening – especially for the more secular pieces, which is a very symbolic and traditional tremulant sound for theater organs. During the more classical or liturgical pieces, though, he was sure to turn those off for a more “straight” sound. He said that the mighty Kimball has so many “bells and whistles,” and this concert allowed him to showcase all of the “bells.” Overall, he was very pleased with the evening’s events and said that the Dickinson Kimball Organ is one of the top 5 best theater organs in the world! As a member of DTOS, that was so nice to hear!

It was truly a great way to get into the Christmas spirit! Thanks, everyone, for a great evening – especially Bill Church, who assembled all of this talent and produced a marvelous show!

David A. Ruth, Ph.D., of West Chester, PA is a former church organist, an avid organ fan, and a member of the Dickenson Theatre Organ Society and Friends of the Wanamaker Organ.