The Oregon Symphony does not crap around: at exactly seven thirty, not a moment after conductor Gregory Vajda took the podium and started off the evening of music. I’ve been to a lot of performances and concerts in my time and I’ve never been to one that started exactly, precisely, absolutely on time. Vajda didn’t want to waste a minute, he knew he only had two hours with his symphony and he wanted to use every last minute of that time performing.
The first act of the evening was a brisk 30 minute set by the symphony sans Chris Botti. Many conductors could have seen this as being sort of an ‘opening band’ to the main performer, but Vadja took the reigns and delivered a blockbuster set. Mixing traditional Christmas carols with seasonal tunes Vadja lead the symphony through a wide range of tempos and styles, seamlessly transitioning from one to the next. The set came to its apex with the crescendo for “Farandole” (from Suite No. 2 from L’Arlésienne) which flirted with an ovation from the audience.
The first act was capped with an extremely uptempo and frisky rendition of Frosty The Snowman arranged by Vadja himself. Think 50’s lounge version done with a wide orchestra, it was certainly unique. In just thirty minutes of performing Gregory Vajda showed what a phenomenal and dynamic conductor he is. This was the first performance of the Oregon Symphony with Gregory Vajda conducting that I’ve attended and it left me wanting to see more.
After a brief intermission Chris Botti took the stage. Botti is backed by a very talented band, each accomplished individually but chose to tour extensively with Botti. Starting out with fairly traditional light jazz, the evening seemed like it was going to be an evening of Botti’s Greatest Hits. The Oregon Symphony was pretty light in their accompaniment with conductor Gregory Vajda doing more head bobbing along with the music than conducting. But Botti quickly transitioned from light jazz to pure jazz and traversed a musical journey as diverse and enjoyable as the evening’s opening set.
Botti is extremely charismatic and talented but he uses the spotlight sparingly instead opting to share the stage with the other talented musicians he plays with. Botti’s extremely humble approach is refreshing and it’s reflected in his playing. One high moment of the evening came from the performance of Miles Davis‘s Flamenco Sketches from Kind of Blue where the Oregon Symphony connected with the song in a phenomenal way. It may seem like a near impossibility for a Symphony to play jazz, but the Oregon Symphony came as close as you can get with one of the more ambitious conducting tasks of the night.
There were a lot of high points to Botti’s performance including a haunting duet between Chris Botti and guitarist Mark Whitfield on Jeff Buckley’s Hallelujah. The performance captured all the nuances of Buckley’s arrangement while imbuing it with Botti’s own signature style. American Idol backup singer Sy Smith took the stage for a brilliantly jazzy rendition of The Look of Love. The chemistry between Smith and Botti’s band was so good I could have watched an entire evening of them.
The absolute high point of the evening was when violinist Lucia Micarelli joined Botti to play the theme song from Cinema Paradiso. Lucia Micarelli is mind blowingly talented and perhaps the best violinist I’ve heard. Together with Botti, Micarelli elevated the evening to a height so far above the rest of the performance. The two only played two songs together and as with Sy Smith I could have easily listened to an entire evening of the two playing together.
Botti finished the evening by turning off his mics and doing an ‘un-plugged’ version of Frank Sinatra’s favorite lounge act closing song. It was refreshing to hear Botti’s trumpet in its unamplified state, it presented a different perspective on his work and talent and was a great way to close the evening.
Chris Botti is an extremely talented and hard working musician who continues to have the ability to make each performance feel fresh and unique. Botti continues to surround himself with talented performers who deliver world class music at every outing. Chris Botti: Home for the Holidays was an excellent showcase of that talent as well as a love note to Jazz and the town where he learned his craft.