It's not too early for an appropriate Christmas antidote to schmaltzy, tinseled buy-all-the-gifts-yesterday overkill. Thank you, Elisabeth von Trapp and friends.
With the impressive Carolian Brass Quintet and pianist Douglas Major alongside her, the granddaughter of Baron Georg von Trapp (and stepgranddaughter of Maria) headlined a two-hour offering Friday night of heartfelt faith, wintry melancholy and jazz-tinged folk tunes reflecting her famous family's European and American heritage.
The program, sponsored by Omaha Performing Arts, opened a three-weekend stretch of seasonal concerts inside the Holland Performing Arts Center. OPA presents The Priests, the internationally renowned clerical trio, next Saturday before the Omaha Symphony takes over Dec. 12-15 for its annual Christmas Spectacular.
Regrettably, a Black Friday concert date appeared to depress the turnout and energy level inside the Holland. Von Trapp and her colleagues were greeted by a half-full hall, and she had to prod concertgoers to join in singing the familiar Christmas carols.
On the other hand, von Trapp's voice and diction weren't the sharpest when she took the stage for “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” after the all-male Carolian quintet opened the show. She told the crowd later that she was an hour late in waking up Friday morning for her Omaha flight. “It's a miracle that I'm standing here,” she said.
Happily, her vocal presentation improved considerably as the program went on. Her work on the acoustic guitar was clear and crisp from the start, as were the deep, rich sounds of Major's accompaniment on “Winter's Coming Home,” written by the Benedictine composer Gregory Norbet of Weston Priory in von Trapp's native Vermont.
The two also beautifully paired “In the Bleak Midwinter” with von Trapp's musical setting of the Robert Frost poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” The poem, she said, made her think of decorating a Christmas tree with gingerbread, red- and white-ribboned chocolate kisses and real candles. They would take the tree on Christmas Eve to the hired hand on her family's Vermont farm, singing carols in the night.
“By the way,” she added in anticipation of the next question, “my father was depicted as Kurt in 'The Sound of Music.' His name was Werner.” She and Major then presented a jazzy arrangement of “My Favorite Things,” following up later by pairing “Edelweiss” with Irving Berlin's “White Christmas.”
Several of von Trapp's other numbers were enhanced by one or more members of the Carolian Brass Quintet, which supplied the friendly, toasty sound of a street-corner brass choir with instrumental carols and enjoyable takes on Tchaikovsky's “Nutcracker Suite” and “Christmas Time Is Here” from “A Charlie Brown Christmas.”
A somewhat less serious work — the 12-movement “Brass Calendar” by classical-music comedian Peter Schickele — showed off the humor and virtuosity among the group, which consisted of trumpeters Marc Reese and Charles Lazarus, Mark Hetzler on trombone, Gregory Miller on French horn and Ken Amis on tuba.
Von Trapp's eclectic influences were best reflected when all the performers joined in the energetic “A-Soalin'” and a stunning, aching setting of the “Ave Maria” prayer featuring Major's shimmering piano and Lazarus' muted trumpet under von Trapp's vocal of the medieval Latin chant.