Smithfield Church Chamber Orchestra in Amenia

by Kevin T McEneaney

Last Saturday Matt Finley, trumpeter, arranger, and director led the Church Chamber Orchestra of fourteen musicians in the annual Christmas Concert and Tea sponsored by the Bang Family Concert Series. Rev Douglas Grandgeorge welcomed the capacity house and this writer read a poem for the occasion (it appears in the Poetry section). Percussionist Denise Finley introduced the orchestra and director. The program was a mix of ten short pop, jazz, and classical music pieces.

To set the Christmas season theme, they opened with an old-time favorite “Do You Hear What I Hear” (1962) by Gloria Shayne Baker. “Dance of the Reed Pipes” by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky followed, featuring Charles Gray, Lynette Benner, and Michelle Demko on flutes racing to the excited anticipation of the season with Matt Finley adding the authoritative boost of a golden trumpet. That perennial favorite “White Christmas” by Irving Berlin permitted Norman Baker to join the group with clarinet to solo with suave sound.

Internationally-known composer and organist Dr. Hampson Sisler composed (and published) for Smithfield Church a dozen Christmas musical miniatures the year before he passed away. “Once in Royal David’s City” was one of these twelve. This work opened with tuneful, celebratory harmony, yet acquired a dissonant motif leading to an abrasive dissonant crescendo that was shocking, then reversed to traditional harmony for the conclusion. This work was a portrait of the last days of Yeshua of Nazareth in Jerusalem, which ended in his blatantly illegal execution. The harmonic reversal appears to be a celebration of the new religion founded upon Yeshua’s martyrdom.

“Holiday Bell Waltz,” a contemporary composition, written ten years ago, by Matt Finley was next. Here was a waltz in jazz format from a melody composed on a Roland Fantom synthesizer. Not a fan of the waltz, I found the piece quite original and puzzling; it gave an opportunity for noted drummer Jeff Siegel and local celebrity pianist Larry Ham an opportunity to shine.

“The Winter’s Willow” by Ralph Vaughan Williams offered an English folk tune that allowed both horns and strings to flourish, especially Steve Hubbert on trombone who played with delicate nuance and Charles Gray on sax who delivered outstanding tone, while Rob Murphy on violin with Piotr Kargul on viola and Jean Vilkelis on cello presented a lyrical layering of strings.

“Laia Ladaia” by Edu Lobo, a rhythmic Brazilian jazz work with exciting, propulsive drive was next. All players were unified into this upbeat jazz groove—after all, Brazilian-style jazz is Matt Finley’s own band groove. Double-bassist Lou Pappas offered thrumming ecstasy. You can hear many of Matt’s original jazz hits on Spotify and other playlists….

“Bring a Torch, Jeannette, Isabella” by Marc-Antoine Charpentier is a French 17th century Christmas folk tune from Provence in 3/8 time. It tells the story of two women discovering the birth of baby Jesus in the night.

“Whenever Winter Came” by Denise Jordan-Finley was appropriated from one of her several album recordings. Here the folk-guitar tune was orchestrated as a classical work with sumptuous inflections by many instruments, in particular the clarinet of Kay Sutka. and it was great to hear Denjse on percussion.

For finale, all fifteen musicians galvanized into what sounded like twenty-two musicians playing that all-time favorite Christmas closer, the “Hallelujah Chorus” by George Frideric Handel. On that extended note of joyous delight, attendees went downstairs to the Fellowship Room for tea, scones, cookies, and varied delicious refreshments.

Kevin T McEneaney

Author of Hunter S. Thompson: Fear, Loathing, and the Birth of Gonzo, and other books