CD Review: COR CHRISTMAS (Cally Banham)

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by Tony Frankel on November 19, 2018

in Theater-Los Angeles


At first glance, I assumed this CD from the assistant principal oboe — and Solo English horn position — of the Saint Louis Symphony (SLS), Cally Banham, would be flat-out Muzak. Boy oh hautboy, was I ever wrong. Intimate, warm, plaintive, whimsical, fresh, and full of heart, this holiday treat not only leaves you with a glow, but bears repeat listenings. All the songs are given inventively original arrangements by Banham, pianist Adam Maness, and/or Adam De Sorgo, current principal oboe of Sarasota Orchestra.

There is one other arranger: The supremely gorgeous arrangement of “Silent Night” comes courtesy of Mannheim Steamroller’s Chip Davis. But it is given emotional heft by Cortango, a sextet with the unlikely grouping of cor (Banham) and bass (David DeRiso) mixed with a piano quartet of violin (Asako Kuboki), viola (Chris Tantillo), cello (Melissa Brooks), and piano/guitar (Mr. Maness). (With all but Maness members of SLS, they call themselves a Tango, Classical and Jazz Fusion orchestra.)

The jazziest numbers are performed with the Adam Maness trio (Bob DeBoo, bass; Montez Coleman, drums): Vince Guaraldi’s “Christmas Time Is Here” from Charlie Brown, and “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm,” in which the oboist makes the melody seem like a human voice — and Maness does some swell riffing on piano.

The oboe is a C woodwind with a base pitch tuned to C, while the cor (or cor anglais) is an F woodwind with a base pitch tuned a perfect fifth lower, to F. This large oboe, a.k.a. English horn, is 1.5 times as long as the oboe, with a pear-shaped bell. The reason for this is that the cor produces a mellower tone than its more popular cousin. It’s a suitably apt sound for the holiday season as it has a pensive, wistful, and reflective quality, used here to great effect with a patina of jazz in Gustav Holst’s “In the Bleak Midwinter.” The combination of musical styles gives this a breezy but contemplative air.

Ms. Banham also plays the oboe d’amore, which falls right in between oboe and cor. Pitched a third lower, it’s essentially the alto voice of the family (Bach scored for this instrument quite a bit). Sadly, there’s no booklet, so I’m not absolutely sure which instrument she uses on any given track, but I’m almost certain the  oboe d’amore is part of the clever take on “Little Drummer Boy,” as it’s scored like Ravel’s Bolero by Banham and De Sorgo.

Many of the selections also get a gloss of the classics. “Do You Hear What I Hear” references Gian Carlo Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors with its textural Persian flavor; the Irish “Wexford Carol” sounds decidedly Scotch with an air of bagpipes; and “Comfort Ye” (from Messiah) has a Haydenesque salon attitude.

There’s a stocking stuffer in the biggest chestnut of all, “White Christmas.” The most popular song ever written (Bing Crosby’s version remains the best-selling single to this day, over 100 million copies sold), gets a little taste of “Welcome Christmas” (“Fah Who Foraze, Dah Who Doraze”), the Albert Hague tune from How the Grinch Stole Christmas.

My favorite selections feature the trombones of the Saint Louis Symphony (Timothy Myers, Amanda Stewart, Jonathan Reycraft, Gerry Pagano) in “Bring a Torch, Jeanette, Isabella,” “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming” and “In Dulci Jubilo.” This group is so tight, you would swear it was the entire Canadian Brass.

Soothing and uplifting at the same time, Cor Christmas is a lovely breath of atmospheric delight.

Cor Christmas
Cally Banham
released November 3, 2018 | 13 tracks | 43:37
available at iTunes (digital) Cally Banham (CD)

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