Conroe Symphony Orchestra Celebrates Christmas

By: Ruben Borjas Jr Reporter, Montgomery County New
| Published 12/21/2023


CONROE, TX -- The Conroe Symphony Orchestra (CSO) was excited to roll out the Christmas cheer this past Saturday with their annual ‘The Season to be Jolly’ Christmas Concert, at the First Methodist Church in Conroe. It was a wonderful family event with activities for kids, such as crafts, music education, and entertainment. The atmosphere was electric and was wonderfully festive for ringing in the Christmas Season, and the CSO; along with featured soloist Kenneth Gayle, played their parts to perfection, with the wonderful music and finished with a good old-fashioned Christmas Sing-Along. And everyone in the audience played their part in singing Our National Anthem that set the frame of mind for the entire evening.

“We start preparing for each concert about six-week ahead of time,” said Concertmaster Dr. Sheronna McMahon, who is also the principal violinist. “We practice on Tuesdays, and love putting a great program together for our audience.” McMahon is a retired orchestra teacher from CISD.

The CSO played a magnificent array of seasonal favorites beginning with the Dan Goeller arranged ‘Christmas Fantasy,’ and Leroy Anderson’s ‘A Christmas Festival,’ a collection of nine carols including Jingle Bells.

Tenor soloist Kenneth Gayle really wowed the crowd with his rendition of Franz Schubert’s ‘Ave Maria,’ and if you didn’t have goosebumps during his performance, you weren’t listening properly. Gayle followed with Gloria Shayne Baker’s ‘Do You Hear What I Hear,’ arranged by Fedor Vtracnik, and both the tenor and the CSO did not disappoint. The arrangement was tender and poignant, and captured the wonder and mystery of the events surrounding the birth of Jesus Christ. Truly, each incremental step up of Gayle’s beautiful voice, and the CSO playing their hearts out did its part in evoking special memories of Christmas’ past as happy tears flowed. Quite simply … It was powerful. And no audience member went through that composition without a few hairs standing up on the back of their neck. The rousing applause and standing ovations for Gayle’s offerings, along with the backing of the orchestra, was a moment to remember.

“He sang at our wedding,” said Trish Graham, speaking of Gayle, who attended the concert with her husband Gary Phelps, both of Houston. “Ken is a kind, wonderful person, and his voice is simply terrific.”

Along the way to Intermission, CSO Conductor Gary Liebst, accommodated the kids, with Alan Silvestri and Glen Ballard’s ‘The Polar Express,’ bringing the music from the classic movie to life with a medley of beautiful tunes. A couple of Sleigh Rides, touted as “Two for the price of one,” by CSO, and Master of Ceremonies, President Bill Thompson, followed to close out the first half. Frederick Delius’ ‘Winter Night (Sleigh Ride),’ originally an 1889 poem for orchestra about a Norwegian sleigh ride, did not premiere until 1946 in the UK. Then the more popular ‘Sleigh Ride’ by Leroy Anderson rode the chamber into the close of the first segment. Again to an extended applause and ovation.

"We had a wonderful offering of traditional holiday music for the orchestra’s 2023 Christmas performance,” said Liebst. “There isn’t a better way to celebrate the season than with a fun afternoon of Christmas music with the Conroe Symphony Orchestra.”

The intermission only stoked excitement for the second portion of the evening's program. Liebst kicked off the second half with James M. Stephenson’s ‘Holiday Fanfare Medley #1,’ including ‘We Three Kings,’ ‘Pat-A-Pan,’ and ‘Good King Wenceslas.” George Frederic Handel’s ‘Hallelujah’ from his ‘Messiah’, literally had everyone singing Hallelujah, and gives good cause for a possible accompanying chorus in future performances. If the Royal Choral Society and the Royal Philharmonic can pull it off, so can the CSO, with perhaps the Madrigals of Montgomery High?

“I Love it. I come to every concert,” Larry Urbani, who hails from the Texas side of Toledo Bend Lake, on the TX-LA border. “I thought Ken Gayle was a wonderful addition this year.”

Kenneth Gayle returned with his powerful voice to center stage, delighting the crowd with his stirring renditions of ‘O Holy Night’, ‘The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire),’ both Christmas classics, and made all the more special by Mr. Gayle’s strength and range. James M. Stephenson’s ‘A Charleston Christmas,’ a collection of Classic Christmas songs with some jazz interpretation shook things up a bit. Mr. Gayle then joined everyone for a Christmas Sing-Along (Deck the Halls, Joy To The World, Joyous, Up On The Housetop, and Jolly Old St, Nicholas) which had everyone involved, strangled cats and all. But thankful Mr. Gayle, and the more trained singers in the crowd, they covered for the rest of us, to make it to a presentable ending. Following a wondrous applause and Stand Ovation, and curtain call, Mr. Gayle took his leave. It was a wonderful performance by the CSO, and Conductor Gary Liebst, along with his talented musicians, deserve all the credit for their preparation and performance in bringing Christmas cheer to Conroe for the 2023 Holidays.

One concert goer, Dr. High Voltage, a jokester cheered those he ran across. “When you come around me, you get plumb electrified,” said Voltage, a near doppelganger of Dr. Wally Wilkerson, Jr.. When asked where he lived, he said “In my house.” His real name is Eugene Wisenbaker, and calls himself Texified Dutch. Mr. Wisenbaker has played tenor saxophone (since 1962, for Humble High School), and is a member of the Mims Baptist Church Orchestra. His rates are very reasonable, he says, and I’m sure the jokes come for free.

“He was very controlled, and highly disciplined, “said Mr. Wisenbaker, speaking of Kenneth Gayle. “And he is a wonderful musician.”

Mr. Gayle’s national credits include performances with the Lyric Opera of Chicago, Grant Park Music Festival, Seattle Opera, Omaha Symphony, Opera Idaho, and New York City’s Carnegie Hall with the Apollo Chamber Players. Kenneth's regional credits include performances with the Houston Ebony Opera Guild, Three Mo' Tenors and the Southwestern premier of the chamber opera "Fragments from Augustine the Saint" at Rothko Chapel.

Originally from Seattle, Washington, Kenneth Gayle, the nationally known tenor, who now calls Houston home; is an alumni of the Northwest Boys Choir, and remarked that the Pacific Northwest left an indelible mark on his musical career. It was during his post secondary education at the University of Washington, that Gayle rediscovered his calling for singing, and following graduation joined the Seattle Opera.

“My mom likes to tell a story about me singing before I could speak,” Gayle said. “She says I didn’t speak until I was one and a half or two, but I started making these noises and singing before that. I had the opportunity to continue my education, and sing with a bunch of remarkable groups.”

Ariel Hutton, 16, the youngest member of the orchestra, with three concerts under her belt, attends Grand Oaks High School. She played the double bass (pronounced ‘base’) cello during the concert, but also plays the smaller bass cello as well, which is much harder to play. She plans to engage in a musical career. Daniela Arevalo, the Principal Cellist for the CSO for the last eight years, has Hutton, and several others in her group as her students. Daniela, originally from Columbia, came to Texas as a 7 year old, and started the cello at eleven. She loves teaching the cello privately, as well as performing in Conroe.

The CSO also recognized its Chair Sponsors at the Christmas concert. The orchestra is truly grateful for the support of its chair sponsors. Ticket sales contribute only a small fraction of the CSO income, making donations from Chair Sponsors crucial to add to the cultural enrichment of Montgomery County.

The Conroe Symphony Orchestra was founded in 1997, and was created to contribute to the cultural

enrichment of the Conroe and the county as a whole, assuring a better quality of life for everyone in the area. The CSO’s objective is to provide the region with the best possible musical experience, while creating music lovers and connecting communities. They strive to be recognized as one of the outstanding community orchestras in the state of Texas, and as a non-profit community orchestra, it is supported through individual and corporate donations, grants, and ticket sales. There website is, and please consider donating to this wonderful organization.

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