Whole Lotta Horns for the Holidays
In order to get in the right mindset for the Dallas Wind Symphony's first ever Christmas CD, Horns for the Holidays, from Reference Recordings and recording engineer Keith O. Johnson, you have to understand something about Dallas. The last time its residents saw snow on Christmas Eve, there were 357 vehicular-related fatalities, all caused by people slamming on their brakes in disbelief. The "traditional" American or European Christmas is, to them, a distant idea that, on its way to Texas through the cornfields of Kansas, has taken on unusual proportions. Think Christmas trees as tall as oil rigs, and sleigh rides that extend the width of cattle pastures.
In short, as it were, think big. You wouldn't turn to the horns of Dallas for an intimate rendition of "O Little Town of Bethlehem," and you're certainly not going to hear one here. The CD's opening Festival Fanfare, commissioned from John Wasson by the Dallas Wind Symphony, is big, bombastic, and decidedly over-the-top. Not only do trumpets and brass go full tilt, but Mary Preston also has her way with Myerson Symphony Center's big and bold organ.
And that's just for starters. At the request of the DWS's Artistic Director and Conductor, Jerry F. Junkin, Wasson's large scale Jingle Bell Fantasy covers all bases, including the kitchen sink. Nor is the 63-minute CD's final track, Julie Giroux's Christmas and Sousa Forever, any less gung-ho. Then there is Leroy Anderson's authentic arrangement of Sleigh Ride, with all the snap, pizzazz, and sensational sound bites you'd ever wish to hear.
If, by the time you reach the fourth track, Dallas Wind Symphony saxophone player David Lovrien's hilarious six-minute Christmas distortion, Minor Alterations: Christmas Through the Looking Glass, you haven't figured out that Jerry Junkin and the Dallas Wind Symphony like to camp it up big time, you're probably one of those wayward individuals who thinks that Carmen Miranda was the Devil incarnate. [Reader First Aid: If you're too young to know who Carmen Miranda was, get yourself a copy of Busby Berkeley's fabled three-strip Technicolor spectacular, The Gang's All Here, slide into your favorite altered state, and prepare to see the world as you have never seen it before.]
As you can well imagine, Johnson, who has something like nine Grammy nominations for Engineering and one Grammy Award for Best Surround Recording to his credit, takes full advantage of this opportunity to show what Reference Recordings can do. Even heard without the advantage of Johnson's HDCD decoding, Horns for the Holidays sounds spectacular. At least on a system that, at this particular moment, includes an Antelope Zodiac Gold DAC/preamp, Wilson Audio Sophia 3 loudspeakers, lots of Nordost Odin cabling and power products, some fabulous Magico Q-Pod supports, and enough Synergistic ART System, Tranquility Base and Stein Music devices to decorate a Christmas tree.
If you want to test what your system can do, turn up the volume on the huge climaxes in Army Air Force Bandsman Alfred Reed's ridiculously inauthentic (and ridiculously long) Russian Christmas, and discover how clearly your equipment and room can render the sound of percussion, bassoons, and everything else going full tilt. A truckload of plywood panels, positioned by Johnson and recordist Sean Royce Martin, provided the acoustic bounce necessary to hear the low woodwinds sound clearly in Reference Recording's widescreen panoramic mix.
The Master Speaks
In a phone chat, Johnson told Stereophile, "I feel very strongly that each composition has a sonic vision or relativity that the composer or orchestrator had in mind. Therefore, one should hear variations of their perceptual intentions, such as staging, weight, focus, revelation and other visceral qualities, from one composition to another.
"Tracks have personality, and different tracks within a multi-composer compilation such as Horns should reflect these differences in personality. Recording tracks from different composers and orchestrators in the all too common, tightly balanced production where everything is mixed the same way is not the way music was intended, and is not the way we hear it in concert.
"I want people to experience the recording as if they were listening at a concert. In this respect, the impressionistic Russian Christmas Music is many tracks distant from the tight and focused character of Leroy Anderson's Sleigh Ride.
For Sleigh Ride, visual acoustics come into play, with lots of changing points of attention. In concert, you see the musician playing the saxophone, the mind focuses on it, and then moves on to the next effect. Hence, I made Sleigh Ride sound very tight, articulate and focused. I wanted to give people a clue, but didn't want any instrument to pop out. Once I draw the mind to a particular instrument, I pulled back just as a listener would do at an actual concert.
"A lot of individual instruments were highlighted with very quick rapid-fire subtle accents, all from matched stereo microphones that I built and calibrated just for such a task. Their pickup has time-phase information that sounds distant, as it should when hearing a concert, and since their reinforcements are not panned monaural, their dynamic mix builds up a three-dimensional picture in our minds. Having memorized the scores and knowing when to turn on the accents, I made very small changes in the EQvery, very smallwhile rarely changing the volume."
There's lots more that can be said about Johnson's recording techniques, of course. But the bottom line is this. He has a field day on Horns for the Holidays. As long as you can lighten up enough to listen with even a modicum of frivolity and a bit of joy in your heart, you'll have a ball as well.