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Bob Keyes

Bob Keyes has written about the arts in Maine since 2002. He’s never been much an artist himself, other than singing in junior high school chorus and acting in a few musicals. But he’s attended museums, theaters, clubs and concert halls all his life, and cites Bob Dylan as most influential artist of any kind since Picasso. He lives in Berwick.

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Posted: December 12, 2016

For Maine composer, landing a piece on ‘Magic’ program is pretty special

Written by: Bob Keyes
The members of the Portland Symphony Orchestra dress the part for the "Magic of Christmas" concerts. Photo by Carolyn Nishon

The members of the Portland Symphony Orchestra dress the part for the “Magic of Christmas” concerts. Photo by Carolyn Nishon

Like all kids, Delvyn Case III couldn’t wait for December. The anticipation of Christmas made him feel excited and energized.

For Case, a musician, those emotions were heightened when he attended the Portland Symphony Orchestra’s “Magic of Christmas” at Merrill Auditorium. He remembers enjoying the concert in general, but he specifically loved the sound of the whip in the song “Sleigh Ride.”

“That was the highlight of my December,” said Case, now 42 and living in Quincy, Massachusetts.

Composer Delvyn Case III Photo courtesy of Portland Symphony Orchestra

Composer Delvyn Case III
Photo courtesy of Portland Symphony Orchestra

Inspired by that memory, Case bottled the energy of “Sleigh Ride” and turned it into “Rocket Sleigh,” a modern Christmas piece for orchestra. The Portland Symphony performs it as part of its current “Magic of Christmas” concert, on stage at Merrill through Dec. 18. The aerial acrobats Cirque de la Symphonie include the composition as part of their performance.

In addition to the cirque performers, other guests at this year’s “Magic” are soprano Elisabeth Marshall and the Magic of Christmas Chorus. PSO music director Robert Moody and assistant conductor Andrew Crust conduct. The program includes holiday classics and sing-alongs, as well as “Sleigh Ride” and “Rocket Sleigh.”

Since Case, who grew up in Cumberland, wrote “Rocket Sleigh” in 2008 as a response to the whip sounds of Leroy Anderson’s “Sleigh Ride,” almost 70 orchestras have performed the four-minute overture, including the National Symphony, Toronto Symphony, Atlanta Symphony and Royal Liverpool Philharmonic. A band version, created for and premiered by the Dallas Wind Symphony, has been performed by the United States Coast Guard Band. A commercial recording was just released on Navona Records.

“This piece has filled a real niche. Almost every orchestra does a holiday family show, and they’re all looking for new material,” Case said. “This is perfect for them, because it’s not a medley or a new arrangement. It’s a new piece.”

It’s lively and festive piece, full of fanfare soaring brass.

Moody is a fan of both the piece and its composer and said it’s challenging to conduct and play because almost every single bar has a different number of beats in it, and an almost unbroken string of fast notes are repeated throughout and most often played by sleigh bells. “This gives it a very exciting and driving feel,” Moody said. “I love that about the piece, and I also love the very positive melody line that Del gave us.”

Case, an associate professor of music at Wheaton College in Massachusetts, conducts and performs in addition to his work as a composer. He is the founder of the Quincy Bay Chamber Orchestra, serves as music director of the Eastern Nazarene College Choral Union and is the co-founder and pianist for the improvisation ensemble the Meltdown Incentive.

He wrote “Rocket Sleigh” as a fundraiser for the Quincy Symphony Orchestra. People liked it, so Case began pitching it to other orchestras.

When the National Symphony performed it at the Kennedy Center, Case’s name was listed on the program alongside John Williams and Tchaikovsky. “That was pretty neat,” he said. “I’m as pleased as punch to be a part of these big-time shows.”

He’s thrilled to have this piece programmed as part of “Magic of Christmas.” The concert was such a big part of his youth, “it makes it extra special to hear it in that hall and for it to be a part of that show. It’s really very nice.”

Now his goal is to get the Boston Pops to program it on its holiday show. “Then I can retire and go to Aruba,” he said.

PORTLAND SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA ‘MAGIC OF CHRISTMAS’

WHEN: 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 10; 1 and 5 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 11; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Friday, Dec. 16, 2016; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 17; 1 and 5 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 18
WHERE: Merrill Auditorium, 20 Myrtle St.
TICKETS: $25 to $70 through PortTix; 207-842-0800

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