Review: Brandon Goldberg Is Phenomenal in Chicago Jazz Orchestra’s A Musical Tribute to a Charlie Brown Christmas

The Chicago Jazz Orchestra gave this child of the sixties a wonderful chance to reminisce with A Musical Tribute to A Charlie Brown Christmas. They brought some nostalgia to the Chicago Fine Arts Building's Studebaker Theater on Sunday afternoon.

Vince Guaraldi scored the music to this classic television special, first broadcast in 1965, for his jazz trio and a children’s choir. The Chicago Jazz Orchestra’s Conductor and Artistic Director Jeff Lindberg transcribed the score to add a full jazz orchestra. Lindberg made this excellent music even more compelling, especially in the hands of 16-year-old jazz pianist Brandon Goldberg and his trio.

Chicago Jazz Orchestra, Jeff Lindberg conductor. Photo by Charles Osgood.

Hailing from Miami, Florida, Goldberg was phenomenal in his Chicago performance debut. He showed complete mastery and maturity from the opening notes of “O Tannenbaum.” The other members of Goldberg’s trio, Ben Wolfe on Bass and Aaron Kimmel on drums, were every bit worthy of Goldberg, as was the orchestra, conducted by Lindberg.   

Vocals were provided by Chicago’s Timeless Gifts youth ensemble, directed by Joan Collaso. The eight members from this group gave a lovely rendition of "Christmas Time is Here," followed by "Carol of the Bells," which, as in the original Charlie Brown’s Christmas, was performed a capella. Their vocalizations behind "My Little Drum," complete with trilled r’s, were memorable.

Chicago's Timeless Gifts youth ensemble offered memorable vocals on Sunday. Photo by Louis Harris.

In creating the music for Charlie Brown Christmas, Vince Guaraldi drew from traditional Christmas carols and several original pieces that really make this music special. On Sunday afternoon, Jeff Lindburg pulled it all together. His arrangement of Guaraldi’s “Linus and Lucy” and “Skating” gave the performers a chance to frolic. It was awesome to enjoy.

This effect was very different from the concert’s start, which featured the Chicago Jazz Orchestra performing a transcription of another favorite from my youth, the Nutcracker Suite by Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. The performance seemed fine, with the Orchestra offering tight ensemble playing and excellent solos from each of the musicians.

It was the music’s tongue-in-cheek arrangement by Billy Strayhorn and Duke Ellington that left me wanting. A few things were interesting, such as transcribing the celeste part in the “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” to the treble notes of saxophones and winds for “Sugar Rum Cherry.” The arrangement of “Arabian Dance” into “Arabesque Cookie” also worked.

It is always challenging to recast familiar music into a different milieu, but this version throws too much aside. It bore little musical resemblance to the original, which was often unrecognizable. As much as I wanted to enjoy this, I didn't.

I was unprepared for the Nutcracker. Fortunately, A Musical Tribute to a Charlie Brown Christmas made the performance enjoyable.

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Louis Harris

A lover of music his whole life, Louis Harris has written extensively from the early days of punk and alternative rock. More recently he has focused on classical music, especially chamber ensembles. He has reviewed concerts, festivals, and recordings and has interviewed composers and performers. He has paid special attention to Chicago’s rich and robust contemporary art music scene. He occasionally writes poetry and has a published novel to his credit, 32 Variations on a Theme by Basil II in the Key of Washington, DC. He now lives on the north side of Chicago, which he considers to be the greatest city in the country, if not the world. Member of the Music Critics Association of North America.