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The Amherst Symphony Orchestra, venerable in its 45th season, played to a nearly full auditorium for its annual holiday concert. Conductor Joseph Wincenc, the orchestra's music director for lo these many years, produced a pleasant mix in his programming, shuffling some classics with lighter seasonal fare and enlisting the help of harpist Sarah Catlin and a nifty local dance troupe to spice the festivities.

Over the years Wincenc has been instrumental in giving young local talent the opportunity to perform with his various orchestras, and Ms. Catlin, now studying at the Juilliard School, is another feather in his musical cap. She played the Handel Concerto in B-flat with lovely finesse, rounding out the rather square rhythmic phrases typical of a keyboard concerto to the more delicate contours of the harp, sacrificing just a bit of contrapuntal clarity in the more muted voice of the lower strings and occasionally letting the ornaments bump the rhythm.

The brass section of the orchestra was featured in the opening Fanfare from "La Peri" by Paul Dukas. They produced a good, solid brass sound, rigorous in the imitative rhythms and well balanced in the chorale-like tread of the choir of trumpets, horns, trombones and tuba. Very well played.

Liszt's "Les Preludes" did not fare so well, the big romantic pot boiler barely simmering from lack of rhythmic tension and sagging intonation. Conductor Wincenc adopted a rather stately tempo from the beginning, and the orchestra was not able to maintain the dramatic line through the transitions, though they did catch a glimmer of the glorious proto-Wagnerian romantic bombast towards the end.

Things improved mightily as the music lightened up, the Richard Strauss "Der Rosenkavalier" waltzes serving as a kind of transition. Wincenc and company caught a good measure of the Viennese rhythmic ambience, the strings played sweetly in the melodic dance, though there were some strange notes coming from the accompanying winds.

Probably the best orchestral playing of the evening came in "Overture on Jewish Themes" by local composer/arranger and University at Buffalo professor Livingston Gearhart. It was a delightful concoction in sassy show-tune style and nice transparent orchestration, the tunes "Tzena, Tzena","Artza Alinu" and "Havah Nagila" played stylishly.

To top everything off, The Denny Dancers did a set of tap numbers to Maple Leaf Rag, Winter Wonderland and 42nd Street. They were, simply speaking, terrific -- youngsters in bowler hats and red and white tights in snazzy flapper style to the ragtime number; tappin' around the Christmas tree and presenting maestro Wincenc with a gift in Winter Wonderland; and doing classic jazz hoofing, a dueling shoes cadenza complete with top hats, canes and a rousing kick line to 42nd Street. Delightful choreography by Barbara Denny, a polished performance, beautifully executed by her troupe.

The concert ended with the traditional carol sing for audience and orchestra.

Amherst Symphony Orchestra

Joseph Wincenc, conductor.

Holiday concert with harpist Sarah Catlin, the Denny Dancers.

Sunday evening at the Amherst Middle School.

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