Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Album Review: "A Very Merry Christmas with Dallas String Quartet"

Let's get this right out there: "A Very Merry Christmas with Dallas String Quartet" is undoubtedly one of the finest Christmas albums of 2019.  It is vibrant, full of energy, exquisitely arranged, and performed with an abundance of holiday gusto by truly exceptional musicians.  It earns an exuberant "Wow!!"  from Der Bingle, and is prompting me to consider starting a "Merry & Bright Album of the Year" award just so I can give DSQ some additional props this Christmas season.

The principle performers in Dallas String Quartet are Eleanor Dunbar (violin), Melissa Priller (violin), Ion Zanca (viola), and Young Heo (bass) in the traditional string quartet roles, joined by Anthony Plant on guitar and Efren Guzman on drums.  The additions of guitar and drums to the orchestral strings, plus an impressive cast of guest artists, make the DSQ sound exceptionally unique and very special.  They retain the heart of their classical training, then kick it up several notches with ambitious original performances of classic Christmas songs.  DSQ bills their music as "Where Bach Meets Bon Jovi", and that musical swagger carries through the ten songs on "A Very Merry Christmas".

Let's talk some Christmas song swagger...  The album opens with "O Holy Night".  Now, for one this is usually an album closer, and for two it's one of those "don't mess with this" songs.  Don't get funny, or cute, just play the heck out of it as it is.  Well, DSQ sure plays the heck out of it, and they rock it along the way.  I'm an 'O Holy Night' purist, but man I dig this version.  After opening with about a minute-forty-five that evokes a traditional string quartet, the drums and guitar join in, driving the beat forward and bringing amazing new life to one of our traditional favorites.

"It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year" features piano accompaniment and a swinging beat that makes you smile and feel all good inside.  "My Favorite Things", DSQ's single from the album, is beautifully performed and has perhaps the most traditional string quartet sound on the album, but is subtly complemented by piano, guitar, and additional percussion.  Let's set aside discussions about whether "My Favorite Things" is indeed a Christmas song, and just agree that DSQ's performance is wonderful.

"Sleigh Ride" brings in a trumpet, a trombone, a sax, and a stocking full of additional musicians to produce one of the biggest sounds on the record.  There's a jazzy feel to it, as each performer gets her or his time in the spotlight.  Stunning!

"Mary, Did You Know?" is exceptionally fitting for a string quartet, performed with reverence and strength.  "It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas", the album closer, features a wonderful guest performance on cello by Allen Steele.  It has a touch of an old-timey nostalgic rhythm that is a perfect way to bring this record to an end.

Ah, but we need to talk about "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy".  This is, by far, the best new Christmas song I've heard this year.  After a teaser opening with the familiar melody of "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen", DSQ transitions into the classic composition from The Nutcracker.  But, there is a surprise lying in wait for the astute listener.  Der Bingle will not play spoiler here, but I will whisper a hint:

Plum.  Sugar Plum.

That's all you get, dear readers.  That, and my opinion that this song alone makes this album an essential addition to your Christmas music collection.

To conclude this review, I have to point out the exceptional arrangements and engineering on this record.  The arrangements by four different collaborators are brilliant, and the mixing and mastering by Tre Nagella and Drew Lavyne are exceptional.  It's not often that the gals and guys behind the board are so notable, but in this case they all deserve a hearty "Happy Holidays!".  And, extra kudos to violist Ion Zanca, doubling his duty as album producer.

So, to wrap this up - Wow!

Dallas String Quartet Website

"A Very Merry Christmas..." direct from DSQ

"A Very Merry Christmas..." on Amazon

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