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New Classical Tracks: Cally Banham and Cortango get to the heart of the holiday season

Cally Banham plays the English horn. Celeste Boyer
4min 58sec : New Classical Tracks: Cally Banham
25min 28sec : New Classical Tracks: Cally Banham (extended)

Cally Banham — Cor Christmas

Cally Banham has been the solo English horn player with the St. Louis Symphony for the past 12 years. Before that, she played English horn for three years with the Buffalo Philharmonic. Five years ago, she formed a tango dance band called Cortango. Now, she's sharing the versatility of her instrument, on a brand new recording called Cor Christmas that gets to the heart of the holiday season.

"The Cor in Cortango and Cor Christmas is to reference my instrument as it's known most places in the world as the cor anglais, by its French name. But there's also the double meaning. It wasn't lost on me that it's the Latin word for 'heart.' So that has an extra layer of meaning."

You also play the oboe and I know you were first inspired to pick up that instrument because you were mesmerized by an oboe-playing otter in the fourth grade. Can you tell me a little bit more about him?

"That's true. I remember this hilarious cartoon that they showed to the kids when it was time to choose a band instrument. They had this fantastic cartoon — so funny. Trout played the trumpet and the carp played the clarinet and the otter played the oboe. And, there it was — one of those moments of clarity — I saw that animated otter swimming around and I heard that sound and that was it."

Cally Banham's 'Cor Christmas' features holiday classics in playful new arrangements with her band Cortango and members of the St. Louis Symphony. Courtesy of the artist

Cally plays both English horn and oboe on Cor Christmas. She's also invited a few of her friends to perform with her including the members of her tango dance band.

"The early part of the album — the first few tracks — feature Cortango: the sound of the strings and piano of Adam Maness, who is the primary arranger for Cortango. Those early arrangements on the album are all made by Adam. He's so clever as an arranger. The 'Who song' from Whoville is quoted in White Christmas.

"In Carol of the Bells you can hear a reference to Piazzolla's famous ballad tango Oblivion, as well as Skating from Charlie Brown Christmas.

Where do we hear the trombones of the St. Louis Symphony?

"The trombone players in my orchestra are featured on three tracks at the end of the album. They are Bring a Torch, Jeanette Isabella, Lo' How a Rose 'er blooming, and In Dulci Jubilo. There are some unexpected twists in these arrangements. Their sound is so tight. That's why when I wanted to imitate something that was like the Philadelphia Brass Chorale — another holiday favorite of mine — I thought, 'Well, how about my colleagues who already have this group going. This might just be second nature to them, just with me kind of tagging along.'"

There is one place on this recording where we hear Ravel's famous Bolero woven into a familiar carol. Whose idea was that?

"That was my idea. I thought, 'Who better to play the part of The Little Drummer Boy on my Christmas album than my wonderful colleague in the St. Louis Symphony, principal percussionist William James?' When we do Bolero in the St. Louis Symphony, we have the snare drum placed right next to me. I always play the oboe d'amore solo whenever we do that piece in the orchestra and Will is seated right next to me. We always bring him forward to the back of the viola section. So, it just occurred to me the last time that we performed it, I thought, 'What if I had this ostinato going throughout The Little Drummer Boy?'"

There's another traditional carol that also plays off of the inspiration of Gian Carlo Menotti's Amahl and the Night Visitors. Can you talk about that too please?

"The original idea to include Amahl and the Night Visitors came from my teacher, retired principal oboist of the New York Philharmonic, Joe Robinson. I was visiting with him talking about this project that I started, and he said, 'You have to play Amahl and the Night Visitors. You have to include that Shepard's Dance duet because it's iconic for the oboe.'

"Since some of this recording was produced in the studio, it would be possible for me to layer tracks on each other. So, of course, I'm playing both parts of the oboe duet. In fact, the very last thing that I recorded when I was completing this album was that tambourine part layered over a section of Amahl and the Night Visitors, and I thought, 'I can't feel complete until I put this tambourine part on top of this track and then we'll be done.'"

Those finishing touches make the end result quite special. Cally Banham has more to say about Cor Christmas in the extended podcast.

To hear the rest of my conversation, click on the extended interview above, or download the extended podcast on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts.

Resources

Cor Christmas (Amazon)

Cally Banham (official site)