Mitch Miller sure knows how to run a pops concert.
For Friday's "Christmas in Vienna" pops, Kleinhans was given a ballroom ambience, with three crystal chandeliers over the stage, an intimate dining table and two chairs near the podium, and floor-to-ceiling mirrors at the back of the stage, giving the hall an unaccustomed feeling of added depth.
It also allowed the audience to see Mitch conducting from the front or the back and gave a rather unusual close-up view of the music on the illuminated stands in front of the French horn players, the section nearest the mirrors.
But decor alone doesn't guarantee a good concert. Mitch, the orchestra and the guest vocal duo, soprano Marilyn Brustad and bass-baritone Will Roy, took care of that.
The table was occupied by Brustad and Roy, an offstage husband-wife team who played a romantic Viennese couple onstage. They kissed after an effectively sung "La ci darem la mano" from Mozart's "Don Giovanni" and retired to the table, only to return and display their nicely paired voices in the waltz from Lehar's "The Merry Widow," tossing in a few one-two-three waltz turns for good measure.
Mitch does not resemble the prototypical graceful Viennese maestro, appearing more like a scarecrow from the rear, with widespread feet and rather flailing gestures.
But there's no denying that he communicated the real Viennese lilt to the orchestra.
He was not at all afraid to use expressive ritards and accelerandos in Johann Stauss's famous "Voices of Spring."
And he continually wove into the stream of music welcome changes of pace, such as Johann Strauss's "Thunder and Lightning Polka," with its ominous timpani rolls and cymbal crashes, or Josef Strauss's "The Dragonfly," whose musical line pulses along somewhere between lilting and flitting.
Brustad and Roy's impassioned "Dein ist mein ganzes Herz" from Lehars's "Land of Smiles" was a bit overdone, needing a tad more schmaltz and less drama. As a duo, they were at their best in the smoothly flowing cantilena of Schubert's "Staendchen" (Serenade).
Individually, Roy's voice melded rather effectively into the sweetness of the orchestra's strings in Sieczynski's "Vienna, City of My Dreams." This is one of the most memorable and gemuetlich of Viennese songs, but one which few people can identify. Mitch rightly called it a love song to a city.
Brustad's solo outing was in "Adele's Laughing Song" from Johann Strauss's "Die Fledermaus," sung with coy expression and full voice, but treated in a rather mock dramatic rather than a lyrical manner.
Other individual touches added by Mitch were Johann Strauss's "Farmer's Polka" in which the orchestra unexpectedly added bumpkinish vocal effects, and his "Pizzicato Polka," a difficult piece plucked by the orchestra with fine ensemble and rhythmic flexibility.
He ended the program with Johann Strauss's "Radetzky March," inviting the audience to clap along with its oh-so-regular rhythm.
Mitch even managed to plug the next pops concerts coming up Jan. 5-6 and 25-26 without making the audience feel patronized. He is a smoothie.
Buffalo Philharmonic Pops Concert
"Christmas in Vienna," Mitch Miller conducting, Marilyn Brustad/Will Roy vocal duo.
Friday in Kleinhans Music Hall; repeated at 8 p.m. today.