This year’s Holiday Pops drew gasps on Friday morning before the concert even began. The scene was just so magical.
The hall went dark, except for twinkly lights. And voices came out of the darkness – girls’ voices, singing “Silent Night.”
The singers were Immaculata Academy’s Vox Caeciliae (it means Voices of St. Cecilia, the patron saint of music). They drifted down the aisles, singing and carrying candles.
Then the lights went up and you saw them in their deep blue gowns, and the singers in red, white and black who crowded the stage, and the three twinkly wreaths overhead. BPO Music Director JoAnn Falletta, in sparkly violet, raised her baton, and everyone swung full-tilt into “We Need a Little Christmas,” from “Mame.”
Holiday Pops 2013 will go down in history as merrily unpretentious. It veers from reverent to raucous, from Broadway to biblical.
The guest star is Michele Ragusa, Broadway singer, Buffalo native and someone who always puts on a good show. The Buffalo Philharmonic Chorus is huge with the addition of reinforcements from Barker Central and Oakfield-Alabama high schools.
And yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He comes out and talks to tykes – and to Falletta. Friday morning, there were a lot of giggles.
Between these interludes, the BPO shows off its own sparkle, with music including the Polonaise from Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Christmas Eve” and the Pas de Deux and concluding Waltz from “The Nutcracker.”
The concert is full of good humor and good spirit. Ragusa, in particular, is a kick. You could not help smiling as, against accusing honks from the tuba, she sang “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus.” Marvin Hamlisch’s ballad “Hanukkah Lights” shone with her sweet delivery.
The Santa number “The Man With the Bag” was cute and jazzy. And my stocking cap is off to her for being able to sing even “Let It Snow” as if it were the most wonderful song she had ever heard, and she were introducing it to the world.
My one regret was that there weren’t more surprises. When Ragusa was here in 2009, she sang “Hanukkah Lights” (which we also heard other years) and “The Man With the Bag.” And while some sameness is welcome at Christmas time, I don’t know if there is an excuse for having her sing the top six or seven songs people hear nonstop at malls and on the radio throughout the season.
It’s nice how the concert doesn’t shy away from religion. Couldn’t they have Ragusa apply that miracle voice to “O Holy Night”? You rarely get to hear that song sung well. Or, say, a medley of French or German carols, something you don’t hear every day? The BPO is adventurous in so many ways and I do not see why with Holiday Pops it tends to get stuck in a rut.
On the bright side of tradition, orchestra and chorus painted the town red (and green) with a couple of Christmas choral medleys full of retro zest and glitter.
One was a Robert Shaw medley of the chorale “Break Forth O Beauteous Heavenly Light,” “The First Noel,” “I Saw Three Ships” and a glorious “Deck the Halls.” The orchestration was hearty, creative and attention-grabbing. It was like a vinyl LP come to life. The audience sing-along at the end had a real quality setting – it was “A Christmas Festival” by the great Leroy Anderson. Oh what fun it is to sing along to this lovely live accompaniment.
Vox Caeciliae re-emerged to sing two Eastern European carols, joined by the BPO’s Natalie Debikey Scanio on piccolo. It was a charming change of pace.