John Morris Russell, the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra's principal pops conductor, is like Santa Claus -- full of surprises. I don't want to give them all away.
So let's just say that for this year's Holiday Pops, we've got an angelic choir boy. We've got drummers from the African-American Cultural Center. We've got the Westminster Presbyterian Church Bell Choir.
We've got snow.
Russell was here for our Dec. 14 storm. He was even stuck in it. And, miraculously, he doesn't mind.
"Buffalo, you've really come through with flying colors! There's snow out there!" he declared at the Dec. 16 coffee concert. "Now I'm in the holiday spirit!"
He sure is.
The concert began with the Buffalo Philharmonic Chorus singing "Ding Dong Merrily on High," in a traditional arrangement a lot of folks will recognize. Next came a retro and eloquent "We Three Kings," and then the Buffalo Philharmonic Chorus stepped in for the Robert Shaw Chorale in one of Shaw's "The Many Moods of Christmas" suites.
Russell loves Christmas vinyl and he has clearly internalized this music. Strings lent nostalgia to "O Little Town of Bethlehem." Percussion added wit to "I Saw Three Ships." Just when you thought it was over, it wasn't, and wound up with a "Deck The Halls" triumphant enough to give you shivers. Timpani gave emphasis to the line "Fast away the old year passes." It's fun to listen up for details like that.
Next came a highlight: an encore appearance by Ayden Herreid, the flawless boy soprano from Orchard Park who sang at the BPO's recent "Classical Christmas" concert.
His confidence is especially striking considering how small he is. Formally dressed with a scarlet cummerbund, he gave an impeccable rendition of "Walking in the Air," a sweetly haunting song from the animated short "The Snowman." He sang completely from memory, and the song took a lot of twists and turns. I've reviewed a lot of grown-up singers who needed lyrics just to get through well-known carols.
"How sweet it is!" Russell shouted. And it was. I wish we could have heard more from Master Herreid -- "Once in Royal David's City," perhaps. But it was not to be. There was too much else going on. That included "Somewhere in My Memory," a pretty melody from "Home Alone" that is becoming a Christmas standard. And a suite from "The Polar Express."
Suddenly, it was intermission. Russell told us all to grab jingle bells from the lobby. We'd need them in the second half.
This created a bit of a problem. The jingle bells were for use in "Sleigh Ride," and they worked out well in that setting. The piece, especially as Russell conducted it, was a hoot.
But you can guess the situation: Before and after "Sleigh Ride," you could not shut those bells up. Russell shushed the hall in his best teacher tone, but there will always be some folks who can't stop jingling. The distraction pretty much ruined the performance of the Westminster Presbyterian Church Bell Choir.
It should have been magical, a dozen musicians with a gleaming array of bells, playing a delicate "Gloria Hodie." They should move the bell choir to the concert's first half, or -- better still -- skip the jingle bells. I've been to concerts where they asked us to jingle our keys. That works.
A sleeper hit from the second half was "Mis zeh Hidlik" ("Behold the Lights"), a Hanukkah melody featuring English horn virtuoso Anna Mattix and the women of the chorus. It was as lovely as any movie theme. Amy Glidden, acting as concertmaster, joined her student Christophe Koenig in the Bach/Gounod "O Holy Night." Koenig, the concertmaster of the Greater Buffalo Youth Orchestra, cuts a dashing figure. He and Glidden put a lot of feeling into the piece.
The African drummers were a wonderful surprise. They added a special warmth. Bravo to Russell and the BPO for recognizing and utilizing local talent. We have so much of it.
Bravo also to all the musicians for their smiles and high spirits. At Holiday Pops, good cheer is just as important as good musicianship. This concert has both.
The merry adventure repeats at 8 p.m. Dec. 16; 8 p.m. Dec. 17; and 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. Dec. 18.
Story topics: Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra