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BPO Holiday Pops concert is a dream to hear

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light, and it is emanating from Kleinhans Music Hall.

Never have I beheld a Holiday Pops concert so radiant, so rich in overall splendor. Brimming with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus, it’s a riot of red and gold. Adding extra sparkle are the additional brass and saxophone, thanks to the starring role played by the Sal Andolina Big Band.

On Friday morning, there seemed to be almost no empty seats. I have never seen a crowd like that at a Coffee Concert. The audience added to the spectacle. This concert is a sight to see.

And it is a dream to hear.

Ron Spigelman, on the podium, is as peppy as peppermint. The action never drags.

There were so many highlights, engaging in a wealth of ways. Andolina touched the heart as, center stage with his saxophone, he played a romantic, exquisite “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?” His big band, featuring BPO brass in addition to jazz musicians such as saxophonist Dave Schiavone, rocked the house in the style of Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman and Stan Kenton. Ellington’s re-imagination of Tchaikovsky’s “Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy” was an especially inspired choice, with its growly textures and slinky beat.

The Buffalo Academy for Visual and Performing Arts Vocal Symphony joined forces with the Philharmonic Chorus in the concert’s second half, and gave us a thrilling “Go, Tell it On the Mountain.” Even set off by African drums, it had an old-fashioned feel, with soprano Rachel Ross as soloist.

The novelty of the concert is the unique presence of James Torme, Mel Torme’s son. Mel Torme was as the composer of “The Christmas Song,” and it’s great fun to hear his son sing that hit. Tall, handsome, adorable and sporting a crisp suit, James Torme looks sort of like his dad. He is built like him, and he smiles like him.

He does not sound like him. His debut CD, “Love For Sale,” was rightfully praised by critics, including The News’ Jeff Simon. But I get the impression that the younger Torme, 41, is still finding his voice.

He was very prepared. He didn’t have to watch a score, even in lengthy, tricky medleys. And he seems fearless, a vital advantage for a performer. But some phrases were tentative and some transitions were awkward. Occasionally the BPO drowned him out.

He does, however, have a sweetness about him that is affecting. And he has good taste. On the phone with The News earlier this week, he promised top-notch and seldom-heard arrangements. He delivered. “Silver Bells” – lush, retro, ultra-leisurely – never sounded better. “The Christmas Waltz” was also lovely.

The entire concert showed imagination. Jeff Tyzik’s “A Christmas Overture,” with a glittery “Deck the Halls,” kicked things off with aplomb. “Christmas on Broadway” took us through “We Need a Little Christmas,” “My Favorite Things” and “Toyland.” How nice to see Victor Herbert included in a Broadway medley.

“Christmas Time Is Here,” from “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” was another inspired choice. Songs by John Williams from “Home Alone” and tunes from “It’s a Wonderful Life” also will grab you, even if you’re unfamiliar with them. Katy Jacobi, of the Philharmonic Chorus, was a featured soloist, and her voice was a pleasure – clear, artless, almost childlike.

Finally, what a great idea to feature Andolina’s big band.

Andolina is an understated showman, warm toward the audience, cool in the spotlight. Under his lead, his fellow BPO musicians turn into jazzmen. The BPO’s trombones were terrific, in the spirit of Tommy Dorsey. So were the trumpets.

“Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” galloping along with the expanded chorus singing along, sparkled with humor and surprise. It also had a subtle, spirited beat, thanks to wonderful drummer Dave Mancini.

Only one thing was missing, and I didn’t miss him. Santa Claus put in no appearance. In past years I have often thought his visit ruined the concert’s momentum. Good for the BPO for giving him the weekend off. Enjoy the rest, Santa. See you Christmas Eve.


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