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New maestro delivers a heartfelt, entertaining BPO Holiday Pops

Everybody’s waiting for the man with the bag – and finally, he’s here. John Morris Russell, the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra’s new principal pops conductor, is making his first official appearance at Kleinhans Music Hall with “John Morris Russell’s Holiday Pops.”

This is one of the loveliest Holiday Pops concerts I can recall, and I can recall a lot of them. It is warm and heartfelt. Though there are lots of laughs and light moments, it is also refreshingly reverent. Several interludes could be called magical.

I don’t want to give it all away, but how about a “March of the Toys,” from Victor Herbert’s “Babes in Toyland,” in which toys actually march?

Or a sweet chorus of a dozen boys and girls, all in red bow ties, lisping through “Christmas Time Is Here” and “Up On the Housetop?” That would be the ABC Bel Canto Choir. Adorable. The Buffalo Philharmonic Chorus, about 60 voices strong, also was in fine form. You could catch every word. Their energy in numbers like “The Virgin Mary Had a Baby Boy” was irresistible and catching.

Concertmaster Dennis Kim was witty and graceful soloing in “A Winter Miracle,” a mash-up of Vivaldi’s “Winter” and “Hanukkah, O Hanukkah.” Good klezmer fun.

And they saved the best for last (close to last, anyway). Tenor George Brown, a dapper figure in a pin-striped vest, joined the BPO and the chorus for an impeccably rehearsed and wildly syncopated gospel performance of “Go, Tell It On the Mountain.” It kept rising and rising until it brought the house down.

“That Jesus Christ is born,” the Philharmonic Chorus rang out, concluding the carol.

Brown, improvising: “Yes, He is! Yes, He is!”

The concert’s excellence makes special sense when one learns that Russell is a Christmas music fanatic. He collects Christmas LPs, he confessed from the stage. His heart is clearly in this concert. He is in it up to his neck – leading applause, introducing music, cuing the soloists, laughing, joking and above all enjoying.

His massive Christmas music collection inspires him.

We had an “O Holy Night” inspired by an old Mario Lanza record. On vocals was a promising young singer from Fredonia, Nia Drummond. She hit that high note fair and square. Brava. A version of the Leroy Anderson tour de force “Sleigh Ride” took its cue from Liberace. Staff pianist Susan Schuman did the honors and made it sound, entertainingly, like a mechanical music box.

We also had Carmen Dragon’s stunning arrangement of “O Tannenbaum.” I own the Carmen Dragon Christmas record, too, and I have long loved this track. It begins with Wagnerian trombones and then blossoms into a free-form, silver-screen creation that sounds like the score to, oh, the 1939 “Wuthering Heights.” The orchestration is glorious, and the BPO did it justice.

To balance out this nostalgia, though, we also heard – get ready for this – a selection that could be called “The BPO Meets the TSO.” You know that “Carol of the Bells” that you’ve been hearing in those ads for the Trans-Siberian Orchestra? This was pretty much it. The beat came from the thundering timpani, as stage lights flashed crazily. Hey, why not? The crowd got a big kick out of it.

I have just a few criticisms.

Russell’s passionate reading of the famous op-ed “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus” was cute – especially when the little girl said, “I hear that when you read it in The Buffalo News, it must be true.” But they should have accompanied it with music less sublime than Elgar’s “Nimrod” Variation. Choose something else, something lighter.

I’d like a moratorium on “Winter Wonderland.” You hear it everywhere.

Also, Russell and BPO Music Director JoAnn Falletta should coordinate things so the Holiday Pops doesn’t repeat anything played at “JoAnn’s Classical Christmas,” which took place last week. The “Farandole” from Bizet’s “L’Arlesienne” twice in a row is too much. (Though you do get to contrast Falletta’s approach with Russell’s. Interestingly, hers was wilder.)

But these are, in context, little things. Thanks to our new maestro and all our gifted musicians for making this December one we’ll remember. Don’t skip the sing-along because you do not want to miss what comes after it. The coda is so sweet.


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