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The BPO at Christmas is twice as sweet

That sugary aroma? For once, it's not coming from the roasting Cheerios.

It's coming from Kleinhans Music Hall, decked out gorgeously for "Classical Christmas." The Dec. 9 Coffee Concert drew such a big crowd that it was a double doughnut day: There were doughnuts not only in the Mary Seaton Room -- a scenario impressive enough on its own -- but also on the balcony level.

Associate Conductor Stefan Sanders is conducting this concert. He has switched things up a little. It's a challenge, putting together this annual concert. You don't want to be too similar to past years. But there are some things that people will want to hear again and again, just the way they need to see a favorite ornament on the tree, year after year.

The Buffalo Philharmonic Chorus sang "O Holy Night" and "I Saw Three Ships" in luminous arrangements by John Rutter. Rutter's "Mary's Lullaby" was another highlight -- so tender.

[Gallery: BPO Christmas Concert]

Another highlight was "The Adoration of the Magi" from Ottorino Respighi's "Botticelli Triptych." The Philharmonic has recorded this magical and intricate music, and the performance was stellar. Respighi had the gift of bringing distant eras to life. Listening to the woodwinds tracing ancient-sounding melodies, the sighing of the strings, you could imagine the Three Kings on their journey.

We also had something you could call a novelty number, though it dated to the 1730s. This was the "Echo Aria" from Bach's "Christmas Oratorio" involving a soprano (Emily Helenbrook, on stage in a long gown), and a boy soprano (Ayden Herreid, 10, in the balcony).

Both singers are joined by an oboist. And so you have what amounts to a duet times two. The two sets of performers echo each other. It's ingenious, unpredictable and witty. Helenbrook sang sweetly, and so did young Ayden, his voice projecting admirably. A kind of rustle went through the hall, as the audience absorbed this newness. It woke people up.

Which was kind of needed at that point. The first excerpt from the "Christmas Oratorio," a chorus, should have knocked your socks off. Bach's choruses are supposed to leap out at you, with lots of energy and volume. This one, for whatever reason, needed more oomph. Maybe it was the early hour.

Sanders has good ideas, but some of them work out better on paper. Aside from that "Echo Aria," the Bach seemed long. So did the music from "The Nutcracker." Instead of the excerpts you are used to hearing, Sanders conducted the music that accompanies the Battle with the Mouse King, followed by the Waltz of the Snowflakes, featuring the chorus. It's vivid, tremendous music, but it doesn't stand up so well on its own. I missed the action. (Couldn't they get a few Neglia dancers to scamper out in mouse costumes? The audience would have gone crazy.)

Randol Bass' "Festival Magnificat," which began the second half, was glamorous and easy to love. But the chorus was weak, especially at the beginning. There was a patch where the singers weren't keeping up with the orchestra.

One more thing has to be said. The tuba needed polishing. This is "Classical Christmas." Everything should gleam.

Things ended on a bright note, though, with Handel's "Hallelujah Chorus." Is there anything like hearing this masterpiece live? Growing up, I was a record listener, not a concertgoer. I had no idea that it was the custom to stand for this piece. The sight still thrills me.

This time around, I happened to glimpse one elegant woman who looked to be in her 80s. It was a struggle for her to stand, and she didn't have to -- other folks her age were sitting it out. But she made it to her feet, and she beamed. Then she sang along, as Sanders invited us to. That was a Christmas sight I will remember.

I unfortunately missed the encore, which I hear was a brassy and sassy "Sleigh Ride."

This concert repeats at 8 p.m. Dec. 10. People who like a little classical music with their Christmas might also like "Jingle Bell Jam," the children's concert (but fun for grown-ups too) at 2:30 p.m. Dec. 11. All concerts take place at Kleinhans Music Hall.



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