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The BPO makes it feel like Christmas

Deck the hall! Kleinhans looks great this Christmas. Every year, it seems to get prettier and prettier. Trees upstairs and down, wreaths wherever you look, beautiful decorative presents.

"A Classical Christmas" also sparkles. This is the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra's classical take on Christmas, to be followed Dec. 15-17 by Holiday Pops. The classical Christmas concert has become a tradition.

The music on the menu has also become a tradition.

Some people will like this, some won't. Personally, I think the BPO could dig a bit deeper. There's a world of Christmas music out there. Some of that, we never get to hear. Other pieces -- say, the music from "The Nutcracker" -- we hear over and over. Two "Nutcracker" excerpts are on this year's program. So is Corelli's "Christmas Concerto," another piece lovely but ubiquitous. And the Farandole from Bizet's "L'Arlesienne." Trust me, you know it.

On the other hand, you could make a case for knowing what you're getting. Not everyone is lucky enough to go to this concert every year. And it is very pretty music, I am not saying it is not. As we say here in Buffalo, I am just saying.

Music Director JoAnn Falletta, decked out in a stunning sparkling jacket, presented the music with her usual irresistible warmth.

The concert also gets a boost from newcomer Aundi Marie Moore, a soprano from Virginia. Moore began by singing Carmen Dragon's arrangement of Schubert's "Ave Maria," as well as John Rutter's arrangement of "O Holy Night." Her repertoire in the concert's second half included Rutter's "Mary's Lullaby," inspired by an ancient chant melody.

I would have thought Moore was a mezzo soprano. Her voice is low and lovely. She has a gracious stage presence, and at Friday's coffee concert, she gave her music a kind of reverent glow. She ended "Ave Maria" with her hands folded in prayer. In "O Holy Night," Rutter's robust arrangement engulfed her here and there, but her singing was true and heartfelt.

She seemed to grow stronger as the night went on, or maybe it was that "Mary's Lullaby" was better suited to her voice -- but in any case, it was a highlight, with its timelessness and tenderness. One small thing, I am not sure why Moore sang from a score. She hardly glanced at it, but she flipped its pages. I see this a lot, with both jazz and classical singers, and it always puzzles me.  Be a pro and leave the music backstage.

The Buffalo Philharmonic Chorus, resplendent in red, was in fine form. Adam Luebke, the chorus' music director, has been doing a good job. The singers' diction shone in Rutter's "Candlelight Carol." You could catch every word. Chorus and orchestra joined in a great zesty rendition of "Jauchzet Frohlocket" from Bach's joyous "Christmas Oratorio." The voices jumped out at you. Timpani and trumpets went to town. It was a triumph.

It made you wish the chorus had sung a little more. For long stretches of the program, they sat silent. Next year, let's max them out, see what they can do. They sound capable of anything.

"A Classical Christmas" featured one especially enjoyable novelty: Roman Mekinulov, the orchestra's principal cellist, took the stage with his cellist son, Ben, to play a Vivaldi concerto. Both of them, in adorable matching white shirts and red vests, really dug into the music. It's great that the son is inheriting his father's sense of showmanship, and is comfortable on stage. The piece had a rugged excitement.

Speaking of BPO musicians, Friday brought bittersweet news. Suzanne Thomas, the orchestra's harp player, is retiring. So is longtime first violinist Marylouise Nanna. It was announced that both of them first took the stage with the orchestra on the same day, Oct. 3, 1966. It was moving to see them both, in their red Christmas finery, taking their bows as the big crowd applauded. These two will be missed.

The glittering concert repeats at Kleinhans Music Hall at 8 p.m. Dec. 9.



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