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Something for everyone at the BPO Holiday Pops

The Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra's Holiday Pops turned Kleinhans Music Hall into a sea of red. Musicians wore red. The audience, packing the hall from top to bottom, wore red. I wore red.

Only John Morris Russell, the BPO's principal pops conductor, put a different twist on Christmas attire, rocking a snowy white jacket.

There was a good energy to the concert. Slipping out just a minute early, I could hear the singalong still going on inside the hall. That "O Come All Ye Faithful" thundered.

The concert itself was a mixed bag, as Holiday Pops concerts are by design.

John Morris Russell and the addictive magic of Christmas music

One highlight was an appearance by a trio called Normal Street Entrance. The name is cute. I imagine it refers to a back door of Kleinhans. The music was a ton of fun.

In Normal Street Entrance, BPO violinist -- or fiddler, in this case -- Amy Licata is joined by Brett Shurtliffe, the orchestra's associate principal bass. Completing the trio is guitarist Matthew Sperber. They played "I Saw Three Ships" as well as some Irish Christmas reels, and listening, you couldn't stop smiling.

The orchestra's performances of Christmas classics also made for elegant enjoyment. "The First Noel" atmospherically opened the concert. It began with a bass solo, performed eloquently by BPO Principal Bassist Daniel Pendley, and built from there. The second number, performed without pause, was Carmen Dragon's glamorous take on "O Tannenbaum."

Matt Catingub, who has charmed audiences here before conducting pops concerts, had a hand in the arrangement of "Pat-a Pan" that spotlights percussion. Marimba and xylophone created a whimsical sound. A "Deck the Halls" fugue by the great arranger Hershy Kay was witty and and full of inventive counterpoint. (The screen read "Deck The Hall Boughs Of Holly: A Merrie Fungue." Someone was into the wassail.)

The focal point was a presentation of "The Polar Express" narrated by Channel 7 meteorologist Mike Randall.

Randall is a pro and he put a lot of pep into this simplistic tale. And speaking of pep, the Buffalo Philharmonic Chorus, aided by the Buffalo Girlchoir, sang their songs (also simplistic) with admirable passion and polish, plus the kind of tremendous volume that filled the hall. Russell's enthusiasm was the frosting on this icy cake. The assembled forces really sold this thing.

Whether you will like it or not comes down to your affection for the story. If you know it and love it, you'll be happy. If you're new to it, as I was, you might find yourself wondering what all the fuss is about. I was underwhelmed by the artistic spectacle as well as the quality of the score and the narrative. I was expecting images that were romantic and panoramic -- of frozen oceans, maybe, or sweeping mountain ranges. The pictures we saw struck me as disappointingly static.

I do, however, admire the story's nostalgia for steam locomotives, which I share. And before you take me too seriously on this, keep in mind that the huge crowd at the concert loved the performance, the presentation, everything. Over and over, I heard: "That was great!" So I am willing to believe that it was.

A few other novelties rounded out the concert. Local jazz singer Katie Miner's performance of "I Wonder as I Wander" had a natural grace. "Festive Sounds of Hanukkah" had enjoyable klezmer touches. "Little Bolero Boy" -- well, I'll let you guess what that is.

The concert repeats at 8 p.m. Dec. 15 and 16 and 2:30 p.m. Dec. 17.


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