Concert review: PSO Pops and Mendelssohn Choir spread holiday cheer

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It's that time of year when the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra falls in love with a potpourri of holiday delights, ranging from frosted windowpanes to candy canes and Santa Claus to Spike Jones.

Yes, the PSO Pops works best when it embraces the familiar and then, well, toys with it. The latest edition, now on view at Heinz Hall, had an almost delicate yet homey feel on Thursday.

'Highmark Holiday Pops'
Where: Heinz Hall, Downtown.
When: 8 tonight, 2:30 p.m. Sunday.
Tickets: $21-$99; 412-392-4900 or

The performance was occasionally stirring. Betsy Burleigh's Mendelssohn Choir, again a powerhouse foundation for so much of the program, enthralled with its pinpoint runs in the traditional "Hallelujah Chorus." And Marvin Hamlisch's "Hanukkah Lights" (yes, he continues to be part of the orchestra) was sung by one of Mr. Hamlisch's local discoveries, a beautifully grown-up and polished Vanessa Campagna.

Rising Broadway star Nikki Renee Daniels (bearing a striking resemblance to "Scandal's" Kerry Washington) showed exquisite control and clarity in the perky ambiance of "My Favorite Things" and then smoothly stepped into Mariah Carey's contemporary shoes for "All I Want for Christmas Is You."

Adding to the holiday ambience, Pittsburgh's "singing sergeant" (he got a promotion) Ricky Manning once again brought his seamless tenor to "Danny Boy," while pint-sized James Fedor Jr., with a soaring and confident soprano voice, joined Santa Claus (Christopher Sanders) for a tender intertwining duet, "Try To Remember."

Stepping out of the vocal arena, Pittsburgh Youth Ballet took a "point"-ed stab at the Rockettes' classic, "Parade of the Wooden Soldiers." And the Pops' own rose to the occasion, beginning with George Vosburgh's intimate flugelhorn solo in "The Christmas Song." He also brought along his Pittsburgh Symphony Brass group, a terrific sextet of harmonious fellows who tossed off "Ding Dong! Merrily on High," then turned the tables with the deliberate cacophony of Mr. Jones' raucous rendition of "Jingle Bells."

Conductor Todd Ellison brought it all together. Clear of beat and sure with dynamics, he showed an easy-going control with the orchestra musicians and even brought his own attractive holiday song, "Christmas Morning," warmly sung by Ms. Daniels.

However, the program faltered toward the end. The community sing-a-long petered out after "Silent Night," despite the fact that the lyrics for "Deck the Hall" also appeared in the program. The Mendelssohn Choir took over in grand style (perhaps they could announce the change).

Then the vocal cast joined the orchestra for the traditional "Sleigh Ride," where, given the lack of lyrics, they added a rather uncertain sleigh bell chorus of their own.

But it didn't seem to matter. The audience, by that time, had fallen in love as well, as if their own holiday dreams had come true.

Former Post-Gazette critic Jane Vranish can be reached at She also blogs at

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