Pops holiday concert, with choir and soloists, mixes fun, tradition

Concert Review

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Marvin Hamlisch was in a sentimental holiday mood, content with highlighting traditions in the Pittsburgh Symphony Holiday Pops concert at Heinz Hall on Thursday night. With a large cast of mostly young soloists and the combined voices of the Mendelssohn Choir, he set out to hit all the right notes of the season.

The splash of fun came early on as Hamlisch's niece, Aubrey Jones, played detective in searching for everyone's favorite jolly red fellow, who finally made his entrance.

Shades of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade! He was heralded by the Rockette-style performance of students from the Pittsburgh CLO Academy of Musical Theater, singing "Hello Santa" to the tune of "Hello Dolly." Santa (Kevin Glavin) responded with Michael Moricz's terrific arrangement of "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town," filled with nifty musical interjections by tin horns, toy drums, "rootie toot-toots" and "rum-a-tum tums."

While the audience was waiting for Santa, Hamlisch led the orchestra in "Trepak" and "Waltz of the Flowers" from "The Nutcracker."

Because these pieces are the ultimate in elevator music these days, it's easy to say, "Been there. Done that. Heard it a million times." But in the hands of the PSO orchestra members, all of Tchaikovsky's musical colors lit up like new, particularly with a dazzling harp solo, creamy horns and breathless phrasing from the strings in the waltz.

The irony of it all was that the PSO Pops played two "Nutcracker" tunes without dancers while, over at the Benedum Center, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre is presenting its dancers in the "Nutcracker" ??? without orchestra.

But the commercial side of the holidays was kept to a minimum. Even Santa became a little more subdued, drawing on a more serious, operatic approach to "The Christmas Song."

From then on, the program strived to inspire in various ways, although it kept the energy level to a fireside glow. British pop sensation and lyric tenor Jonathan Ansell gave a clarion call out to soldiers in "Here's to the Heroes" and carried effortlessly over the choir in "O Holy Night," which finished the first half.

After intermission, 9-year-old flute prodigy Emma Resmini, from the Washington, D.C., area, led off a trio of featured performances as she demonstrated dazzling technique in "Valse" from a Benjamin Godard flute suite, then interlaced with concertmaster Mark Huggins in "Greensleeves."

That set the stage for the warmth of Pittsburgh soprano Betsy Lawrence in "Chanukah Lights," Hamlisch's own lovely holiday song that should become a permanent part of the seasonal tradition. After the perfunctory audience sing-along, Upper St. Clair teenagers Rosanna and Rocky Paterra took the stage in a gutsy performance (using both English and Italian) of "The Prayer," made famous by Celine Dion and Andrea Boccelli.

Still more gentle images drifted in during "Silent Night" and "White Christmas" as the performers collected onstage. But with glistening treetops foremost in the audience's mind, Hamlisch galloped off into the night by dashing through the musical fairyland of the Leroy Anderson classic "Sleigh Ride."

The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra Holiday Pops will be repeated at 2:30 p.m. today and tomorrow and 8 p.m. tonight. Tickets are $20-$83. Call 412-392-4900.

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Former PG critic Jane Vranish can be reached at jvranish1@comcast.net .


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