The holiday season is a time for making memories and sharing them with those around us. This holiday, the Pittsburgh Symphony Pops was faced with acknowledging the passing of longtime conductor Marvin Hamlisch.
Daniel Meyer, a former PSO resident conductor, happily returned to take the reins this weekend, something he accomplished with a welcome aplomb. With the orchestra in top form, the collection of holiday tunes, both familiar and those less so, provided a dazzling array of musical ornaments in what turned out to be a warm celebration of the past and the future.
Mr. Meyer was able to deftly guide Thursday night's holiday program at Heinz Hall through a memory-laden evening in what turned out to be a lovely prelude to the upcoming Hamlisch tribute in January. It began with a rousing and surprisingly difficult "Merry Christmas" from the movie "Home Alone," sung by the Mendelssohn Choir, which is always a treat under the astute direction of Betsy Burleigh.
Mr. Meyer and the orchestra were ably assisted in dispensing the holiday spirit with a handful of guest artists, assembled in keeping with the philosophy of Mr. Hamlisch himself, who always had an eye out for young talent.
City of Pittsburgh detective (and Irish tenor on the side) Ricky Manning returned for the second year in a row, this time singing "The Wexford Carol" with his own brand of honesty and natural humility. And Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre School students brought entertaining versions of the Chinese and Mirliton variations from "The Nutcracker." That segment also gave the orchestra a chance to put its own skilled spin, at a breakneck pace, on the "March" and "Trepak."
There were several debuts, including petite mother of four and fireball violinist Jenny Oaks Baker, who had dandy arrangements to offer, including "Ding Dong Merrily on High" with the lilting piccolo of PSO member Rhian Kenny and percussionists Nadrew Reamer and Jeremy Branson, and the evocative "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel," with soprano Rachel DeShon.
Ms. DeShon was the personification of an ingenue, so clear and pure in songs like "Christmas Eve in My Hometown," although she seemed forced in the more operatic "O Holy Night."
Christopher Sanders also made his debut as a very jolly Santa, working his own "Christmas Magic" on stage and with some children in the audience, despite some technical difficulties with the camera. In the end, everyone succeeded in spreading a big dose of Christmas cheer, something much appreciated by those in attendance.
Former Post-Gazette critic Jane Vranish: email@example.com. She also blogs at pittsburghcrosscurrents.com.