Nearly every musical organization has been airing its contribution to the holiday season, but one can still count on the New York Pops to come up with something especially appealing, as it did with “It’s Christmas Time in the City,” under Music Director Steven Reineke’s baton, at Carnegie Hall on December 18 and 19. Broadway’s Stephanie J. Block and Brian d’Arcy James were featured guests and Judith Clurman and her Essential Voices USA were on hand to enhance the music making. The first evening is the one reviewed.
The Pops began with a grand “Deck the Halls,” arranged by Carmen Dragon, and Essential Voices USA soon joined in. Block’s first solos were a swinging, then thoughtful “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” by Edward Pola and George Wyle, in James Kessler’s arrangement, and an enthusiastic “Winter Wonderland,” by Felix Bernard and Richard B. Smith, in what Block called “an Ella Fitzgerald arrangement,” that of Tim Berens. Block and James engaged in a playful “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!,” by Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn, arranged and orchestrated by Matt Podd, and later kibitzed in Frank Loesser’s “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” in Fred Barton’s version. James’ initial solos were a hushed, caressing “Christmas Song,” of Robert Wells and Mel Tormé, in James Stephenson’s edition, and a sprightly, jazzy “Jingle Bells,” by James Pierpont, arranged by Charley Harrison and orchestrated by Barton.
Essential Voices USA took center stage with Vince Guaraldi and Lee Mendelson’s “Christmas Time Is Here,” wistful, almost childlike, from “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” with vocal arrangements by Clurman and Reineke. Clurman took to the podium for Essential Voices USA’s most mellifluous “Angels We Have Heard on High,” with the Pops and with Lee Musiker at the piano, in David Chase’s arrangement, with the line “Gloria in excelsis Deo” sung in counterpoint to the rest of the song almost throughout. Reineke and the Pops took center stage again with Katherine K. Davis’ driven ostinato “Little Bolero Boy,” in Robert Wendel’s edition, combining “The Little Drummer Boy” with Maurice Ravel’s “Bolero.”
A Holiday Hits Medley, brainchild of Maestro Reineke, concluded the concert’s first half and consisted of Block’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” in full Mariah Carey mode, with Essential Voices USA’s obbligato; Block and the Voices’ “Hard Candy Christmas,” from “Best Little Whorehouse in Texas,” with hints of Dolly Parton and even Celine Dion; Block and James’ rocking “So This Is Christmas;” the full company’s “Feliz Navidad,” with Reineke singing along; and an “All I Want for Christmas Is You” reprise, wrapping it up. Orchestra and chorus welcomed us back after intermission with John Williams’ “Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas,” a ringing fanfare, from “Home Alone Two.”
James offered Jay Livingston and Ray Evans’ “Silver Bells” with sweet seasonal spirit, obbligato by Essential Voices USA, and arrangement by Reineke. Originally from Saginaw, James gave us his take on Yuletide in his home state in his own lilting and nostalgic composition “Michigan Christmas,” dedicated to his late father, arranged by Dan Lipton, and orchestrated by Brian Usifer. Reineke and the Pops continued with Joseph Carleton Beal and James Ross Boothe’s “Jingle Bell Rock,” begun Dixieland band-style, before the full orchestra joined in, and involving everything from banjo to electric guitar.
Block’s “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” by Walter Kent and Kim Gannon, proved dulcet and impassioned by turns. In Wesley Whatley and Bill Schermerhorn’s Emmy Award-winning “Yes, Virginia, (there’s a Santa Claus),” featured in Macy’s 2010 Thanksgiving Day Parade; taken from Whatley and Schermerhorn’s musical “Yes, Virginia;” and inspired by the Francis Pharcellus Church’s 1897 New York Sun editorial, answering young Virginia O’Hanlon’s query, Block sincerely limned the essential holiday spirit found within oneself. To the tune of “Jolly Old Saint Nicholas,” Santa Claus, accompanied by his elf, did indeed appear, and took the baton to lead a bit of “It Came upon a Midnight Clear.”
To conclude this holiday gala, Block and Essential Voices USA treated us to a soaring rendition of Adophe Adam and John Sullivan Dwight’s “O Holy Night,” in David T. Clydesdale’s lavish, ever-modulating arrangement, also sung here by Sandi Patty in 2009 and Kelli O’Hara in 2014, and the full company invited us to sing-along with their “O Come All Ye Faithful;” “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing;” “Joy to the World;” “Silent Night,” capped by Essential Voices USA’s vocalise verse; and “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.”
The New York Pops’ season at Carnegie Hall continues on March 11, 2016 at 8 p.m. with “42nd on 57th: Broadway Today,” with Jeremy Jordan and Betsy Wolfe. Visit www.newyorkpops.org
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