Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Christmas Music--New York Pops Concert and CDs

Brian d'Arcy James and Stephanie J. Block with conductor Steven Reineke and The New York Pops (photo: Richard Termine)

This month's uncommonly mild weather has made it seem more like late spring rather than the holiday season, so the New York Pops’ annual Christmas concerts at Carnegie Hall (December 18 and 19) were a needed antidote. It’s Christmas Time in the City was a wonderfully festive display of great singing and music-making led by Pops music director Steven Reineke, featuring the orchestra, Broadway veterans Stephanie J. Block and Brian d’Arcy James and the chorus Essential Voices USA.

Although Block’s effusive personality threatened to overwhelm the show, happily she hammed it up only during the “Holiday Hits Medley” when she out-Mariahed Mariah Carey on “All I Want for Christmas Is You.” Her emotional rendition of Wesley Wheatley and Bill Schermerhorn’s affecting “Yes, Virginia” (in which she mentioned her own newborn daughter) was a highlight, as was her easy rapport with d’Arcy James on their duets “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!” and “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” 

D'Arcy James also brought his A game, with engagingly unadorned renditions of “The Christmas Song” and “Silver Bells,” but his best moment came with a song he wrote about his hometown of Saginaw, “Michigan Christmas,” which was heartfelt without being the least bit sentimental.

Essential Voices USA dominated from the opening, a rousing “Deck the Halls.” The evening's lone quibble was monstrously over-orchestrated versions of “Angels We Have Heard on High” and “O Holy Night,” whose orchestral swellings all but buried the chorus’ excellent work (and in the latter, Block’s ringing high notes). But orchestra and singers came together beautifully for a final singalong of sacred carols that sent the satisfied audience out into the uncharacteristically cold night humming, happy and ready for December 25.

Holiday CDs
Ann Hampton Callaway—The Hope of Christmas 
(MCG Jazz)
Putting together a disc of all-new Christmas songs is a daring endeavor, so this collaboration of singer Ann Hampton Callaway and lyricist William Schermerhorn scores right off the bat. Schermerhorn's lyrics, spirited or wistful or amusing or romantic in turn, are the perfect complement to Callaway's warm singing on these 12 new tunes. Callaway herself wrote the music for the hopeful title track and the personal final song, "Fly with the Angels." The whipsmart jazz arrangements, performed by an exemplary ensemble, give this recording a pleasing seasonal vibe.

December Celebration 
This collection of new Christmas carols by seven American composers spans generations from William Bolcom, John Corigliano and Gordon Getty to Mark Adamo and Jake Heggie, whose song cycle On the Road to Christmas delightfully resurrects old tunes next to new ones that work well within the seasonal tradition. Also memorable and likely to last are David Garner's Three Carols and Luna Pearl Woolf's How Bright the Darkness; soprano Lisa Delan and baritone Lester Lynch, conductor Dawn Harms and pianist Steven Bailey are the impeccable musicians. 

Paul Hindemith—The Long Christmas Dinner 
In his melodious musicalization of Thornton Wilder's one-act drama of Americana, German composer Paul Hindemith created a miniature masterpiece that would turn out to be his last opera (he died in 1963, two years after its premiere), and its musical subtleties mirror those of Wilder's insightful play about one family over a period of nearly a century. In this, astonishingly the opera's first English-language recording, conductor Leon Botstein leads an ideal reading that captures the work's emotions with gentle understatement.

Ottorino Respighi—Lauda per la Nativita del Signore 
Although there are motets for unaccompanied choir on this disc—including the four Francis Poulenc motets that are justly famous seasonal works—this recording's highlight is Ottorino Respighi's Lauda, a rarely-heard Christmas cantata of real substance and heightened dramatic power. It was Respighi's lone sacred composition in a long and distinguished career. 

Patty Smyth—Come on December
(Parallel 22)
For her first holiday album (actually more of an EP, since it's only eight songs), Scandal singer Patty Smyth confidently makes her way through five familiar classics and three new tunes, none of which will enter the canon of Christmas classics. Smyth—a magnificently controlled singer who has never received the respect and admiration she deserves (compare that to the out-of-control panegyrics that greeted Adele's new album)—makes even the less memorable songs like "Walk with Me" and the title track shine, and she makes standards like "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" and "The Christmas Song" her own.

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