PITTSBURGH – Canned Christmas music is ubiquitous now. There were nice recordings being played Thursday night in the Starbucks across the street from Heinz Hall, Downtown, before the Highmark Holiday Pops concert.
Recordings in a store are a musical wallpaper that references enjoyable emotions. How revitalizing it was, therefore, to encounter the freshly conceived holiday concert led by Marvin Hamlisch, which generated new memories with boldly committed performances.
But rather than begin with holiday music, the concert started with Jodi Benson as soloist in “My Favorite Things” by Richard Rodgers. Hamlisch is a master at assembling a variety show. Nearly all the repertoire was favorites, including the four numbers of the Christmas Sing-Along.
Leroy Anderson’s “A Christmas Festival” showed that Hamlisch and the orchestra were in top form. The balances were exemplary; better, in fact, than at some classical subscription concerts.
The symphony’s new sound system was controlled to achieve ideal balances, too. The Mendelssohn Choir provided just the right climax to “A Christmas Festival” — strong but not overdone. The choir also was excellent in the “Hallelujah Chorus.”
“Chestnuts Pops Melody” included two great songs by Mel Torme, performed with a twist by Gary Mauer. In place of the original smooth and underplayed style, Mauer brought an intensity that was borrowed from Andrew Lloyd Webber shows. Not surprising, perhaps, because Mauer did star in the Hal Prince production of “The Phantom of the Opera.” This style was present in his other solos, but, fortunately, not in his duets with Benson.
Benson was a charmer, except for one number. She and Mauer were wonderfully animated in Frank Loesser’s song “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” “Part of Your World” from Disney’s “The Little Mermaid,” which she sang for the film, would have been a highlight of any Pops concert.
Seven dancers from Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre School provided a special moment in the Dance of the Mirlitons from “The Nutcracker.” The elegance and precision of three young ladies fit the music perfectly, while four younger dancers as three white sheep and a black sheep provided a light comic touch.
Santa always makes an appearance at Holiday Pops concerts. Baritone Kevin Glavin was back to apply his wonderful voice to a hip version of “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town.”
Tenor Ricky Manning sang “Danny Boy” with impressively sustained feeling and got a big hand. Manning, a detective with the Allegheny County Sheriff’s Office, came onstage in uniform and also sang “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” in honor of those who protect us even as we enjoy the holidays.
A lovely pairing of “Silent Night” and “White Christmas” brought the concert to a feel-good conclusion. The orchestral encore, Leroy Anderson’s “Sleigh Ride,” sent us home with the right breezy, but not chilly, tone.