BSO's holiday show almost Scrooge-proof
You've got to have a fairly advanced case of humbugitis to resist the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's annual Holiday Spectacular. Even after questioning one element or another, I ended up feeling good about this year's version. For one thing, Sandi Patty is back as host and vocal soloist, and she's just as welcoming as she was two years ago. She knows how to put seasonal music across without ever slipping into cloying territory, and her voice has an appealing freshness. This year, she shares the stage with the African Children's Choir, a remarkably cohesive and spirited ensemble of orphans (if they don't tug at your heartstrings, you may want to check your pulse).
I caught the opening performance Friday at the Meyerhoff. Jack Everly, the BSO's principal pops conductor and primary architect of the holiday show, exuded his usual calm authority on the podium and drew smooth playing from the orchestra. Most of the repertoire choices proved agreeable, and the performances were full of life. On the purely orchestral side, Barlow Bradford's arrangement of "Carol of the Bells" was a particular treat, not just colorful, but what you might even call hip. Patty had fun with "Baby, It's Cold Outside" and turned in a charming "Getting to Know You" with the sweet-voiced children, who offered several highlights of their own along the way.
On the down side, I'm just not sold on the " 'Twas the Night Before Christmas" number, which is a traditional part of the program. The music is bland; the props and choreographic elements could use some extra flash (a colleague at the paper who was there Friday wondered why the puppet-handlers just walk around in street clothes); and the amount of time eaten up by the whole thing doesn't have a corresponding amount of diversion.
But the biggest drawback came in the second half of the show, when pacing turned strangely sluggish, with two slow items back to back. There should be a rousing finish to equal the now famous tapping Santas who bring down the house before intermission (the dancers from the Baltimore School for the Arts kicked up a storm). Tapping angels? No, I guess not. But there's got to be something.
More problematic was what happened after Patty and company delivered the official finale, "O Holy Night." She stopped the applause to deliver thanks to the sponsors. Talk about deflation. Even the encore sparked by the African Children's Chorus couldn't get the spirits back up to speed after that. The thank-you's could surely be delivered at a different point in the production, leaving room for some sort of show-biz splash to send the crowd out properly.
Still, the basic soundness and appeal of the Holiday Spectacular remains. It's a feel-good effort that seems doubly welcome these days. And the festive transformation of the hall, from the lobby to the proscenium, is achieved with great flair.
PHOTO COURTESY OF BALTIMORE SYMPHONY (Dave Hoffmann)