The lights go down in Verizon Hall, and the Philly Pops Christmas Spectacular gets right down to business with a great big version of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” It’s one of those delightfully bloated orchestrations — with silvery spires of brass, a rumbling organ, and reassuring waves of humanity coming at you by way of a large chorus.
Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas around here without the appearance of this show — which the Pops will repeat a total of 11 times over three weeks this year — and like a lot of traditions, there’s both comfort and a little eye-rolling that comes with the realization that not a lot has changed since last time.
The show is like the big box of chocolates you pick up at the CVS on the way to Christmas dinner at Aunt Jessie’s. It’s nice to find all the usual favorites, but sometimes you think that a few new flavors might be nicer.
This year, in fact, there is a new flavor at the Pops, and it’s called music director-designate. Todd Ellison doesn’t officially take the podium of the 40-year-old group until July 2019, but he has taken this run of concerts, along with Mandy Gonzalez, the Broadway vocalist who is currently starring in Hamilton at the Richard Rodgers Theatre in New York.
Ellison, 53, has a pleasant stage manner. He proved his Philly credentials at Saturday afternoon’s opening show by flashing a jacket lining with an Eagles-insignia pattern, and put everyone at ease with a mild joke here and there. He plays piano, too –- not in the extravagantly inventive way Peter Nero did, but with understated good taste. Singing in “Little Jack Frost,” his voice had a mellow, friendly sound — better, really, than he himself suggested when he then introduced Gonzalez as a “real” singer.
Much of the Pops recipe remains the same as years ago: the Broadway star, kinetic singers from the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas Gospel Choir, the Philadelphia Boys Choir & Chorale, and the Philly Pops Festival Chorus.
What’s changed is the unpredictability that Nero brought with the strange but funny musical hybrids: a Hanukkah medley that wink-winked with touches of Glière and Mussorgsky, or a “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” unapologetically dressed up in the style of the 5th Dimension.
Where Nero was worldly, Ellison is subtle. He opened the second half of the show with a reading of Johann Strauss’ Tritsch Tratsch Polka at a moderate speed with moderate zip. It left you feeling, well, moderate, which is not how this flash of a piece should leave you feeling. “Nothing like a Strauss polka to get the blood boiling again,” he said to the audience afterward. I couldn’t tell whether he was being serious.
More so than ever, the Philly Pops Christmas Spectacular traffics in sincerity, which is not a bad antidote to the times. Gonzalez is a spectacularly good vocalist, and she goosed up the emotion in such pieces as “Mary, Did You Know?” Peter Richard Conte flashed his usual astute ear for organ color and power in Keith Chapman’s take on “Bring a Torch, Jeanette Isabella.”
A couple of new offerings: trumpeter Matt Gallagher in a smoky, highball of an arrangement by Ron Kerber of Mel Torme’s “Christmas Song” (Gallagher has the high notes), and Ellison’s own collaboration with lyricist Stephen Cole called “Christmas Morning.” It starts slowly and a little misty-eyed, and then, after a quick reference to the triplets from the theme to A Summer Place straight out of 1960, we’re off on a swinging, joyous waltz through the Christmas of childhood.
Is the piece a fair reflection of Ellison and the musical mind we can expect to exert some influence in coming seasons? Christmas is a time for nostalgia and looking at the world through rose-colored ornaments. We’ll hope for some innovation and edge from the Ellison era. But in the meantime, sincerity and good taste will no doubt please more than a few sold-out houses worth of Christmas revelers.
Philly Pops Christmas Spectacular