“When I say ‘spectacular,’ I mean it,” conductor David Charles Abell announced at the outset of this year’s A Philly Pops Christmas: Spectacular Sounds of the Season, a joyous show now settled into the Kimmel Center’s Verizon Hall with six more performances (some nearly sold out) through Dec. 21.
He wasn’t kidding. Abell is shepherding a cast of characters so huge — 300-plus — they can’t all be contained on the festively decorated stage.
Abruptly barging down an aisle at last weekend’s matinee, a New Orleans-styled traditional jazz band (stomping over “Jingle Bells”) caught the Pops’ popular principal guest conductor by faux-surprise. Abell’s comedic reactions were a stitch.
Broadway belter Mandy Gonzalez returns as the vocal headliner, packing an emotive thrill in every trill. Her “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” plushed up with the original 1944 film orchestration from Meet Me in St. Louis, is especially poignant.
Also back for the 2019 show is Peter Richard Conte, the grand court organist for the Wanamaker Organ at Macy’s, contributing heavenly pipe organ vibes from a perch high above the orchestra.
Santa is here with silly sidekicks The Melodica Men (Tristan Clarke and Joe Buono), who dance and toot Tchaikovsky on their handheld, air-powered keyboard instruments.
The Philly Pops musicians do some joking of their own, making faces and spinning their cellos like dreidels. But their core mission never falters under Abell’s taut direction, serving rich rounds of festive music — including a whip-snapping big-band impression of “Sleigh Ride” and glorious symphonic carols including “Adestes Fideles” and “Silent Night.”
And why employ just one choir when three choirs multiply the fun and the sonic textures? The Pops spectacular has the glossy, 170-voice Philly Pops Festival Chorus, the hearty gospel sound of the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas Choir, and the wispy innocence of the Philadelphia Boys Choir & Chorale.
At one point, the number of singers expands to the thousands as Abell turns his back on the orchestra and coaxes sing-alongs from showgoers on “Joy to the World,” “Deck the Halls,” and more.
It’s no secret that Philadelphia performing institutions like the Philly Pops and Pennsylvania Ballet seek and score a nice portion of their annual budget with festive seasonal shows. And with presentations like “Spectacular Sounds,” you can understand why.
While there weren’t many children in the audience for the (bus-group heavy) Saturday matinee, kids would surely be entertained. Gonzalez lays into “Let It Go” from Frozen, and a piano jazz trio from the Pops serves up a note-perfect replica of Vince Guaraldi’s A Charlie Brown Christmas TV theme.
Lots of the Pops players will also do double duty in the newly affiliated Philly Pops Jazz Orchestra (formerly the Jazz Orchestra of Philadelphia) under the direction of Terell Stafford, playing Billy Strayhorn’s brassy variations on The Nutcracker Suite at the Kimmel Center’s Perelman Theater on Dec. 14. Cheltenham native Randy Brecker guest-solos that night on trumpet.
And the Philly Pops has tailored holiday shows for audiences beyond the Kimmel this year. An “Uptown Christmas” at the Met Philadelphia last week had a funkier, phatter sound, with guest vocalists Tituss Burgess and Luis Figueroa, in addition to Gonzalez and the St. Thomas Choir. On Dec. 20, the Philly Pops Big Band takes "Christmas in the City 2” to the Xcite Center at Parx Casino, with music director Todd Ellison at the podium, vocal guests Charl Brown and Tiffany Jones, and some Motown Christmas flavor.
A Philly Pops Christmas: Spectacular Sounds of the Season
Through Dec. 21 at the Kimmel Center, 300 S. Broad St.