At holiday time, as in the rest of the year, religion is a partisan matter and beauty in the eye of the beholder. But almost no matter what your emotional need, Peter Nero's got you covered.
For his two-hour-plus holiday show with the Philly Pops that opened Friday night, the conductor-pianist curates a holiday experience that, in an era that prefers sharply defining religious and political differences, still animates the value of a common experience.
Nero will help you dream of a white Christmas, starting the tune at the keyboard with a
mysteriousness that melts away into his warm, expansive pianism. Not Christian? There's a Hanukkah medley that teases its way around the fringes of Rachmaninoff and Mussorgsky. Feeling sacred? Nero imports former Philadelphia Orchestra violinist Michael Ludwig for a meditative "Ave Maria." Classical? Here's a little
. Gospel? The African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas Gospel Choir joyfully obliges.
Nero gives listeners a lot for their money, delivering holiday booty on a scale of Santa proportions. Oh, and at the end of the concert he delivers Santa himself.
Leave it to a Jew from Brooklyn to intuit what an audience wants at Christmastime. Where Nero might misjudge his audience is in how much to share his own superb piano playing. He's a bit miserly about programming himself into this iteration of the annual show. Another season, maybe.
Part of that might have to do with this year's guests. Nero, who often has a leggy Broadway singer to accompany, this year instead offered up the Von Trapp children. Yes, those Von Trapps - the four great-grandchildren of Captain and Maria Von Trapp - Justin, Amanda, Melanie and Sofia, in their teens and 20s - who do exactly the shtick you'd expect, songs from the movie that made their family famous.
And they'd be easy to dismiss as apple-cheeked kitsch were they not so good. In airy soprano voices, in a good-humored stage persona neither saccharine nor self-mocking, they made their most purely musical strong impression in "Noël nouvelet," the French carol, in which their high, breathy tones captured a few moments of otherworldly escape. Justin, at 14, is living in two worlds vocally as boys do at that age, but he skillfully straddles his falsetto and adult voice. Impeccably in tune and hinting at stylistic capabilities beyond this act, the four make you wonder where their careers might lead when it comes time to leave dirndl and lederhosen behind.
At this point in the life of Nero's holiday show it must be difficult to decide which pieces are cherished tradition and which are wearing out their welcome. I think I've probably heard the funked-up arrangement of "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town" enough, even if the Pops brass section captures the sass just right.
The Many Moods of Christmas
comes back like a fruitcake, though this time Nero programmed Robert Shaw and Robert Russell Bennett's "Suite No. 4" in the series. In it, the strings came across as thin in "The First Noel," but the orchestration in "O Little Town of Bethlehem" was a fascinating exercise in restraint. Harp and organ are spare but critical parts of the sound, balancing perfectly in their respective spots. Even the nods to Respighi communicated effectively.
The Pops pulled it off rather well, becoming a classical orchestra despite not being one, and amid a program that asks it to be all things to all composers.