In these parts, it's not Christmastime until the man with the white beard says so. That would be Peter Nero.
For more than a dozen years, Nero has presided over an annual holiday show with his Philly Pops. He's stepping down at the end of this season, which means that the current run in Verizon Hall is probably your last-ever chance to hear Enescu, Glière, and Mussorgsky as the pike, carp, and whitefish in a giant gefilte fish of a Hanukkah medley.
Also, Nero's successor, Michael Krajewski, is not a pianist, which suggests that if this tradition continues, the format won't feature a jazz pianist who somehow manages to be both erudite and haimish, with a little showbiz humor thrown in for good measure. Nero is the end of the line.
Take his Christmas adaptation of "Gangnam Style" (please). PSY's video has clocked 925 million hits on YouTube, and that's good enough for Nero. He put together his own version for Santa, a line of leggy young dancers and a Korean singer from the University of the Arts as Nero chimed in at the punch line ("Oh, Santa baby"). This, obviously, is what a 78-year-old Jew from Brooklyn can do when he puts his mind to it.
Just when you're ready to throw up your hands at the zaniness, Nero does something so interesting, so genuinely the work of an artist, that he leaves you unsure of who he really is. His arrangement of "White Christmas" starts off out in the cold, a disorienting snow globe of repeated patterns. The piano cadenza sounds as if it could take you any place, and where it leaves you off is warming by the strings. It's a lovely moment, and the journey there exposes Nero's piano as more freewheeling and inventive than Ahmad Jamal's, and in the same league of tastefulness as Marian McPartland in her prime.
In life, as at the podium, Nero free-associates, and the musical manifestations can be curious. Each show is a little different, but Sunday's included a gospel choir and Handel's Messiah, Count Basie, and Mariah Carey tunes. And where else can you hear an arrangement of "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen" in the style of the 5th Dimension - with boychoir?
All traditions die. In Philadelphia, Christmas no longer arrives as it used to, with Santa climbing up a fire-truck ladder and into a Market Street department store window. And next year it no doubt will come even without the jolly antics of Peter Nero. But it won't be the same.