"Just pretend you're in one of the sequels to
Such was the streetwise advice I received going into the Philly Pops' annual Christmas Spectacular - one that I was told (not on good authority) would have more gospel music than usual. I can use that kind of heat this time of year. But no. I had been dreaming of the duskier Christmas promised by the Dec. 17 "A Soulful Christmas Shout for Joy" concert at the Kimmel Center, directed by the formidable J. Donald Dumpson and featuring Melba Moore.
As it was, the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas Gospel Choir sang two welcome numbers and joined the "Hallelujah Chorus" with the Pops Festival Chorus, Philadelphia Boys Choir, and organist Peter Richard Conte.
The magnetically sassy Angela Brown - known to local opera audiences for Margaret Garner and Porgy and Bess - was a bit restrained, though gamely substituting song lyrics about pumpkin pie for sweet-potato pie. But having an artist of her caliber sing fairly conventional holiday fare is a bit like taking a Rolls-Royce to go Christmas shopping. Oh well. She looked great, sounded fine (using a voice-saving microphone), and seemed to be having a dandy time. And so did we.
Elsewhere, the dashing David Charles Abell conducted on Saturday afternoon, keeping his sprawling musical forces in line and winning over the audience with surface urbanity and jokes that were funniest when they failed (for which he took some ribbing from the Pops Festival Chorus).
The program touched a lot of bases, with Robert Wendel's engaging song "This is Chanukah," Jose Feliciano's "Feliz Navidad," and such familiar nondenominational songs such as "I'll Be Home for Christmas" and "Sleigh Ride." Most fun were Christmas songs with outrageously overblown orchestrations by that curious cult figure Carmen Dragon (best known for his version of "The Star-Spangled Banner" used as the late-night sign off for TV affiliates in New Jersey). When Abell described Dragon's carols as being on steroids, he was being polite. The Pops orchestra had a wail of a time.
It's best to think of the Christmas Spectacular as a recreational package, along with the gift kiosks in the Kimmel Center lobby. The concert does what it sets out to do - spread the holiday spirit to a wide-ranging demographic, while giving families a forum for an evening out. The rest of us can go hear Melba Moore, or retreat to our homes for a recording of Britten's Ceremony of Carols.