Houston Symphony’s ‘Very Merry Pops’ takes a spiritual turn
Houston Chronicle

Holiday music is inescapable, so why not have some fun with it?

The Houston Symphony decked Jones Hall with boughs of holly over the weekend for its annual “Very Merry Pops” spectacular, a well-balanced mixture of evergreen favorites and less familiar holiday tunes featuring Broadway star Ali Ewoldt, the Houston Symphony Chorus and a cameo by a soft-shoeing Santa Claus.

No disrespect to Kris Kringle, or Frosty the Snowman, but the real jolly, happy soul on hand had to be Principal POPS Conductor Steven Reineke. As gregarious leading the orchestra as he is engaging with the audience, Reineke conducted with broad, semaphore-ish motions brimming with good cheer. Seven selections throughout the evening were his own arrangements, so he came by that enthusiasm honestly.

Ewoldt, who last month wrapped an extended Broadway run as the ingenue Christine Daae in Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Phantom of the Opera,” is a lithe vocalist whose sunny soprano is well-suited for uptempo fare like “Winter Wonderland.” However, she was hardly out of her depth on more introspective ballads like “Where Are You, Christmas?”, which Faith Hill sang in Ron Howard’s 2000 film “How the Grinch Stole Christmas”; or “The Secret of Christmas,” which served as a handy preview for the symphony’s spotlight on “The Ella Fitzgerald Songbook,” coming in mid-January.

Lest we forget, the holidays are far from merry and bright for many people, and the orchestra deserves credit for programming music acknowledging that uncomfortable truth. On that note, Ewoldt also sang “Somewhere in Your Silent Night,” a 2017 song by Christian rockers Casting Crowns that was uplifting in a broken-hearted sort of way.

But let’s not kid around here: sad songs should be used sparingly at holiday affairs. Lord knows the season is tough enough to get through as it is.

The remainder of the program was altogether more joyful, including the pair of Reineke-arranged singalongs closing out each half — first popular favorites like “Rudolph the RedNosed Reindeer” and “Frosty the Snowman,” then carols on the order of “O Come All Ye Faithful” and “Joy to the World” — and a rousing mini-suite of Hanukkah music featuring “Oh Hanukkah! Oh Hanukkah!”, “Haneirot Halalu,” and “Maos Tsur (Rock of My Salvation).”

Other songs offered the symphony’s musicians a chance to burnish their jazz chops.

Splashy xylophone and a brisk pulse gave “Winter Wonderland” the essence of 1940s-style swing; sleigh bells and a subtle West Coast shuffle undergirded wistful the perennial “Peanuts” tune “Christmastime Is Here”; while sassy trumpet, tuba bleats, and plunking banjo transformed “Jingle Bell Rock” into a Dixieland romp plucked straight off a Mississippi paddlewheeler circa 1922.

Jolly old Saint Nick even put in an appearance, showing off a few dance steps before moving onto the podium to wave his arms around for a few seconds during “A Charleston Christmas.” (He must have been taking lessons from Reineke; if so, they paid off.)

Principal keyboardist Scott Holshouser had a good night, adding touches of swanky cocktail-bar piano to “I’ll Be Home For Christmas.” (Otherwise the song was another nice showpiece for Ewoldt, who noted her parents were in the audience.) He was also featured on Tchaikovsky’s “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy,” this time on celeste, an unusual hybrid of harpsichord, harp and xylophone that sounds exactly what someone might expect to hear in a realm where fairies are commonplace.

Over the course of the evening, it sank in how nice it was to hear seasonal music that for once was not trying to sell anything but itself — except for, with “Sugar Plum Fairy” at least, Houston Ballet’s production of “The Nutcracker” a few blocks away. The same feeling took hold during “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” another bit of familiar commercial fodder that Reineke’s arrangement converted into a sweeping Viennese-style waltz tailor-made for black-tie holiday galas.

The more distance you can put yourself from shopping-mall Muzak and Target commercials, the more the mysterious and even mystical natures of many Christmas carols are apt to reveal themselves. This came to the fore during Ewoldt’s rendition of “I Wonder as I Wander” and chorus-heavy numbers “Carol of the Bells”; “The First Nowell,” also featuring gorgeous solo lines from principal cellist Brinton Averil Smith; and a triumphant “O Holy Night” that had the audience on its feet even before the closing singalong.

This year’s “Very Merry Pops” was indeed as festive as it needed to be, and then some. But here the performance came with an unexpectedly stiff dose of non-dogmatic spirituality we don’t often see this time of year anymore. More’s the pity.

Chris Gray, Houston Chronicle
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