On Thursday evening, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, led by Principal Pops Conductor Michael Krajewski, presented the first of four performances of their “A Very Merry Holiday Pops!” concerts at Symphony Hall. Three more performances followed, all sold out: Friday night at Kennesaw State University’s Bailey Performance Center, and Saturday afternoon and evening at Symphony Hall.
Krajewski and the ASO opened with an orchestral curtain raiser, and arrangement of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” Greetings to the audience by Krajewski were followed by a “Carol Sing” — a medley of traditional Christmas carols featuring the All-City High School Chorus, an assemblage of over 100 young choristers drawn from nine different high, middle, charter and independent schools in Atlanta. The student choir was prepared for the occasion by its director, Kevin Hill. They also sang “Silent Night” with the orchestra later in the first half.
As the show turned back to an orchestral number, ASO principal trumpet Stuart Stephenson was soloist in “Ding, Dong, Merrily on High,” standing to play the cheerfully bright part from his place within the orchestra.
Two esteemed vocalists were featured prominently throughout the evening: Capathia Jenkins and Morris Robinson. Jenkins is known for her Broadway and television roles; she was most recently seen this month in NBC’s live production of The Wiz. Robinson is a native Atlantan who went off to forge an operatic career as a bass and is now artist-in-residence this season with the ASO.
Jenkins performed a swingy rendition of “Winter Wonderland” followed by “All I Want for Christmas is You.” Later in the show, she sang “Go Tell It on the Mountain” as part of a “Sing Noel” medley with the All-City choir participating.
Jenkins also sang “O Holy Night” in an unusual arrangement that seemed interesting at first, but suddenly at the words “yonder breaks” took a turn to what polite Southern ladies of another era would have called “tacky” — the melodramatic swoops and punctuations in the orchestra’s part, emphasizing certain words, were a bit too much despite the piece being otherwise an effective vehicle for Jenkins’ remarkable vocal agility.
Robinson brought his expansive, classical bass voice to a warmly measured “Do You Hear What I Hear” and “The Christmas Song” (“Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire”).
The comedy routing of the evening belonged to Krajewski as “soloist” in Leroy Anderson’s “Sleigh Ride,” playing the “whip” — that is, the hand-held wooden percussion instrument created to imitate the sound of a real leather whip. Jokes about his particular instrument’s pedigree (that it was made in 17th century Cremona) and playing technique were part of the setup. The performance (played without conductor) had extensive rests, which Krajewski used to make fun of the behavioral quirks of each soloist awaiting their entrance.
In great contrast to the rest of the program was “North Pole Funk,” a Christmas parody of Bruno Mars’ narcissistic “Uptown Funk.” Performed by Marcus Terell of America’s Got Talent season four fame, with a septet of backup singer-dancers (Blake Burgess, Glennae Harvey, Alicia Hill, Nick Morrett, Clay Mote, Brad Raymond and Reynada Robinson), the piece celebrates a young, urban and buff Santa Claus and the cosmopolitan crass commercialism that comes in tow. Frankly, the music was less interesting, serving primarily as a framework for choreography by Jennifer Smiles.
As the end of the concert drew nigh, the long awaited arrival of Santa Claus (Gary Foust) came in the “Merry Little Sing Along” and the audience was encouraged to participate in a medley of three seasonal favorites: “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “Jingle Bells.” Then Jenkins and Robinson returned to the stage to close the formal program with a warmly felt duet, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”
A sole encore closed the evening in the way it began, the orchestra offering up another rendition of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” this time with the All-City High School Chorus chiming in with some nice contrapuntal vocals.