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Santa’s musical helper: Pops conductor Lockhart.

Season’s Greetings

By Shawn Stone

Boston Pops Esplanade Orchestra, Keith Lockhart, conductor, and Gloriae Del Cantores

Proctors Theatre, Dec. 5

The War on Christmas, a clash of cultures which Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly has bitten into with the zest of any soulless vampire, suffered a serious setback Friday night in Schenectady. The Boston Pops Esplanade Orchestra, under the direction of maestro Keith Lockhart and with the help of the superb, Massachusetts-based chorus Gloriae Del Cantores, struck a blow for the season with a program of joyous Christmas music.

Each musical fusillade struck a blow for both the baby Jesus and Santa: “Joy to the World,” excerpts from Handel’s Messiah and Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker, “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” “Santa Baby,” and so on.

Seriously, I love Christmas music, and the Boston Pops are specialists in Christmas music. People who dig Christmas music know it, too: They packed the (main) house at Proctors, with chartered buses lined up along Broadway.

As noted by Lockhart in a phone interview a few weeks ago, the two additions to the Pops repertoire this year are new arrangements of “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” and music from the film version of The Polar Express. Both were smashing successes.

Since I haven’t read a children’s book since I was a kid, and hadn’t seen The Polar Express because that kind of rotoscoped animation makes me nauseous, this was totally new to me. While the Pops and choir performed an arrangement of the score by Alan Silvestri and Glen Ballard, images from the Chris Van Allsburg book were projected on an overhead screen and actor Will LeBow read the text. The music was fine—above average Hollywood movie scoring—but it was the story, excellent narration and images that really made it work.

This was an accessible, entertaining new work that children would love. Too bad there were so few in the audience.

“The Twelve Days of Christmas” was redone from beginning to end. It’s one of those Christmas songs even Christmasphiles loathe. In that phone interview, Lockhart joked that performed badly, the carol is the musical equivalent of “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall.” The Pops have rearranged it to include musical parodies that riff off each gift. With samples from Tchaikovsky to Sousa, and from Oklahoma to Rose Marie, it was irresitable musical wit, and earned some of the loudest applause of the program.

The Pops recorded jazz composer and arranger Sammy Nestico’s witty take on the famous “sleigh ride” section of Prokofiev’s Lt. Kije Suite, “Kije Takes a Ride,” on their most recent holiday album in 2004. It was paired nicely this evening with their signature holiday carol, Leroy Anderson’s “Sleigh Ride.”

The Albany Times Union’s Rex Smith—who, FYI, also moonlights as a member of the choral ensemble Albany Pro Musica—narrated “A Visit From St. Nicholas.” He acquitted himself admirably.

The evening ended with an audience sing-along on “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” and some other standards. Though they projected the words on a screen, I don’t think I was the only one in the crowd who already knew the lyrics by heart.

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