In the old days, it would have been a grinning, leggy blond who rolled the mysterious box out on stage. Times have changed, thank goodness, and the task fell to a rather businesslike stagehand to bring forth the item in question at a certain point in Saturday's Philly Pops matinee in Verizon Hall.
Once again, though, in many aspects, this year's Philly Pops Christmas experience could have been the kind of variety show well known a half-century or more ago. And the crowd ate it up.
In fact, not so much has changed for Christmastime at the Philly Pops since Peter Nero parted ways with it — and the group — five years ago. Now, as then, you never know who's going to show up or in precisely what form a traditional tune might arrive. It could be a bloated arrangement of a traditional carol or the "Hallelujah Chorus." A guest singer, three choruses, and one big organ played by Peter Richard Conte fill the air aplenty. Santa arrives. The house lights come up for the audience sing-along. You leave the hall 10 pounds of worry lighter and ready to face the holidays.
One gag lives on in toto: the genre that twists the classical and popular into one. That was a Nero specialty, and if you think he never went as far on the tasteless scale as changing Ravel's Bolero into four-four meter and giving it the tune from "The Little Drummer Boy," think back. The Hanukkah medley he used to do with dollops of Rachmaninoff and Mussorgsky was so bad it was good, and you felt smart for being able to nab the musical references as they piled up like so many latkes.
But there was also a certain air of irony that Nero managed to bring to the proceedings; wry was his way. The host this year is Michael Krajewski, the Pops' current music director. He's a fine conductor, and his stage persona has an appealing, soft-spoken Midwestern sincerity. He made hay of the fact that he plays an unusual instrument (I won't ruin the surprise, but it's what's inside that box), and the ensuing skit is actually pretty funny. There's also a decent musical payoff when it comes time for him to play his unusual instrument in Leroy Anderson's Sleigh Ride – one "note" played exactly seven times throughout the course of the piece.
But it also served to remind us that Nero played a very common instrument, and did so with uncommon invention and sophistication. His imaginative, tasteful ways at the piano are sorely missed. Actually, as the years pass, this show is evolving. Concertmaster Michael Ludwig was in his spot, but he never played "Ave Maria," as he has other years. There was no nod to Hannukah this time.
Instead of one of several Broadway singers who used to come regularly, bass-baritone Justin Hopkins was guest (he was once a member of the Philadelphia Boys Choir, also performing) in a retelling with orchestra and the Philly Pops Festival Chorus of How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Hopkins was perfect in every way, singing "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch" and narrating in his deep bass, and moving into unctuous, higher-pitched terrain for the part of the Grinch.
Five years after Nero, there's less individual star power in this show and more emphasis on the Pops orchestra itself. But where does that get us? What you want at Christmastime is some emotion, and though all of the orchestrations were fine, many were harmonically bland, employing only the most obvious chord changes. The African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas Gospel Choir, long a presence at this concert, reached heights in a syncopated version of "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing." But not a lot else challenged the ear or tugged at the heart.
Santa showed the way. Joined by Hopkins, he made eyes misty in "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," the gorgeous little ambiguity that it is. The orchestration by James Kessler used horn-backed swells of sound to put real meaning behind the lyric "if only in my dreams." Originally meant as a lament from those not able to get home for Christmas, it was the orchestration that made this performance. It caught something real and true —a gift if ever there was one.