Boston Pops Christmas Concert Review in Iowa City 11/27/11

IOWA CITY — A heaping slice of fabulous slathered in phenomenal. That’s what the Boston Pops served up Sunday night (11/27) in Carver-Hawkeye Arena.

This was the best kind of Christmas concert imaginable: festive, fun, reverent and relevant for all ages. The music was of the highest calibre, where every single song was the evening’s highlight. Thank you Hancher, for bringing us this superlative seasonal celebration.

I’m not going to apologize for gushing. If you were there, you know what I mean. If you weren’t, you missed one of the most sparkling, effervescent events I’ve witnessed in nearly 30 years of reviewing concerts.

The 75-piece Esplanade orchestra launched its holiday tour with its first visit to Iowa City, rewarded with two standing ovations from 3,389 people stretching from in front of the stage from floor to the venue’s upper reaches.

Under Keith Lockhart’s fluid full-body conducting, ”America’s Orchestra” was dazzling in every way. Every note was crisp and clean, ringing through the acoustically friendly sports arena more used to hosting the bouncing beat of basketballs. I’ve always said this is a suprisingly great place for a concert, and true to form, we could hear all the flute flourishes and harp frills, as well as the bright brass and lush strings.

The orchestra brought along fabulous singers, as well as a right jolly old elf, for some extra pop.

Kathryn Skemp Moran added her shimmering soprano to the haunting “I Wonder as I Wander” and a trio of spirited French carols in the first half, then came back for a glowing “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas” to bring the show to a spectacular finish more than two hours later.

Kicking it all up a notch was Rockapella, the artistically amazing, visually enchanting five guys who shot to fame as the house band for television’s “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?” Their signature sound is a cappella, but of course, they said they jumped at the chance to sing with the Boston Pops.

The merger was stunning, with the singers displaying their heavenly harmonies and vocal percussion against vibrant orchestral accompaniment. One of the most enchanting moments was ”Little Drummer Boy,” when beat boxer Jeff Thacher went head-to-head with the orchestra’s percussion section to create fascinating rhythms.

Rockapella’s slick, sophisticated jazz added glistening ornaments throughout the concert, mostly in a fun and funky vein, but the fab five also elicited audible sighs as they tenderly caressed “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”

The orchestra, too, danced through the many moods of Christmas, opening with the triumphant declaration of ”Joy to the World.” A majestic carol medley moved through a soundscape of dynamics, from the quiet strings of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” to heralding trumpets, twinkling triangles and light, dancing strings before layering “Jingle Bells” and timpani under a reprise of “Joy to the World” for the stunning finish. And that was just the beginning.

The ensemble’s finesse, precision and artistry floated through a suite from “The Nutcracker,” evoking all of the cherished visions of this regal ballet.

History kept right on ringing through the familiar whip cracks and trumpet whinnies of “Sleigh Ride,” a piece so ingrained in pop culture that I didn’t realize it was written especially for the Boston Pops. The ensemble also claims bragging rights to “Frosty All the the Way!” featuring a snazzy, jazzy trombone trio and running bass line that would melt any snowman.

One of the biggest surprises came during ”A Visit from St. Nicholas.” With a wink of his eye and a twist of his head, Lockhart delivered the familiar “Night Before Christmas” story against a totally new orchestration. Far from the tired vocal arrangement every choir has sung ad nauseam, the Pops provided a lyrical instrumental dance behind the treasured poem, adding fun whistles and trills before the harp sent Santa back up the chimney to continue his rounds.

A short time later, the audience turned into a 3,400-member choir, romping through a light and lively singalong that brought out the kid within us all.

I could go on and on, but you get the idea. This is precisely how Christmas should sound, wrapped up in a most welcome gift of song.

– DIANA NOLLEN

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