Dec. 15, 2017

The Virginia Symphony Orchestra and Chorus approached its holiday concert Dec. 8 in the Ferguson Center, with a desire to offer something for everyone. As Robert Shoup, the director of the VSO Chorus and this Pops program suggested in the press, the diverse fare was designed to help bring people together during the holidays, given our divisive cultural and political environment. One hopes the goodness of the intent extends well beyond this concert.

While it was cold, rainy, sleety, and miserable outside, inside things were festive and warm with plenty of good cheer. For the Holiday Pops program, nearly 20 selections were offered, diversity being a common theme. It’s always amazing how many different arrangements of traditional carols and tunes are out there and this event cashed in on that diversity. Other than Anderson’s beloved “Sleigh Ride” which no one seems anxious to alter, the festive fare provided engaging, interesting and even humorous renderings of caroling chestnuts, starting with the often heard on classical radio stations “A Christmas Fanfare” and its nod to just about all the popular seasonal tunes. However, this one segued into Anderson’s “Christmas Festival,” which wound up with the full voiced VSO Chorus entering the stage somewhere around “Jingle Bells,” just in time to ring in with a rousing “O Come All Ye Faithful.”

From there we were treated to other such delightfully arranged tunes as “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”; “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “Here Comes Santa Claus,” both of which were cast in such musical styles as waltz, jazz, swing, and soft shoe; and a notably engaging and ethereal sounding “Lux Aurumque” of Eric Whitacre.

Continuing with diversity, there were two segments from “Hanukkah Overture” with a delightful bit of solo work by principal clarinetist Michael Byerly in the “Dreidel Song”; hip-hop dance routines by Nanyakarum Ellis of Norfolk-based Teens With a Purpose in “Russian Dance” and “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” from “Nutcracker,” assuredly the most different interpretation of these dances to be seen; a VSO Chorus ensemble of 10 in a jazzy version of “I Saw Three Ships” and contemporary arrangement of “We Three Kings”; and two VSO Chorus soloists, a beautifully voiced mezzo- soprano Rachel Bradley in Jason Brown‘s “Christmas Lullaby” from his off-Broadway musical “Songs for a New World” and warm and inviting baritone Matt Kelly in a stirring singing of Brown’s “Music of Heaven.”

A highlight of diversity came with the appearance of the Norfolk’s I. Sherman Greene Chorale, an African-American group that has, for 45 years, grown into an ensemble nationally recognized for its excellence in music of all genres, most especially that of the Negro spiritual. Under the direction of Elizabeth Eccles, the group delivered a toe-tapping, a cappella singing of “See Dat Babe” and, under Shoup, an excellent rendering of the quasi-John Rutter-sounding “Festival Sanctus” with its spirit and pulsing energy.

Following an audience sing-along of carols, which found the Greene Chorale filling the aisles of the hall, along with the select 10 from the VSO Chorus filling the stage, the combined voices chimed in for a jolly “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.”

This was a fun-filled program made notably more so by Shoup’s fine conducting (and piano playing), his engaging commentary, and his expressed sincerity in wanting this festive event to transport us from the many disturbing happenings in the world to a place that, for two hours, brings happiness and peace. He succeeded.

Shulson, a Williamsburg resident, has been covering the arts for over 40 years. He makes a guest appearance in Margaret Truman’s “Murder at the Opera.”