American Festival Pops' 'Songs of the Season'

Ringing in the holidays traditionally at GMU's Center for the Arts.

FAIRFAX, Va., (December 26, 2012) The American Festival Pops Orchestra celebrated a good, old-fashioned American musical Christmas this Saturday past with a holiday program entitled “Songs of the Season” at George Mason University’s Center for the Arts. Guest artists included soprano Kathryn Hearden, trombonist Rick Lillard, the Anchor Sisters, and Rick Davis who was narrator for the orchestra’s rendition of “’Twas the Night Before Christmas.”

More than ever, this still-newish orchestra, under the energetic baton of Anthony Maiello, demonstrated its increasing affection for America’s Big Band era by choosing for its program of time-honored Christmas favorites the clever, witty, and deep arrangements of the ensemble’s regular arranger, Bryan Kidd as well as others in a similar vein.

Ranging from Leroy Anderson favorites  like “Sleigh Ride” and his “Christmas Festival” anthology, the orchestra embraced other favorites, but with a twist. Even moldy oldies like “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” were considerably freshened and jazzed, with “Santa Claus” benefiting from a Mike Crotty arrangement and a spectacularly good instrumental and vocal turn by trombonist Rick Lillard who delighted the audience with his jazz and scat-singing skills—the latter being an almost lost art these days.

Soprano Kathryn Hearden also jazzed up the chestnuts in that old Mel Tormé chestnut, “The Christmas Song,” aided and abetted by another great Bryan Kidd arrangement, and she even brought considerable life back to the somewhat vapid but still popular “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” again with a creative assist from the clever Mr. Kidd.

The AFPO Holiday Brass Quintet—Dennis Edelbrook and Dave Detwiler (trumpets), Ted Thayer (horn), Scott Shelsta (trombone), and Jack Tilbury (tuba)—also brightened the mood with their interpretation of a feisty “Christmas Sketches” anthology. And the AFPO Jazz Trio—Dave Detwiler, Chris Vadala (tenor and soprano sax), and Rhodes Whitehill (trombone), kicked in with the punchiest, jazziest version ever of “Bring a Torch, Jeanette, Isabella” in Mike Tomaro’s over-the-top arrangement.

AFPO conductor and music director Anthony Maiello. (Credit: GMU.)

The program’s second half included traditional Jewish holiday music included in “Festive Sounds of Hanukah,” as well as the aforementioned “Night Before Christmas,” highlighted by Rick Davis’ narration which proved to be every bit as lively as old Saint Nick.

“Anchor Sisters” Casey Elliott, Amanda Polychronis, and Jennifer A. Stothoff channeled the Andrews Sisters with near-perfection in “Boogie Woogie Merry Christmas” as well as in “Mele Kalikimaka,” the Hawaiian Christmas tune made popular on Bing Crosby’s 1949 (and still in production) Christmas album and perfected here in another fun Bryan Kidd arrangement.

After a surprise dual accordion rendition of Walteufel’s famed “Skaters’ Waltz,” featuring Linda Monson and Maestro Maiello himself on the accordions, the orchestra wrapped things up with Irving Berlin’s immortal classic “White Christmas,” an audience sing-along string of classics entitled “’Tis the Season,” and a rousing Robert Smith arrangement entitled “Jingle Bells Forever,” that twinned the popular holiday song with the martial spirit of John Philip Sousa.

Rating: *** (Three stars.)

Read more of Terry’s news and reviews at Curtain Up! in the Entertain Us neighborhood of the Washington Times Communities. For Terry’s investing and political insights, visit his Communities columns, The Prudent Man and Morning Market Maven, in Business.

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Terry Ponick

Now writing on investing, politics, music, and theater for the Washington Times Communities, Terry was the longtime music and culture critic for the Washington Times (1994-2009). 

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