Avalon Theatre elves were blowing bubble “snowflakes” beneath the marquee outside as a near-capacity crowd filed out following the final note of the Mid-Atlantic Symphony Orchestra’s opening “Holiday Joy” concert series Friday evening in Easton.
Inside, MSO maestro Julien Benichou paid homage to both the Avalon Foundation for completing the beautiful restoration of its historic Art Deco theater and to American pops orchestras whose lead he followed in selecting a rich program of orchestral and vocal classics leavened with a sense of musical humor, bravely juxtaposing the sacred against the secular.
Metropolitan Opera bass-baritone Kevin Short, who will play the title male role in “Porgy & Bess” next month at Lincoln Center, was joined by three accomplished young artists from the University of Maryland Opera Studio, sopranos Erica Ferguson and Judy Yannini and mezzo soprano Esther Atkinson. Each sang solo, but also in pairs and, for the encore finale, as a quartet on “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” squeezing onstage with 36 orchestra musicians, counting the maestro.
The vocals ranged from a standard rendition of “O Come All Ye Faithful,” with the orchestra in a supportive role to soprano Yannini’s deliverance of the carol, to Short’s powerful a cappella solo on the less familiar “In the Bleak Midwinter” by Gustav Holst. Soprano Ferguson and mezzo Atkinson blended dramatically in Engelbert Humperdinck’s dark “Evening Prayer from Hansel und Gretel,” while Ferguson, Atkinson and Short conspired with the orchestra in the maestro’s adventurous mash-up—a medley of sorts—“Silent Night” and “O Holy Night” with a celebratory “Jingle Bells” riff in the mix.
Among the instrumental solo performances were two by concertmaster Cordelia Palm, joined on violin by Celaya Kirchner and cellist Jacques-Pierre Malan on the first: The Pastorale from Corelli’s Christmas Concerto. The second, not listed in the program, was Palm’s astonishing string virtuosity on Meditation from Thais by Jules Massenet, putting us in a meditative state of mind and spirit. Guy McIntosh, who like others in the MSO family, wears more than one hat—he’s also communications director—stepped to the forefront in “The Toy Trumpet,” playing it, of course, like no toy indeed. Amber Mecke’s tender plucks of the harp lifted Tchaikovsky’s “Waltz of the Flowers” from “The Nutcracker” as delightfully as a spring breeze spreading magical pollen. You could almost picture airborne ballerinas.
Adding a bit of dark humor, Benichou introduced Kevin Short’s thunderous take on “Ol’ Man River,” from Jerome Kern’s musical “Showboat,” with a story about a woman of a certain age who said she could die now that she heard him sing it. It’s not known if she’s still around to enjoy Short’s reprise, but it’s worth living for. On a lighter note of symphonic wit, Benichou suggested that since no one has written a better menorah score since Robert Wendel’s Hanukkah Overture, “we should all know it by heart now,” having heard it performed by the MSO every year for who knows how long? Wendel is also credited with the last piece before several encores. His “Little Bolero Boy” takes the thematic instrumental refrain from “The Little Drummer Boy” and propels it with the relentless acceleration of Ravel’s, some would say, sexually climactic “Bolero.”
Although we spotted a couple of Santa hats in the brass section, this is not a Santa Claus-type concert, but rather a pops experimentation bowing to seasonal favorites but also with serious classical overtones and a sly smile. If you missed the show, you can still catch it Saturday night in Lewes, Delaware, and in an Ocean City Sunday matinee.
‘Holiday Joy: A Salute to the Great Pops Orchestras’
Sunday, Dec. 8, 3 p.m., Ocean City Convention Center, Ocean City
Steve Parks is a retired journalist, arts critic and editor now living in Easton.
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