Boston Pops holiday program offers an affecting premiere alongside old favorites

December 5, 2014 at 12:52 pm

By Aaron Keebaugh

Keith Lockhart led the Boston Pops holiday program Thursday night at Symphony Hall. Photo: Dominick Reuter

During Christmas of 1914, German, British, and French troops on the Western Front took a break from fighting and crawled out of the trenches to recover and bury their dead. But in a few places along the front, the routine war ritual yielded something extraordinary. Soldiers on opposite sides took the time to exchange food and gifts with one another. One story even tells of some British and German soldiers singing carols together with arms linked. The unofficial ceasefire, which lasted throughout Christmas day, was a brief glimpse of humanity in a war that would claim a staggering number of lives on both sides of the conflict.

The story is the basis for A Soldier’s Carol: The Christmas Truce of 1914, a nine-minute choral work heard in its world premiere as part of the Boston Pops’ holiday programs at Symphony Hall.

Keith Lockhart and the Pops commissioned A Soldier’s Carol from composer Stephen Flaherty and lyricist Lynn Ahrens, the Tony-award winning team whose Broadway credits include Rocky, Ragtime, and Seussical.

Narrated by Karen MacDonald, the piece, heard Thursday night, recreates the events of the truce through an affecting combination of music and story. Sensitively told by MacDonald, involves the same historical sweep and detailed imagery of a Ken Burns documentary. It’s a natural fit to Flaherty’s tuneful score, which has the emotional immediacy of film music.

A searching minor-key melody, combined with a thin sheen of harmonics in the strings and the rat-a-tat of drums, sets the scene in muddy Flanders Fields. Central to the piece are quotations of carols such as “O Come All Ye Faithful,” “O Holy Night,” and “Silent Night,” which the choir sings in both German and English versions simultaneously. Lockhart led the Pops and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus in an exacting reading to tell thue moving Christmas story.

Rounding out Thursday night’s heartwarming holiday program was an entertaining selection of choral and instrumental works.

The Tanglewood Festival Chorus, directed by John Oliver, was in fine form for much of the evening, singing with glorious blend in the “Hallelujah Chorus” from Handel’s Messiah and with reverential tone in Veni, Veni, Emmanuel, a tasteful arrangement by Pops French hornist and composer Richard Sebring. Accompanying the performance were projections of photographs that Sebring took of landscapes from the Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge, located west of Boston. Beautiful images of sunsets and natural ice formations complemented the calming lines of the Latin-texted carol.

Randol Alan Bass’ Gloria, with its perpetual rhythmic drive, was a sparkling opener to the concert. The singing wasn’t always clear, the chorus sometimes drowned out beneath the waves of strings and brass. The central section of the piece fared better, where Lockhart commanded silky a cappella lines from the singers.

Songs Mama Taught Me covered the Hanukkah portion of the holiday concert. The music was catching due to the energetic singing, brisk tempos, and klezmer overtones, with Thomas Martin’s clarinet adding a slithery solo.

But the piece that best displayed the chorus’ singing and holiday spirit was the Twelve Days of Christmas. Don Sebesky’s arrangement of the classic tune for the Pops is a whirlwind tour of different musical styles. The song’s familiar strains give way to quotations of “We Three Kings,” Shéhérazade, Swan Lake, and “Bohemian Rhapsody.” The opening of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony stands in for “five golden rings.” Most entertaining was the “Can-Can,” used for “nine ladies dancing,” which featured Lockhart performing the characteristic kicks from the podium. The Tanglewood Festival Chorus and Pops handled the piece’s patchwork of tunes with vigor.

The orchestral numbers heard Thursday evening were also sparkling in their intensity and detail.

Sebesky’s Joy!, which opened the second half of the concert, is a short, brassy riff on the “Hallelujah Chorus,” “Angels We Have Heard on High,” and “Joy to the World.” With its full-bodied swing and driving rock rhythms, Joy! beamed from some brilliant playing from the orchestra.

Its folkloric story aside, Engelbert Humperdinck’s opera Hansel and Gretel has long been associated with holiday traditions in Europe and America. Lockhart led the Pops in a warm reading of the Prelude from the opera, the strings playing their elegant lines with grace and the brass supplying a solid wall of sound when called upon. The Pops also offered a frolicking rendition of the “Waltz of the Snowflakes” from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker, the music seeming to twirl about in its place.

Watching movies, no doubt, is more of a holiday tradition these days than a family sing-along around the parlor piano. One favorite film of the season is Home Alone, and the Pops, paying homage to its laureate conductor John Williams, offered three selections from the film’s score. “Somewhere in my Memory” and “Merry Christmas” featured the orchestra and chorus in a sumptuous blend. The strains of “Holiday Flight” had the all the bustling energy of a seasonal trip home.

Leroy Anderson’s Sleigh Ride, a Pops classic that was also heard Thursday night, is a true crowd pleaser. Lockhart led a bubbly reading that had some listeners bobbing and swaying in their seats. And they weren’t the only ones moved by the music as Lockhart punctuated the piece’s characteristic whip cracks by leaping into the air.

To close the concert, Lockhart lead the Pops, Tanglewood Festival Chorus, and audience in a sing-along of familiar carols like “Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” “Winter Wonderland,” and the “Christmas Song.” But the festivities didn’t end there. Two encores, “Happy Holidays” and “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas,” sent the concertgoers whistling into the night, all the merrier for the concert experience.

Holiday Pops runs through December 24.; 617-266-1492

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