As the world slips deeper into debt and doubt, it's good to know that the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's annual Holiday Spectacular is as reliably diverting as ever. There are still several more chances to get your cheer infusion before the production wraps up Tuesday.
Friday's opener reaffirmed the basic soundness of the concept, which was introduced to Baltimore audiences in 2005 by BSO principal pops conductor Jack Everly. He imported this holiday product from the Indianapolis Symphony, where he is also principal pops conductor. Each year, various components are added and subtracted, but the fundamental fuel remains the same - a contagious belief in the warming power of the music of the season.
Meyerhoff Symphony Hall undergoes quite a transformation each December for this venture, from the festively lit lobby to the fanciful proscenium inside, and this year it looks even more feel-good-y than I remembered from my last encounter in 2006.
That year, silvery-voiced, personable, multi-Grammy-winning Sandi Patty served as host and soloist, and she's back in those capacities. In addition to once again offering an abundance of unforced style and charm, she undergoes a costume change about every seven minutes.
This time, she shares the stage with some irresistible competition, the African Children's Choir, an ensemble of orphans with angelic voices and high-wattage smiles. They do some spirited collaborations with Patty (including the inevitable "Getting to Know You") and, on their own, provide a sampling of Christmas songs from Africa.
There's also a strongly matched adult chorus that handles its various assignments during the program with flair. The BSO, tightly packed into upstage spaces, gets to step out of a supporting role here and there. On opening night, Everly drew from the musicians' colorful performances of the Leroy Anderson perennial, "Sleigh Ride," and an unusually vibrant arrangement by Barlow Bradford of "Carol of the Bells." (Steven Reineke has taken over the conducting duties for the remaining performances.)
Of course, the now-famous tap-dancing Santas - executed by a well-honed troupe from the Baltimore School for the Arts - are back to close the first half of the program. It's still a surefire bit. I think a little extra element or two of surprise could be injected into the routine, but the only serious problem with the number is that it's impossible to top. Nothing in the second half of the show comes close to matching the sight of all those jolly hoofers.
Everly is a seasoned Broadway veteran who knows all about timing and sending an audience out of a theater with a flourish. So I was surprised last week at how the pacing of this year's program lost steam just as it neared the end, with two stately items in a row, "Star of Bethlehem" and "O Holy Night." The latter provided its usual expressive peak, but didn't quite put a crowning close on the evening.
Even more questionable was the idea of having Patty stop the applause after that finale to thank the production's sponsors, a gesture surely better suited elsewhere in the program. And although the African Children's Choir led the way in a bouncy little encore after that, it wasn't enough to reverse the deflation. Still, in light of so much entertainment, any Scroogy quibbles over the Holiday Spectacular quickly faded.
For schedule and ticket information, call 410-783-8000 or go to bsomusic.org.
The Baltimore Consort, the exceptional ensemble highly regarded for its exploration of early popular music, makes relatively few appearances in its namesake city. We've been missing out on a lot of fun, judging by the consort's concert of Christmas music Saturday night at the Baltimore Basilica.
The program, presented by An die Musik Live and the Historic Trust of the Basilica, reveled in songs and dances of the season from the 16th and 17th centuries, with an emphasis on the British Isles and France. I took in the first half, which was enlivened by such delectably off-beat selections as "Chrisimas Day," a minor-key ditty that opens: "There was a pig went out to dig on Chrisimas Day."
Soprano Danielle Svonavec sang that and other charmers with a sweet, purely focused tone. The instrumentalists dug into tunes familiar and obscure with equal affection, second-nature timing and a refreshing sense of spontaneity. Current Grammy-nominee Ronn McFarlane produced especially subtle shades on the lute.
If you're looking for really early Christmas music, consider two recent recordings that feature Gregorian chant of the season.
Most chant recordings emanate from old European monasteries, so it's especially interesting to come across Christmas at St. Michael's Abbey, released by Jade Music, featuring the Norbertine Fathers of Orange County, Calif. This CD, devoted to the Three Masses at Christmas, finds the singers in smooth, supple form. A few extra aural effects - bells at the opening and close, occasional sounds of birds - add to the atmosphere.
Chant: Music for the Soul, a Decca release, features the Cistercian Monks of Stift Heiligenkreuz in Austria. The two-CD set devotes one disc to music of Advent and Christmas, sung with an affecting warmth and eloquence.
These admirable recordings reaffirm the strange hypnotic power of this ancient, yet timeless, music.
Some good news, for a change: The Baltimore Chamber Orchestra will continue its season in January as planned. There will only be one performance of the program featuring eminent clarinetist Richard Stoltzman, instead of the originally scheduled two, but that's still a positive sign, coming a few weeks after budget-tightening forced the BCO to postpone recording sessions and warn that concerts might have to be canceled.
The performance will be at 3 p.m. Jan. 25 at Goucher College's Kraushaar Auditorium. Tickets sold to the concert originally slated for Jan. 24 at the Beth El Congregation will be honored at the Goucher event. For more information, call 410-685-4050 or go to thebco.org.