‘American Festival Pops Orchestra: Holiday Pops: Songs of the Season’ at GMU’s Center for the Arts

On December 12, 2015, American Festival Pops Orchestra presented Holiday Pops: Songs of the Season at George Mason University’s Center for the Arts’ concert hall. Founder and Artistic Director Anthony Maiella conducted a 60-piece orchestra in what has turned out to be one of my very favorite productions of the year!

Photo by Stan Engebretson
American Festival Pops Orchestra. Photo by Stan Engebretson

It’s easy to make assumptions about an orchestra– they can be somewhat intimidating. I’ll admit that while I was fully expecting a night of great music, I was also expecting a formal (and, I’ll say it– stiff) experience — and what I got was Anthony Maiella, a friendly, warm, and downright boisterous man who blew my expectations out of the water the moment he leapt onstage.

“It’s wonderful to see so many people here, even up in the nosebleeds!,” he called out to the audience, who laughed when he added, “Do you have enough oxygen up there?”

Anthony turned to his magnificent orchestra, who began to play a piece called “Christmas at the Movies,” a medley of nostalgic songs from hits like Home Alone, The Night Before Christmas, The Polar Express, and many more. People lit up as they recognized tunes from their favorite childhood films, and in this a sense of wonderment filled the room. After this, we were treated to a jazzy take on “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” arranged by Bryan Kidd. Watching the musicians work together to create such magnificent art is hard to explain, but incredible to experience. My eyes never once got bored while roaming the stage, watching them at work – with the strings section, rhythm, brass, and more, there was always something incredible happening.

A couple of guests made the evening even better – The Dean of George Mason University, Rick Davis came onstage to narrate “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” while accompanied by the orchestra. Keeping with the lighthearted nature of the show, he wore a knit cap, scarf, and slippers, and spoke with great enthusiasm– the piece was a hit.

Vocalist Courtney Williams sang a rendition of “O Holy Night,” in her rich and resonant voice I have never heard before! Anthony then lead the orchestra in “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” highlighting the rhythm section (Wade Beach on piano, Glenn Dewey on bass, and Harold Summey on drums) in the upbeat number. The music was fantastic, and after every piece Anthony turned to the audience with a wide, sheepish grin, as if to say, “I know, right?” His connection with the audience was so playful and strong that they began to catcall him as he took of his jacket (catcalling at an orchestra performance!). Alongside Peter Wilson on the violin and Jim Logan on the clarinet, Anthony took up the accordion (or, “the squeeze box,” as he put it), and they played “The Festive Sounds of Hanukkah.”

More delightful pieces followed, including “Holiday for Strings,” a number with a tempo so fast that Anthony said his strings section “and their sore fingers” hated him for choosing it. Jim Carroll lead the orchestra on the alto saxophone in “Christmas on Broadway,” a medley of show tunes including “My Favorite Things” from The Sound of Music and “We Need A Little Christmas” from Mame.

Conductor Anthony Maiella Photo courtesy of George Mason University.
Conductor Anthony Maiella Photo courtesy of George Mason University.

The AFPO Brass Quintet performed an exquisite version of “Jingle Bells” while Anthony encouraged the audience clap along, or even get up and dance (“as long as no one tells the fire marshal, we’ll be fine.”) The evening ended with a sing-a-long of all the best Christmas carols, and the highest of spirits.I came to hear some beloved holiday favorites — what I got was infinitely better. The orchestra was phenomenal (I’ll go as far as to say I’ve never heard better live music), but my favorite part was the host himself – Conductor Anthony Maiella – who turned the production into a party. If this experience can’t make you feel the joy of the season, then I doubt anything can.

I had such an amazing time at American Festival Pops Orchestra’s Holiday Pops: Songs of the Season. I wish that it wasn’t just a one-night performance so that I could see it again! However, this is a annual tradition, so I will be sure to look out for it next year, and you should, too!

Running Time: Two hours, including one 15-minute intermission.

American Festival Pops Orchestra: Holiday Pops: Songs of the Season was performed on December 12, 2015 at George Mason UNiversity’s Center for the Arts – 4373 Mason Pond Drive, in Fairfax, VA . For future events, check their calendar.

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