The NSO Pops helped to make our spirits bright with its annual Christmas concert featuring Tony and Grammy Award-winning Leslie Odom, Jr. and a parcel of musical gifts from his Simply Christmas album. Pops Conductor Steven Reineke was as effervescent as the best champagne and joined by the musical excellence of the National Symphony Orchestra and the Grammy Award-winning Choral Arts Society of Washington. The program was a grandly glorious seasonal toast to put us in a holiday mood.
The multi-talented Odom has covered a lot of show biz ground in his young 38 years. He might be best known for originating the role of Aaron Burr in Broadway’s Hamilton and winning a Tony in 2016 for his performance as Best Actor in a Musical along with a Grammy Award as the principal vocalist for Best Musical Theater Album.
Odom is certainly making his mark in the arts not only as an acclaimed actor on stage, TV, and film but also as a recognized jazz singer and budding author. His accomplishments include two Billboard chart-topping jazz albums, an extensive list of TV and movie credits such as a leading role as abolitionist William Still in the recently released Harriet (which features Oscar nominee Cynthia Erivo as Harriet Tubman), as well as an inspirational 2018 book, Failing Up, for young audiences.
The Choral Arts Society of Washington, with Scott Tucker as Artistic Director, has been around since 1965 and graced the Concert Hall sitting regally high above the beautifully decorated stage of boughs of holly, glowing Christmas trees, and red poinsettias as if angelic voices were streaming from heavenly rafters.
An NSO Pops overture opened with a lovely medley of traditional melodies complete with Christmas bells and strains of “Deck the Halls” (with a sweet flute solo) and “We Three Kings” (with the marching sound of a snare) reminiscent of days gone by straight out of a Currier and Ives postcard.
The Choral Arts Society’s joyous opening with “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” was one of those Christmas standards that we can hear eternally, and it still brings back the best of what Christmas is all about.
Odom made his electric entrance singing a romantic “Merry Christmas Darling” to a jazz tempo, accompanied by his five-piece band who sat stage center in front of the orchestra. His musical director and pianist, Michael Bishop, performed several solos during the evening, and led Odom’s jazz ensemble that included a drummer, conga percussionist, bassist, and guitar. The band added a wonderful popular beat to the Pops’ orchestral musicality.
Simply Christmas, released in 2016, is Odom’s first Christmas album, and the concert included a half dozen of its songs adding a distinctly jazz sound. “The First Noel,” “The Christmas Waltz,” and the deeply fervent “Ave Maria” were a few. My favorite was “Winter Song,” a tender melody with heartfelt lyrics about love and change that mark the times.
However, Odom might have received the loudest applause of the evening when he broke from the Christmas lineup to sing the popular “Wait for It” from Hamilton. The audience went wild.
The Festival of Lights of the Hanukkah season was celebrated by a lushly beautiful new composition by Judith Clurman with David Chase on “Eight Days of Light” sung in Hebrew by the Choral Arts Society. And a Charlie Brown Christmas added a child’s delight with the clippity-clop of prancing horses on “Sleigh Ride” and the NSO’s “Polar Express Suite” together with the Choral Arts Society.
Odom took a special hankering to Mel Torme’s “Sunny Side of the Street” as he added a few of his own favorites, not necessarily classics, like “Christmas” from the musical Tommy. And in memoriam, his sensitive “Auld Lang Syne” commemorated those we lost in 2019 but then he followed it by the joy of hope in “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”
A Christmas concert would be incomplete without Santa making an appearance. The Jolly Bearded One made his center aisle entrance carrying silver bells before holding the baton as he lead the NSO Pops in a rousing “Charleston Christmas” followed by the joyful voices of an audience Jingle Jangle Sing-along of several Christmas favorites like “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and ”Jingle Bells.”
A Holiday Pops! was a terrific way to get into the holiday spirit and what made it so special were the creative variations in Steven Reineke’s orchestral arrangements and Odom’s jazz ensemble renditions of Christmas standards.
There was a strong R&B quality to the lineup, at times pure jazz, changing into a calypso beat with conga drums, or Broadway show tune excitement, folk pop with classic guitar or the reverent church-like sound of a Gregorian chant with the pizzicato of the violins. Variations and changes in tempo and genres infused into holiday favorites made this a uniquely expressive performance of songs we know and love at this time of the year.
With the tender tenor vocals of Leslie Odom, Jr.’s jazzy seasonal songs, the NSO Pops’ grand orchestral solos, the Choral Arts Society’s grace notes of the traditional Christmas sound, and Santa Claus’ singalong of Christmas cheer, A Holiday Pops! felt like delectable sweet treats of holiday goodies that we could have savored each just a little bit more.
Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes including a 20-minute intermission