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Joshua Redman, giving the people what they want at Blues Alley.
Joshua Redman, giving the people what they want at Blues Alley. (Itsuo Inouye - AP)

-- Mike Joyce

NSO Pops

You know it's time for the National Symphony Orchestra's "Happy Holidays!" pops concert when the Kennedy Center Concert Hall is festooned with seasonal decorations, young children are watching the proceedings raptly and someone wearing a gigantic, sports-mascot-like mouse head bounds onto the stage. Well, maybe that last one was a surprise. "Maestro Mouse," the protagonist of a recent children's book, attempted to stir the audience with bad puns and requests for applause, but longtime NSO pops conductor Marvin Hamlisch beat him at both these tasks on Thursday night.

Hamlisch knows how to juxtapose joyful musicmaking with the broadest possible humor, and the concert provided ample helpings of both. NSO contrabassoonist Lewis Lipnick merrily mocked his instrument's less refined (read: flatulent) tones while costumed as the "Hanukkah Elf." Santa Claus, played by baritone Kevin Glavin, lauded himself in the third person during "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town," breaking open the melody over big-band brass hits. Hamlisch himself lost no opportunity to ham it up, even breaking out a Jewish-grandfather accent just before the world premiere of his Hanukkah song, "A Season of Miracles," performed winningly by tenor Michael H. Belinkie.

Other musical moments to savor came from NSO violinist Jenny Oaks Baker, playing Schubert's "Ave Maria" with quiet intensity; the Children's Chorus of Washington, bringing its bright voices to classic carols; and especially the Unified Voices, a local gospel group that took "O Holy Night" and "Joy to the World" to another level. Its infectious rhythms and soaring voices, along with Hamlisch's well-judged accompaniment, made for the best kind of pops holiday.

The program will be repeated tonight at 8 and tomorrow at 7.

-- Andrew Lindemann Malone

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