One doubts that there were many Christmas grinches in attendance at the National Symphony Orchestra's "Holiday Pops" concert at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall last night. But if there were, and if any dare show up at the repeat performance tonight, they should be warned that their hearts will almost certainly grow by the second number.
Haydn's "Toy" Symphony, attractive at the best of times, was made all the more endearing by the fact that five local children were playing the musical "toy" instruments. Anna Chen, Erica Cushenberry, Edwin Hill, Mark Mullinix and Anna Razi played their assorted triangles, bird-whistles and rattles without the slightest sign of stagefright -- and only occasionally did missed beats cause alarm. As conductor Randall Craig Fleischer suggested, the "Toy" Symphony from this night forward might be mistaken for that of another Haydn great, the "Surprise" Symphony, but few in the audience could have done better.
Fleischer supplied plenty of wit along with the NSO's glitter and the programming was virtually flawless. The audience enjoyed not one but three musical sleigh rides, including the "Troika" from Prokofiev's "Lieutenant Kije" Suite and Leroy Anderson's "Sleigh Ride" following intermission. But it was to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's dad, Leopold, and his own "Schlittenfahrt" that the audience warmed most agreeably. Three sleigh-bell players, resilient brass and some exceptional string playing set the holiday spirit succinctly.
The audience had its moment of glory, subdued though it was, in the sing-along at the end. "Deck the Halls," "Silent Night" and "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" were the selections. And when the NSO played pianissimo it sounded like everyone was having a reasonably good stab at these proffered chestnuts.
But the best could be heard when the NSO was on its own. The Tchaikovsky excerpts and Leroy Anderson's "A Christmas Festival," with its "Silent Night" the texture of brushed velvet, surely reminded many in the audiences of holidays long ago -- and for some, Christmases far away.