The National Symphony Orchestra's Christmas pops program this year journeys from Bethlehem to Broadway by way of the North Pole. The selection and performance of material on Wednesday evening in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall accurately reflected the dual aspects of Christmas -- the most revered of Christian holidays and the most commercial time of the merchandising year.
The program opened with an orchestral medley of eight familiar carols, all (except "Jingle Bells") with religious overtones. Highlights included a visit from Santa Claus, who had a throne behind conductor Joel Levine's podium, a reading of "The Night Before Christmas" with orchestral sound effects and background music, and three of the best Broadway songs of the 20th century. The commercial motif reached its pinnacle when cuddly soprano Jan Horvath sang "Santa Baby," a hymn to yuletide greed, sitting on Santa's lap.
The Broadway tunes, with no relation to Christmas, were "our present to you," baritone Doug LaBrecque told the audience. His gift was "The Music of the Night" from "The Phantom of the Opera." Horvath sang "Don't Cry for Me, Argentina" from "Evita," and tenor Michael Maguire sang "Bring Him Home" from "Les Miserables." All three were doing what they do best, and they did it superbly.
An ecumenical flavor was added when Maguire sang "O Hanukah," throwing in a few hora steps. He was also the reader for "The Night Before Christmas," with an audience of four children sitting onstage. Religious highlights included "Silent Night," the exquisite "Do You Hear What I Hear?" and a very high-energy "Children Go Where I Send Thee" in trio performances by the soloists.
The evening offered no serious challenges to the orchestra, which played with polished ease. There will be repeat performances at 8 tonight and tomorrow.