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Patty, the Voice at Music Hall

Mary Ellyn Hutton
Posted: Dec 12, 2011 - 9:03:16 PM in reviews_2011

Cincinnati Pops Orchestra, John Morris Russell conducting, with guest artist Sandi Patty
They don’t call Sandi Patty “The Voice” for nothing.

The most honored female vocalist in contemporary Christian music -- five Grammys, 39 Dove Awards, Gospel Music Hall of Fame -- can do anything with her voice: make it large or small, sing high or low, change color or vibrato. She did all of the above for Friday night’s Cincinnati Pops audience at Music Hall.

It was the Pops’ Christmas show with the May Festival Chorus (director Robert Porco), Winton Woods High School Varsity Ensemble (director David Bell) and Music Hall decked to the rafters with garlands, snowflakes, wreaths and poinsettias. On the podium was Pops conductor John Morris Russell, a conductor with some experience crafting Christmas shows. During his 11 years as Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra assistant/associate conductor, Russell created “Home for the Holidays” at the Taft Theatre (discontinued for budgetary reasons in 2004). There are echoes of that now legendary show on this one, which repeats tonight and Sunday at Music Hall. (The programs vary, but you can catch tenor Mark Panuccio, a “Home for the Holidays” discovery, in “O Holy Night” tonight.)

The show was much more than nostalgia, however, and virtually all of it was new, including the catchy, opening “Angel’s Dance” by Steven Amundson. There was also “A Winter Miracle,” a brand new arrangement by Pops guitarist Timothy Berens combining Hanukah songs with “Winter” from Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons,” featuring concertmaster Timothy Lees. Russell also led the Pops in delightfully colorful arrangements of “Parade of the Wooden Soldiers” and “We Three Kings.”

The 49-member Winton Woods Ensemble led off vocally with “Deck the Halls,” flavoring their exuberant singing with dancing to match (Russell put in a lick, too). Patty made her entrance with “The Most Wonderful Christmas Waltz” and “My Favorite Things” (“Sound of Music”). She prefaced “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” with an account of how Henry Wadsworth Longfellow came to write it (in response to the death of his wife and the injury of his son during the Civil War).

Patty and the two choruses closed the first half with one of her gospel favorites, “Jesus, Oh What a Wonderful Child,” which had the audience clapping for more -- which they got, with soaring improv by Patty.

After intermission, came “The Christmas Song,” where Patty displayed a hushed, velvety tone. She was joined by the men of the May Festival Chorus in a sparkling arrangement of “Carol of the Bells,” where the Pops became one big carillon. Lees, principal second violinist Gabriel Pegis and Pops pianist Julie Spangler joined in a sublime “Ave Maria” (Bach/Gounod). A 17-voice ensemble from the May Festival Chorus followed with a jazzy Santa Claus set, including a hot solo by principal trombonist Cristian Ganicenco.

“I Believe” (without Kermit the Frog) brought both choruses back for a statement of faith that set up Patty’s return for “Silent Night,” which she sang in a soft, crooning voice. By contrast, she, the May Festival Chorus and Pops built “Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee” (“Ode to Joy” from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony) to a soaring climax.

Patty’s “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” was wonderfully confidential, as if sung to each listener personally. For the grand finale, Russell, Patty, the two choruses and the Pops joined in former associate conductor Steven Reineke’s arrangement of “Go Tell It on the Mountain.” This was the evening’s “Home for the Holidays” memory, with the singers, including the energetic youngsters, putting the emphasis on “everywhere” and drawing the audience to their feet.

Russell and the Pops will record their first CD together – a Christmas album, “Home for the Holidays” – for the CSO’s new in-house label Fanfare, following this weekend’s concerts. Repeats are 8 p.m. tonight and 2 p.m. Sunday at Music Hall. Tickets (scarce) begin at $25. Call (513) 381-3300, or visit www.cincinnatipops.org

(first published in the Cincinnati Enquirer Dec. 11, 2011)