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Review: Pittsburgh Pops holiday show a seasonal delight

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Friday, Dec. 13, 2013, 8:27 a.m.

There's no coal in the musical Christmas stocking that conductor Todd Ellison assembled for the 2013 Highmark Holiday Pops on Dec. 12.

Ellison was a pleasantly low-key host who let the music carry the show at Heinz Hall, Downtown. A noted Broadway conductor who worked with Marvin Hamlisch on his past two shows, Ellison programmed for variety. The singers and other performers changed after nearly every number.

He included wonderful arrangements of popular Christmas songs, but the less-familiar fare proved very rewarding, too. “In the Bleak Midwinter” by Gustav Holst was not an obvious choice, but it was one of the most memorable parts of the concert, which continues through Dec. 21.

The show features three outstanding adult vocalists. Nikki Renee Daniels, who has a beautiful voice and diction that's clear as a bell, was delightfully spirited in Richard Rodgers' “My Favorite Things.” She was even more impressive in “Christmas Morning,” a touching song written by the conductor.

Pittsburgh native Vanessa Campagna was on “Star Search” when she was 10 and made her Pops debut with Hamlisch when she was 12. She's returned at 20 with a budding career in Nashville and a new CD titled “Simply Christmas.”

Campagna sang Hamlisch's “Chanukah Lights” with impressive vocal range and more than a hint of country-music influence.

Ricky Manning, who Hamlisch dubbed “The Singing Detective,” is a sergeant with the Allegheny County Sheriff's Department. He has the pipes to sing “Danny Boy” in a deeply affecting way.

Christopher Sanders played an excellent Santa who interacted well with children in the audience. He also sang “Try to Remember” from “The Fantasticks” with the talented James Fedor Jr., a member of the Children's Festival Chorus.

Performances by the orchestra's principal trumpet, George Vosburgh, and Pittsburgh Symphony Brass were high points of the evening. Vosburgh played Mel Torme's “The Christmas Song” in the first half with lovely phrasing and gorgeous tone on the flugelhorn.

Pittsburgh Symphony Brass played two pieces in the second half, starting with a clean and natural version of “Ding Dong Merrily On High.” Then the sextet turned comical for the wild “A ‘Spike Jones' Jingle Bells,” in which principal horn William Caballero doubled as utility percussionist, producing a cascade of sound effects.

Orchestra members produced numerous outstanding solos during the concert, especially principal harp Gretchen Van Hoesen and principal tuba Craig Knox.

The Mendelssohn Choir performed many numbers, from the opening “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” to the concluding “Deck the Halls.” But only about half the choir was onstage, and it was amplified.

The symphony also was amplified. Although the mixing board was handled well, this is a lame way to present a world-class orchestra.

This concert will be repeated at 8 p.m. Dec. 13 and 20, 2:30 and 8 p.m. Dec. 14 and 21, and 2:30 p.m. Dec. 15 at Heinz Hall, Downtown. Admission is $21 to $99. Details: 412-320-7877 or

Mark Kanny is classical music critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7877 or

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