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Conductor promises 'Holiday Pops' to be 'great fun'

| Tuesday, Dec. 10, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
Conductor Todd Ellison
Pittsburgh Symphony
Conductor Todd Ellison

Although Pittsburgh Symphony Pops holiday concerts traditionally feature a singing Santa Claus, he doesn't pack the concerts' bag of musical treats. That's the conductor's job.

Todd Ellison says he is taking a different approach for his second year at the Heinz Hall podium for the holidays.

“Last year's concert I felt was a bit more on the classical side,” he says. “This year's is more on the pops side. People are going to enjoy a couple of light classical pieces, but the rest of it is great fun — popular music the orchestra will play so well.”

Ellison will conduct the Pittsburgh Symphony Pops in “Highmark Holiday Pops” for eight performances starting Dec. 12 at Heinz Hall, Downtown. The concerts also will feature vocalists Nikki Rene Daniels, Vanessa Campagna, Ricky Manning and Christopher Sanders, the Mendelssohn Choir, trumpeter George Vosburgh and Pittsburgh Symphony Brass.

The program includes many elements audiences have come to expect, such as the Christmas carol sing-along, and the singing Santa with a Santa-cam for talking with children in the audience.

Ellison says he selected songs he's known all his life and always wanted to conduct. For example, he found on an old album by Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra the vocal and orchestral parts to do the fantastic arrangement of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” that he loved.

He's also excited to be performing with Daniels, whom he says, has “one of the most beautiful voices working in musical theater.” She will sing “All I Want for Christmas” and Ellison's song “Christmas Morning.”

Pittsburgh Symphony Brass, now in its 12th season, will perform “Ding, Dong Merrily on High” in John Rutter's arrangement and “Jingle Bells” in Vosburgh's arrangement. It also is giving concerts on its own in Deep Creek, Md., and Foxburg, Titusville and Sewickley.

“It was kind of hilarious to get together and go through this stuff again,” Vosburgh says. “We usually have a great time at rehearsals. We tell the same stories, make the same mistakes every year. We stop and start laughing, though not at the shows.”

Another returning artist is Campagna, who will sing Marvin Hamlisch's “Chanukah Lights.” She was 12 when she made her Pops debut in 2005 with Hamlisch, who declared her “the real deal.”

Now 20, the Beaver Falls native will move in April to Nashville, where she's been doing a lot of work, writing songs and singing, since she graduated from high school.

Her newest album, “Simply Christmas” is available on iTunes and

Ellison worked with Hamlisch on a number of projects, including a musical version of “Queen of the Stardust Ballroom.” He remembers the fun of rehearsals for “The Nutty Professor,” which was directed by Jerry Lewis, and, especially, the repartee.

Ellison began playing piano at age 6 and says he always wanted to play for shows.

“When you play (piano) for shows, you don't get to see what's going on,” he says. “You work your way up to associate conductor. Then, I landed my own show.

“Conducting is something I have always known I was going to do. I couldn't add two and two, but there are home videos of me at 2 waving a baton. When I discovered musicals, that was it. They led me to live my life doing what I want to do.”

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

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