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Season concerts from Pittsburgh Symphony Pops promise music, dance, all spectacular

| Wednesday, Dec. 10, 2014, 9:01 p.m.
Conductor Todd Ellison
Pittsburgh Symphony
Conductor Todd Ellison
Vocalist Ryan Vasquez
Pittsburgh Symphony
Vocalist Ryan Vasquez
Pittsburgh Symphony bassoonist Nancy Goeres
Phil Kessler
Pittsburgh Symphony bassoonist Nancy Goeres

The folks at Heinz Hall like to go spectacular for the holidays. The 25-foot Christmas tree is already up and decorated and the Highmark Holiday Pops is right around the corner.

“It will be like our own version of a Radio City Music Hall spectacular,” says guest conductor Todd Ellison. “We've got everything but the animals.”

Ellison will conduct the orchestra and Mendelssohn Choir at Highmark Holiday Pops concerts featuring dancers from Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre School starting Dec. 12 and running through Dec. 20 at Heinz Hall, Downtown. Kate Shindle, Ryan Vasquez and Christopher Sanders will be vocal soloists.

Ellison, who has been described by The New York Times as one of “Broadway's Electric Conductors,” worked with director Mike Nichols on “Spamalot” and Marvin Hamlisch on several shows, and has been music director for Radio City Music Hall's Christmas Spectacular.

“I had such a great time last year, my first time with the Pittsburgh Symphony, especially nine holiday pops concerts together,” Ellison says. “It was, for me, an incredible musical experience. Their generosity and the way they show their talent as a group is something I'd never seen before.”

He was thrilled to be invited back, and has been listening to Christmas music since he got the call in January.

Most of the programming for this season's concerts is Ellison's, worked through symphony staff to be sure a full range of audience favorites is included before extra treats are added.

Expect lots of carols, along with the “Hallelujah Chorus,” a sing-along, and Hamlisch's “Chanukah Lights.”

“We have fabulous singers,” says the conductor. “For example, Ryan Vasquez is new to New York City — he just graduated from the University of Michigan — and hit the town by storm. I'm amazed we were able to get him for these two weekends. He's singing ‘Ave Maria' and ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.' ”

The concert also will feature Randol Alan Bass' “The Night Before Christmas,” with two WQED on-air personalities — Jim Cunningham and Rick Sebak — taking turns as narrators. In addition, Joe Wos will create an artwork on stage during this performance.

“Bassoon It Will Be Christmas” (musicians do love puns) by James M. Stephenson is one of the extras at these concerts and will feature symphony bassoonists Nancy Goeres, Philip Pandolfi and James Rodgers.

“I enjoyed, last year, putting together a version of ‘Chestnuts Roasting on the Open Fire' for (principal trumpet) George Vosburgh,” Ellison says. “I stumbled upon ‘Bassoon It Will Be Christmas,' which is a medley of Christmas songs in a humorous way. The bassoon can be a humorous instrument. It will be challenging for them and fun for the audience.”

The Holiday Pops' singing Santa tradition will continue and include some of the novelties. Santa's repertoire will include “Christmas Alphabet,” “a really funny little song” according to Ellison. He'll also sing “A Place for You,” from a musical by Ellison about author Truman Capote's famous Black and White Ball at the Plaza Hotel in New York City in 1966.

Don't be surprised if Santa leaves the stage with the Santacam to talk with children in the audience about what they want for Christmas.

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

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