Pianist and singer Tony DeSare.

Holiday Pop

Louisville Orchestra
Bob Bernhardt, conductor
Tony DeSare, piano and vocals
Terri Foster and the Louisville Youth Choir

A review by Annette Skaggs

Entire contents are copyright © 2021 by Annette Skaggs. All rights reserved.

Under the baton of Bob Bernhardt, our Louisville Orchestra was rip-roaring ready to herald us into that magical time of the year with their annual Holiday Pops concert, joined by guest artist Tony DeSare and the talents of the Louisville Youth Choir. 

Perched upon the magnificently decorated stage at Whitney Hall our orchestra delved straight into Leroy Anderson’s classic “Sleigh Ride”, complete with the impeccable timing of the percussionist who used the slapstick with verve and gusto! 

When introducing the next selection, “Christmas Overture”, Mr. Bernhardt shared with the audience that the Black English composer, Samuel Coleridge Taylor, was in his time called an “African Mahler”. The piece was new to me, but I could hear that influence as well as the composer’s use of Christmas standards to help illuminate the jaunty overture which included a stunning harp accompaniment. 

Tony DeSare, a noted jazz pianist who has played in some of the finest concert halls, has had a very successful career for one so young, which includes award-winning albums and composing soundtracks for both movies and television.

Vocally his sound is very much an amalgamation of Frank Sinatra, a hint of Harry Connick, Jr., and just a smidge of…. are you ready…Seth MacFarland. While his register lies more within a baritone range, there were moments I wished he had tried more top notes, but hey, sometimes they are there, and sometimes they aren’t. 

With that, his arrangements of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas”, which included a rarely performed verse, “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year”, and” Let it Snow!” (with piano accompaniment) were all performed within his comfort level and did not diverge from how many of us hear the classic songs each year, and that isn’t a bad thing.

Mr. Bernhardt included a personal favorite with Robert Wendel’s “Christmas a la Valse!” In case you were wondering, yes, this is a Christmas medley set in ¾ time, just amped up a bit to make it danceable.

The first half of the evening brought the talents of The Louisville Youth Chorus (LYC). Terri Foster, who serves as the Artistic Director, has worked tirelessly with these kiddos and their eagerness to show us what they’ve learned with a three-song set showed a wide range of musical accomplishments.

They began with a stunning performance of Via Olatunji’s Betelehemu, sung in the original Yoruba, this piece is a Nigerian Christmas song with a percussion accompaniment highlighted by bongos, conga, and tambourine. You could tell that the singers were really getting into the groove and enjoying themselves. Next, was John Rutter’s Shepard’s Pipe Carol. To be honest, Rutter is a toughie to perform and the group did have some issues with keeping up with the quick pattern and rhythms where the delivery often got muddled.

And if you’ve been to enough of Mr. Bernhardt’s programs, I am sure you can guess that a John Williams piece is often to be found, in this case, a selection from the soundtrack to Home Alone which has become a Christmastime staple.

Performing Three Holiday Songs from the soundtrack, the LYC got their mojo back and sounded great in “Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas” with a “YES” still reverberating in my ears hours later.

Speaking of cinematic staples, the very recognizable “Suite” from The Polar Express by Alan Silvestri was a lovely beginning to the second half of the evening. 

Being the Holiday season, and it is now Hannukah, so as Bernhardt joked, “…one of the few times that one will eat turkey and latkes at the same time”. Lucas Richman’s Hannukah Festival Overture was a delightful way to musically begin the Festival of Lights and featured a lovely violin exposition by Julia Noone.

Mr. DeSare, complete with a small costume change, came out to serenade and make us laugh for the remainder of the evening. While I always enjoy “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town”, I appreciated the other two pieces that Mr. DeSare shared. 

Watching a snowstorm from the window of his New York apartment a day after Thanksgiving, Mr. DeSare composed “Christmas for You and Me”, a lovely composition filled with observations of life and love that happen outside of his window, with a wish for happiness and peace.

Known for his prowess at the piano, we couldn’t let the evening go by without hearing DeSare’s 20 Versions of “Jingle Bells”. Having not heard this feat performed, I was intrigued. Can he really pull it off? Could there be 20 different ways of playing Jingle Bells? Eh. Yes and no.

His virtuoso playing detailed how artists like Michael McDonald, Bob Dylan, Randy Newman, and Neil Diamond might have made the tune their own, he also incorporated styles such as Tango, Waltz, Spanish, Jewish, Blues. To my ear, he veered a little off course when he used the melodies of Paul McCartney’s “Blackbird” and Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” as well as a couple of other artists’ stylings. I still enjoyed it and thought it all very clever. And yes, I believe he did do 20, including my favorite version, a kid’s piano recital.

The evening closed with a sing-a-long of holiday standards that included “Silent Night” and “Joy to the World”. I am rather sure that I heard many within the audience singing along and adding their own joyful noise in celebration of live music and hopes for a healthy and happy holiday season.

And in case you were wondering, yes, the Bearded one and the Mrs. came to visit and Mr. Bernhardt shared several groan-inducing jokes, including one that I remember from a couple of years ago. 

Despite the bad jokes, they are part and parcel of what was a wonderful beginning to a musical Holiday season.

Wishing each of you the Happiest of Holidays filled with fun, fond memories, great music, and peace.

Bravi Tutti!!

Holiday Pops

November 27, 2021

Louisville Orchestra
Kentucky Center
501 West Main Street
Louisville, KY 40202

Annette Skaggs is heavily involved as an Arts Advocate here in Louisville. She is a freelance professional opera singer who has performed throughout Europe and in St. Louis, Cincinnati, Boulder, Little Rock, Peoria, Chicago, New York and of course Louisville. Aside from her singing career, she has been a production assistant for Kentucky Opera, New York City Opera, and Northwestern University. Her knowledge and expertise have developed over the course of 25+ years’ experience in the classical arts.