Review: A lovely evening with Symphony's Christmas show

By Autumn D. F. Hopkins
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The West Virginia Symphony Orchestra opened their Christmas Pops installment with a concert suite from "The Polar Express." It was a whimsical piece with soft melodic strains, bringing to mind a cold winter's evening, while the sweeping crescendos evoked snowscapes and magical trains.The program transitioned into a trio of traditional carols arranged by English composer John Rutter, sung by the combined choruses of the West Virginia Symphony, Parkersburg Symphony Chorus and Appalachian Children's Chorus, and featuring baritone Steven Stull. The perfect harmonies of the choir interwoven with the complexities of Stull's velvety voice gave this clutch of songs a rich and warm sound that embodied the traditional spirit of the holidays. I was enchanted by the captivating arrangement of "How Great Our Joy," which was intricate and charmingly sweet.The more child-friendly part of the show featured young soprano Hannah Peterson. The adorable and witty 10-year-old has a lovely voice and striking composure. However, I detest the song "I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas." How this song has wormed its way into the lexicon of Christmas music is beyond my comprehension. The song is both grating and annoying, and somehow gets intolerably stuck in the brain. It is only a half step up from the other dreaded, over-played "Grandma Got Ran Over by a Reindeer." It would have been preferable to have seen Peterson's talents put to use on a more traditional children's Christmas classic. The first half of the show ended with a charming tribute to "How the Grinch Stole Christmas." Stull returned on center stage as both narrator and soloist with an appealing rendition worthy of the Boris Karloff original. The Dr. Seuss classic was the perfect way to showcase the multifaceted talents of the ensemble with parts for the symphony, chorus and soloist. The only thing lacking was a Cindy Lou Who. With all of those lovely children's voices, it would have been easy to put her in the lineup.After the intermission, the audience took part in a bit of the clap-along silliness that has become a tradition of the WVSO Christmas show. Conductor Grant Cooper led the audience in a good-humored version of "Sleigh Ride" in which everyone plays along in hopes of hurrying Santa's arrival. It is cute and engaging, but sometimes overpowers a beautiful piece of music that should be enjoyed."Candleglow" and "Al shlosha d'varim" gave a multicultural flare to other holidays that coincide with Christmas, but are sometimes overlooked in traditional holiday celebrations. "Candleglow" concluded with a haunting rendition of "Silent Night," while Santa (Stull) narrated in the original German.
"Go Tell it on the Mountain," while technically perfect and pleasant, lacked that certain something that a spiritual needs. It was without the soul that really makes a great rendition.The Appalachian Children's Chorus was an exquisite treat with the glorious crystalline clarity of voice that only children possess. The group transported the audience to a higher plane during a three-song set. Peterson came back to indulge the audience in a lilting and breathtaking solo during "In the Bleak Mid Winter." She possesses a magnificent voice and poise."O Come All Ye Faithful" closed the performance part of the show and was a fitting ending to a lovely night, with a soaring descant and a constantly building orchestral power. It was a fitting climax, full of substance while still intricately beautiful and moving.The WVSO's Christmas performance runs again today at 8 p.m.   
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