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Pops ‘Christmas’ has different kind of magic this year

Dec 5, 2014

The Charlotte Symphony Orchestra has trimmed and tightened the annual "Magic of Christmas" concert this year: no poetry recitation, no aerial dancers interpreting carols, no semi-classical numbers, one less singalong and a program that's half an hour shorter than last year's. Only one soloist performs, though Melinda Doolittle sang with such warmth and elegance that her five numbers weren't enough to satiate the appreciative Belk Theater crowd Thursday.

Albert-George Schram conducted with expected buoyancy and vigor. The Charlotte Children's Choir shone in a medley about Santa Claus' various avatars. Oratorio Singers of Charlotte brought hushed beauty to an arrangement of "Ave Maria" by Franz Biebl I've never heard before and hope to hear again. (Is it too much to ask for one paragraph in the program about each composer and/or composition?)

Yet it was Doolittle, a third-place finisher on the sixth season of "American Idol," who lit up the Belk. She swung gently through forgettable material ("Cool Yule"), sweetly interpreted the Irving Berlin standard "I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm" and rode out over the orchestra on "Mary, Did You Know," a less obvious sacred choice and a touching number. Doolittle neither belts overpoweringly nor crowns every high note with flourishes; her musical choices have taste and intelligence while allowing us to appreciate her sizable voice.

Schram and any programmers who work with him deserve respect for finding new material every year. "It's a Wonderful Christmas" had a semi-spooky Danny Elfman vibe before going down more traditional paths. "Brazilian Sleigh Bells" incorporated exotic percussion and a South American beat. The inevitable (but welcome) John Rutter appearance yielded not just the jaunty "Donkey Carol" but "Dormi Jesu," a contemplative change-up from traditional festive breeziness.