While the weather outside was not exactly frightful, nor a wintry wonderland, it was the coldest night of the year, so at least one of the atmospheric requirements for a holiday concert was present. The North Carolina Symphony (NCS), in its unique role as, truly, the state’s orchestra, has been taking the holiday pops program from the mountains to the ocean and landed in the middle – Chapel Hill – to cover the Triangle area.

Some people can become disdainful of any orchestral concert with “pops” in the title, but with some creative programming you can avoid the feeling that you accidentally wandered into a mall. Leading the state’s premiere musical ensemble was Joan Landry, newly appointed assistant conductor, who comes to us from the tropical paradise of Hawaii where she was Associate Conductor of the Honolulu Symphony.  She is making her NCS debut with these concerts, and she shows herself to be an excellent leader both with the players and in her rapport with the audience. The program was a wonderful mix of holiday favorites, some that are just wintry, but most of them unabashedly time-of-the season tunes.

The evening began with “A Christmas Overture” by the relatively unjustly neglected Samuel Coleridge Taylor. Although it contains, for the most part, the usual carols that are at once familiar to everyone, they are orchestrated and harmonized in a refreshingly vibrant manner. Some really hot violin parts were effortlessly realized by the orchestra’s fiddlers. A nice surprise was next in that it had nothing to do with any of December’s various religious celebrations and it is also rarely played. The Overture to Felix Mendelssohn’s oratorio St. Paul is like a great Bach organ work. The cellos slowly start off with a typical Bachian chorale which then gains momentum and intensity as fugal madness ensues. Written as an homage to the then almost forgotten Bach, this is a prime example of Mendelssohn’s love and respect for the great master.

Laboring in relative obscurity in the back of the orchestra is Terry Mizesko, bass trombonist for the NCS. Wearing his other hat as composer and arranger, his works are becoming more and more played and have even appeared on subscription concerts of the NCS. Despite the constant bombardment of Christmas (there, I said the word) carols and songs – one local radio station devotes their entire airtime to only this, beginning the first week of November – most of these tunes are harmonically and melodically rich sources in which to show off an arranger’s skill. Mizesko’s “Fantasy of Carols” (“A Child’s Christmas”) was a sparkling orchestration of several of the biggies, neither dumbed down, nor too far afield from the original. The first half closed with the final movement of Tchaikovsky’s first symphony, subtitled “Winter Dreams.” Landry was confident, almost swaggering, in this exciting finale and leads us to hope that she will be given more meaty roles in future assignments.

The second half had a much lighter character, becoming downright Mantovani-esque in the banal “It’s Christmastime” arranged by Calvin Custer. This is not necessarily a bad thing as this concert was intended to cover a wide range of styles and sensibilities – and it certainly accomplished that without sacrificing a high level of musicianship. One of the masters of “lighter” orchestral music was Leroy Anderson, perhaps best known for his composition “The Typewriter” (an ancient artifact that was a precursor to computer keyboards). His witty, unique style was evident in another “Suite of Carols” that opened the final portion of the evening. This was followed by a tip of the hat to “our Jewish friends” (as it would be condescendingly exclaimed on 50’s and 60’s variety TV shows)  in another Mizesko arrangement of “Maoz Tsur” from A Chanukah Celebration. There followed the obligatory audience sing-along and a final, slightly jazzier arrangement of carols by Bryan Kelley.

We wish a warm welcome to Joan Landry in her Triangle-area debut. Besides her considerable conducting skills, she demonstrated great “show business” savvy in her remarks to the audience and quickly developed a warm bond with those who braved the icy night to get into the spirit of the season.