If attendees were expecting a classic and old-fashioned holiday concert by the Spokane Symphony and guest singer Vanessa Williams on Saturday night, they were instead treated to an early Christmas gift by the talented musicians led by animated and lively musical director James Lowe and the award-winning singer and actress.
Williams, with her musical director Rob Mathes, plus bandmates of 22 years, offered as much pop as holiday music in the Holiday Pops show with the symphony and Spokane Symphony Chorale at the Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox, and it was an unexpected evening of holiday favorites with a refreshingly eclectic spin alongside Williams’ biggest pop hits.
The evening commenced promptly at 8 p.m. with Lowe and symphony performing a lovely “Hansel and Gretel” by 19th-century composer Engelbert Humperdinck (not to be confused with the English balladeer born Arnold George Dorsey), followed by one of Lowe’s personal favorites, the English tradition “In Terra Pax” by Gerald Finzi, with the chorale joining onstage.
“In Terra Pax” featured soprano Erin Moline Carson and baritone Kent Kimball, and all parties involved – Lowe (in a white tuxedo jacket), the symphony, the chorale and the two soloists – succeeded in transporting the audience to a serene winter wonderland with abundant snow at every glance.
Up next was a bit of a jolt with the arrival of Santa Claus, who bantered with Lowe after making his way up the aisle and onto the stage before leading the audience in a singalong of “Jingle Bells,” “Joy to the World,” “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” “Silent Night,” “Deck the Halls,” “O Come All Ye Faithful” and “Sleigh Ride.”
Lowe – or was it Santa … they’re interchangeable, right? – then introduced Williams, who walked onstage in a light burgundy gown at 8:45 p.m. to begin her set with “I Never Has Seen Snow” from “House of Flowers” featuring a cello solo by Helen Byrne. Williams noted that she performed the song 20 years ago with Mathes, Yo-Yo Ma and the Dallas Symphony.
Before intermission, Williams and band performed “Little Drummer Boy” with the symphony and chorale to a jazzy and gospel arrangement by Mathes, and it was a modern, afun and upbeat way to end the first part of the Holiday Pops evening.
Returning in a silver gown, with her accompanying singers exchanging black outfits for red ensembles, Williams began the second half – which was fabulously all-Williams – with “I Love the Winter Weather,” another jazzy number that has been performed by the likes of Billie Holiday, Bette Midler and Tony Bennett.
Noting that this was a holiday “pops” concert, the very present and fully engaged Williams launched into “Dreamin’” from her 1988 debut album, then “Love Is” from the “Beverly Hills 90120” soundtrack(!), with Mathes subbing for Brian McKnight.
Next up was “Colors of the Wind” from Disney’s “Pocahontas,” which Williams performed at the Oscars and which won an Oscar, Grammy and Golden Globe, followed by “The Sweetest Days,” written for her four children, all adults now, and mashed with “Children Will Listen” from “Into the Woods,” which Williams performed on Broadway. “The sweetest days go so fast,” Williams said.
Also: Stephen Sondheim’s “Losing My Mind” from “Follies” and “Not a Day Goes By” from “Merrily We Roll Along,” “O Holy Night,” “Save the Best for Last” (“the song on every karaoke machine in the world,” Williams quipped) and an encore featuring a spicy Latin number from “The Sweetest Days,” during which Williams showcased her sexy dance moves.
If would be wrong to think of Williams as only a pop singer widely known for “Save the Best for Last” and “Colors of the Wind.” Williams, who commanded the stage on Saturday evening without being an outright diva, is a vocal chameleon who also showcased her impressive and controlled Broadway, jazz, gospel and Latin repertoire.
Williams, who was the epitome of elegance and grace during a post-performance reception, chatted with The Spokesman-Review ahead of the concert (the interview was in Friday’s Seven), and spoke with a group of African American women and girls at the Fox on Saturday afternoon during a dress rehearsal before her evening performance.
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