Ms. Kaufman was a sparkling presence at the Friday night performance (both vocally and visually) and the area high school and college students of the Holiday Festival Chorus (directed by Kevin McBeth) sounded exceptionally polished, with impressively crisp diction and a good, balanced sound. Their "Hallelujah Chorus" was wonderfully professional.
Ms. Kaufman's degree is in theater performance, so it's no surprise that she brings an actor's sensibility to Great American Songbook Christmas songs like "White Christmas" and "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" (with the more optimistic lyrics that seem to have replaced the wistful originals). Her singing throughout the evening showed the kind of emotional investment in the lyrics that made these old standards feel fresh; it also communicated newer songs like David Foster's "Grown-Up Christmas List" most effectively.
Steven Jarvi, the new Resident Conductor (replacing the remarkable Ward Stare) was on the podium. He's cuts a fine, commanding figure and appeared equally comfortable with both the pop and classical sides of the program. I was very taken, for example, with the way he built that long climax in "The Magic Spell Begins" (the scene in which Clara's Christmas tree magically grows gigantic), the second of three selections from Tchaikovsky's "Nutcracker."
The evening is intelligently assembled and nicely balanced. The emphasis is on charming and often inventive arrangements of traditional sacred and secular carols, including the lovely "Silent Night" by Mormon Tabernacle Choir music director Mack Wilberg that was such a hit last year. But there are just enough traditional classics to add a bit of weight, including a high-energy performance of the "Farandole" from Bizet's "L'Arlésienne" (based on the old French carol "La Marche Des Rois Mages") that started the second half of the evening with a bang.
My personal favorite was Robert Wendel's "Merry Christmas Overture" (from his 1990 "Classical Christmas Suite"), which wraps a wreath of traditional carols around the overture to Mozart's "Marriage of Figaro." Witty stuff it was, and nicely performed. There was also an amusing bit in which a child volunteer got to "conduct" the orchestra's performance of Leroy Anderson's "Sleigh Ride"—with a considerable assist from Mr. Jarvi.
I've seen a number of the "Holiday Celebration" concerts over the years and this is, I think, one of the better ones. They're always festive events, with the orchestra and hall decked out in seasonal finery (one of the horns was even sporting a red bow Friday night, as was the harp) and a selection of music calculated to appeal to both adults and all but the youngest kids. This year there's also a special drink at the bar: a bright-red Holiday Punch. I can recommend it. And you can take your drinks to your seat with you, allowing you to savor them during the show.
There are two more performances of the "Holiday Celebration" concert Saturday at 7 PM and Sunday at 2 PM (December 21 and 22) at Powell Hall in Grand Center. For more information: stlsymphony.org.