Byron Stripling. Photo courtesy of the SLSO

An exuberant audience gathered Friday night, December 16, for the St Louis Symphony Orchestra’s 2022 edition of its annual Mercy Holiday Celebration.  This year’s concert was helmed by jazz trumpeter, vocalist, and conductor Byron Stripling. Mr. Stripling conducts the Columbus Jazz Orchestra, is Principal Pops Conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony, and his performances have become a staple of the pops orchestra scene across the country. His broad musical skills and considerable charm were fully evident in his leading of the St Louis orchestra in this varied program of holiday favorites.

The program kicked off with an energetic rendition of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24, but quickly switched moods to a more relaxed jazz sensibility that unified the rest of the program. Mr. Stripling was ably supported by a guest jazz trio of Bobby Floyd on keyboards, Reggie Jackson on drums, and Bob DeBoo on Bass. Though the orchestra took center stage for most of the evening, each of these fine jazz interpreters had featured moments throughout. Of particular note was Mr. Floyd’s imaginative and extended solo piano work in an infectiously creative arrangement of the traditional carol, “What Child Is This?”

One of the wonders of the evening was following Mr. Stripling as he deftly moved between his roles as conductor, trumpet soloist, vocalist and emcee. His crystal-clear tone on his trumpet work was never forced. His vocals ranged from a classic crooner on carols like “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” to a tour-de-force jazz interpretation of “I Have a Little Dreidel” to a truly moving Mahalia Jackson-inspired “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” again supported by Mr. Floyd’s work on the Hammond organ. His easy going charm as host for the evening kept a welcome brisk pace and comfortable mood.

It is often a challenge in these hybrid concerts to achieve the best sound balance between the featured artists and the larger symphony. To my ear, at least for the first half of the concert, the amplification of the strings enhanced the sound so much that the sound from the speakers overpowered the live sound to such an extent that one could have believed the strings were actually synthesized. It seems, though, this might have been an intentional effect for the opening number that was gradually reduced throughout the evening.

The highlights of the evening, though, really rested on the capable shoulders of vocalist Mamie Parris. Ms. Parris is veteran of countless Broadway musicals and is no stranger to St. Louis audiences through performing at the Muny and in several touring productions at the Fox. She showcased her impressive yet sensitive soprano “belt” in a trio of jazzy Christmas tunes in the first half. But it was her work in the second half of the program (appearing in a stunning white shimmering gown reminiscent of 1940’s Hollywood fashion) where she owned Powell Hall. Earlier in the evening, Mr. Stripling had delivered a simple message of hope expressed through music, quoting the lyrics of “O Holy Night,” leading the way for Ms. Parris’ gorgeous soprano taking us on a journey through that audience favorite and supplying the emotional peak of the evening.

Although the spotlight was clearly on the guest performers, the orchestra was uniformly excellent, with wonderful moments for each section to shine: a beautifully-balance brass choir at the end of “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing,” sensitive ensemble playing by the woodwinds in “O Holy Night,” and dazzling sprightly work by the violins in the jazzy Dreidel number. But not surprisingly, the orchestra shone brightest in doing what it does so well. Leroy Anderson’s “Sleigh Ride,” inserted almost as a novelty number to allow a young audience member to conduct, unfettered by unnecessary amplification, showcased the consummate artistry and skill of this fine orchestra.

There are few places in the city decorated as beautifully for the holidays as Powell Hall’s grand lobby and auditorium. It was lovely to see families dressed in their holiday best, gathering for pictures with Santa, and joining in this celebratory tradition. I can only imagine that everyone headed home full of enough holiday spirit to carry them joyfully through the coming weeks.

The program is repeated at Powell Hall on December 17 and 18, and then will be transferred to the J. Scheidegger Center for the Arts at Lindenwood University for two additional performances on December 20 and 21.

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