BSO Holiday Spectacular hits fresh peak with Ann Hampton Callaway

Thanks to the snow and other little things, I didn't make it to this year's BSO Holiday Spectacular until the penultimate performance Wednesday afternoon. This fifth annual production turned out to be the best yet, IMHO, thanks in large measure to Ann Hampton Callaway, who served as host.

If you saw previous versions of the Baltimore Symphony's show, you'll appreciate the description of Callaway as "the dark side of Sandi Patty" (not original with me, darn it). It's not just Callaway's hair coloring that distinguishes her from Patty, who vibrantly hosted the BSO's show a couple of times, but also the earthier voice, the delectable extra layer of humor. If Callaway wanted to do this show every December, I'd say bring her on.

My favorite highlight on Tuesday was her eloquently phrased, silver-toned interpretation of

"I Wonder as I Wander" (in a wonderfully moody arrangement by Steven Reineke -- who conducted Tuesday and Wednesday -- that seemed to have been inspired by the Ray Ellis one used on Streisand's first Christmas album). Callaway also belted out a seasonally adjusted version of "Blues in the Night" with terrific flair, and she blended beautifully with bass-baritone Daniel Okulitch in an elegantly phrased medley of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" and "The Christmas Song."

Callaway, who joked that she was changing her name to Ann Hampden Callaway, showed off her amusing improv skills by creating a Baltimore Christmas ditty on the spot, based on words shouted out by audience members (including "matzo balls").

This year's lineup also included the top-notch sax ensemble Capitol Quartet, which lit up the place with some hot licks in, among other things, a clever jazz distillation of "Nutcracker" favorites. Speaking of "Nutcracker," members of the Baltimore School for the Arts danced a passage from that ballet with considerable polish and charm. The show featured a strong chorus, too.

The only thing missing was the BSO -- in the sense of getting the spotlight to itself. Only one just-the-orchestra item was on the program, not enough attention, it seems to me, for the musicians.

One other complaint -- the sound system. High-quality amplification exists these days and should be available even for as large space as Meyerhoff Hall. The often tinny, mushy results on Wednesday took some of the bloom off of this good-looking, spirit-lifting extravaganza.

— Tim Smith, The Baltimore Sun