Tuesday’s Michael W. Smith Christmas concert at the Music Center at Strathmore with the National Philharmonic proved, as expected, a delightful evening and a great way to jumpstart the holiday cheer.
The concert proved more varied and generous than the gospel singer’s 2008 Christmas concert in Baltimore which featured a seemingly endless parade of guest performers (a habit that sometimes sinks his non-holiday tours as well — we came to hear you Smitty!). They were all fine, but with three amazing Christmas albums under his belt — perhaps my all-time favorite Christmas albums by any artist — filler becomes only annoying. I want to hear Smith front and center and that’s where he was Tuesday. College ensemble Voice Avenue were given two solos but they were most appreciated performing Smith’s material. Their harmonies soared on Smith chestnut “Friends” and they contributed lovely leads for “All is Well,” sadly the only cut performed from Smith’s landmark first holiday album from 1989 (it’s a modern classic — check it out on iTunes if you don’t have it).
The evening’s pacing and eclecticism were great. Smith threw in a few cuts from his new studio album “Wonder” (a worthy addition to his canon and light years better than mostly dud records he’s made such as “This is Your Time” and “Healing Rain’), a few hits, a few sing-alongs and several instrumental numbers. His latest Christmas album, 2007’s “It’s a Wonderful Christmas” was about half-and-half vocals versus instrumental tracks and several of the latter gave the National Philharmonic, under the direction of composer/arranger David Hamilton, wonderful opportunities for expression.
They were also delightful on their two overtures — “Neverland” from the film “Hook” (by John Williams) and “Dance of the Tumblers” from the Rimsky-Korsakov ballet “The Snow Maiden.” While Smith’s mentor and songwriting partner Amy Grant — with whom he’s touring in the spring — has cut way back (her current “12 Days” tour with Vince Gill left the orchestra at home), it’s great to see Smith still pulling out all the stops with such rich and accomplished accompaniment. He’s performing with different orchestras in each city.
There were a few unintentionally funny moments. The players looked hilariously out of place while the canned pop beats of Voice Avenue’s “Wishing on a Christmas Star” wafted through hall speakers. While one could argue it provided sonic contrast, it was undoubtedly the evening’s low ebb musically. There was something almost disturbing about seeing them sit motionless while a pre-recorded (and cheesy) pop tape played.
And while the crowd ate up worship standard “Above All,” a Smith concert staple, the players looked curiously unmoved.
The evening was perhaps most effective when all the players unified for goosebump-inducing mini-dramas like “The Promise” and rabble rousers like “Kay Thompson’s Jingle Bells.”
Smith has never, to my knowledge, commented on LGBT issues and one imagines from his Evangelical-leaning Christian theology and association with George W. Bush that he’s hardly waving any rainbow flags, but I’ve always found gospel artists make the best Christmas albums and Smith’s are amazing.
The set list was:
1. “Neverland” from the movie “Hook” by John Williams (orchestra)
2. “Dance of the Tumblers” from “The Snow Maiden” by Rimsky-Korsakov (orchestra)
3. “Happiest Christmas” (MWS w/ orch)
4. Medley: “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”/”Angels We Have Heard on High” (audience sing-along)
5. “It’s a Wonderful Christmas” (instrumental; MWS w/ orch)
6. “Friends” (MWS w/ vocal group Voice Avenue)
7. “Kay Thompson’s Jingle Bells” (MWS w/ Voice Ave. and orch)
8. “Wishing On a Christmas Star” (Voice Ave.)
9. “Welcome Home” (from new album “Wonder”)
10. “Song for the King” (inst.; MWS w/ orch)
11. “I Saw Three Ships” medley (inst.; MWS w/ orch)
— intermission —
13. “The Giving” (from inst. album “Freedom”)
14. “The Promise”
15. “You Belong to Me” (from “Wonder”)
16. “Above All”
17. “What Child is This” (inst.)
18. “Silent Night” (Voice Ave.)
19. Medley: “The First Noel”/”O Come All Ye Faithful” (audience sing-along)
20. “All is Well” (Voice Ave. w/ MWS accompanying and orch)
21. “A Highland Carol” (inst. w/ bagpipes)
22. “O Holy Night” (audience sing-along)
23. “All Year Long” (encore)
24. “I Saw Three Ships” (orchestral reprise)