Sunday, December 12th, 2004

An Angelic Presence at the NJPAC

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New Jersey Performing Arts Center - Monday December 12th

It had been three months since my last brief visit with Hayley and her wonderful dad in NYC, and though I had seen her PBS special and been duly impressed, I longed for her presence once more. I had planned to go to her appearance with the Boston Pops in Trenton, since it did not appear that she would be coming to the NJPAC in Newark, but a call to the Pops office confirmed she would be there. I swiftly reserved tickets, knowing that the Pops tend to sell out very quickly. Alas, no one else from the local "cell" appeared available, so I offered my parents an early present.

After picking them up we made our way down to Newark, about 20 minutes from my house, arriving about a half-hour before the show was to begin. The New Jersey Performing Arts Center was already filling up fast, all four tiers and the floor loaded to groaning. In the milling about beforehand, I discovered a sign saying Keith Lockhart and Hayley would be signing CDs afterward, so I grabbed up a copy of Pure and one of Sleigh Ride, the new Boston Pops CD. By then it was time to take our seats, and we waited.

To loud applause Maestro Lockhart entered, garbed in a tuxedo with the somewhat unusual addition of a red shirt and red socks. He swung his baton and the orchestra and the Holiday Chorus blared out "Joy to the World- A Fanfare For Christmas Day," which is essentially the carol as we know it, all four verses, with the addition of many loud trumpet figures between them. It was a strong, full-blooded beginning to this great evening. The Hallelujah Chorus, from Handel's Messiah was next, one of those pieces that never grow old no matter how many times you hear them, or, in the case of those of us who are experienced choral singers, sing them.

Keith Lockhart then addressed the audience, thanking them for having his group there and recalling how last year they had to plow through eight inches of slush to get there. He also remarked on this being the time of year when this world reaches for the next, and began to conduct the opening of the Bach-Gounod Ave Maria. Hayley appeared rather surprisingly at the top of the chorus risers, dressed in a long white gown, with lighting that only partially revealed her form and face, making her look otherworldly, even, dare I use the word, angelic. There was no mistaking her clear voice as she began the familiar piece, hitting all the high notes with not a problem, no mean feat since she'd already done one concert that day. She followed with a strongly orchestrated version of "Do You Hear What I Hear?" with the chorus echoing her.

After that pair of songs, the orchestra played the 'Christmas Scherzo" and a medley starting with "Bring A Torch, Jeanette Isabella." Keith Lockhart then addressed the audience again, directing their attention to "that angelic presence in the back." He told of Hayley's origins in New Zealand and the fact that she was only 17 (which got a big gasp from the audience) and how she was just now starting to be well-known on these shores. She in the meantime resumed her place up top and the ensemble began Katherine Davis' famous "Little Drummer Boy," with Hayley sounding very boy-choirish over the famous ostinato accompaniment. They then began another medley called "Songs From the Hill Folk" which Hayley began with "I Wonder as I Wander," then left it to the chorus to finish with "The Seven Joys of Mary," the rough-hewn "Jesus, Jesus, Rest Your Head," the countryeqsue "Kentucky Wassail" and the spiritual "Go Tell It On the Mountain."

After a brief intermission, the second, slightly less formal part of the program began with the jazzy "Happy Holiday" by orchestra and chorus. Keith Lockhart again addressed the crowd, joking about his garb, saying that "red socks are pretty popular in Boston these days." However, he received so many boos and cat-calls from the audience composed mostly of Yankee fans that he quickly asked "what happened to peace on earth, good will to men?" Amid the laughter that followed he threw out a few statements about how all cultures celebrate light right about this time. He then led the orchestra in the "Chanukah Overture," which combined fairly well-known tunes associated with that celebration such as the "Dreidel Song" with music that I can best describe as sounding like "Fiddler on the Roof."

He then introduced Hayley once more "up close and personal now," and she entered next to him, wearing a pink, sequinned, sleeveless dress and matching iridescent sandal heels. She launched into "The Little Road to Bethlehem," an Irish Christmas carol I was familiar with since Irish singer Claire Halligan had mentioned it to me. She handled it very well, easily following the walking tempo and painting the picture of the heartwarming tinkling of the sheep's bells on the road to the place where Christ was born.

At this point Keith Lockhart said he was going to tell a story about Hayley, with whom he'd had a nice long working relationship - two weeks - and he hoped he wouldn't embarass her. Apparently when they'd first got together he asked her if she knew "Walking In the Air" from "The Snowman." She had said she did, in fact it was kind of her signature song in NZ when her first album came out "ages and ages ago." Ages and ages translated to four years. This got a big laugh, of course, but Hayley duly launched into her signature song and handled it with her usual authority.

After that came a piece called the Winter Weather Medley, which was kind of forgettable, but then came the reading of the famous old editorial "Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus," by Shon Gable of CBS news, with a cute little 9-year-old girl named Daisy Carnelia reading Virginia's famous question.

A variation on "Jingle Bells" led into a choral version of "The Night Before Christmas" complete with descending scales as St. Nicholas comes down the chimney and then whistles to the reindeer. Sleigh bells heralded the beginning of the song "Santa Claus is Comin' To Town," duly marked by the arrival of the saint himself, sack of toys and all. He and Keith Lockhart indulged in some silly banter about Rudolph possibly not leading the sleigh because he didn't want to miss his place in the flu shot line and the best Christmas tree decorator being on "extended vacation," namely Martha Stewart.

The official program finished with a sing-along, consisting of "Jingle Bells," "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," "The Chipmunk Song," "Holly Jolly Christmas," "Deck the Halls," "Frosty the Snowman," and "We Wish You a Merry Christmas."

Of course that was not the end, as a Pops concert never ends there. Hayley returned to the stage to loud applause and, in her best singing of the evening, gave a jazzy rendition of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," and the orchestra gave a slightly schmaltzy, but not syrupy rendition of "White Christmas."

All bowed, and we dispersed. Alas, somewhere during the concert someone had decided that there would be no signing session afterward, leading to some grumbling as people departed, some going over to what is supposedly the stage door, but is really a decoy. I was going to be blasted if I was going to just walk away, though, and I knew where the real door was.

Asking my parents to indulge me for 15 minutes or so I tramped around back through the "preferred parking" lot. For whatever reason, the Pops buses were already pulling away, but the thin figure loading a nearby town car was easily recognizable. "Gerald?" I called. Hayley's father looked up and shook hands, saying he was glad to see me, and that if I wanted to see Hayley she was inside. Marching over to the door, I saw Hayley, dressed in her coat that she wore for the Thanksgiving Day Parade. Her jaw literally dropped, I guess she was glad to see a familiar and friendly face. Mine dropped too, I was very happy to see her. Talking fast, because I knew she had to be off, I told her it was a great show, too bad Keith Lockhart couldn't stick around, and, most importantly, that what she did for Holly Holyoake, letting her duet with her, was an act of supreme kindness, and if they gave medals for generous hearts, she deserved one. She thanked me and, blushing slightly, said she thought Holly was a lovely person, and she liked to help lovely people. She will of course get no argument from me on that point. I also told her the other local people wished her well, though they couldn't be there. I snapped two pictures, one of her and her dad and one just of her waving and saying "Merry Christmas," which I should be sending momentarily. She graciously signed my programme and the CD, which I promised to pass on to "some worthy." We embraced warmly and wished each other merry Christmas, and I said I'd be looking forward to seeing her in the spring when she tours.

With a big grin stamped on my face, I rejoined my parents, and we were away into the night. Thank you, Hayley, for making this Christmas extra merry, and for being there for your fans even when others decide to change their minds.

Steven Olivo
12th December 2004


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