by Matt Smith


The New York Pops are back on the boards, returning to their New York home at Carnegie Hall for their annual holiday extravaganza, and they’re ringing in the wintry season like only they can. With help from crackerjack arrangements by maestro Steven Reineke, the evening fuses classic chestnuts with contemporary favorites — with nods to The Grinch, The Nutcracker and good ol’ Charlie Brown among the repertoire — to create a magnificently magnetizing (and, aptly, jingly-jangly) result that just can’t help but make your spirits bright.

Taking the reins as soloist this time around is one of Broadway’s premier princesses and its inaugural magical nanny, Ashley Brown. Using the concert, in part, as a vehicle to promote her new holiday EP, The Secret of Christmas, from which several of the evening’s selections were plucked, Brown oozes that sweet Southern charm, balancing the puerile with the poignant, as she blends tales of finding her life’s passion in the childhood church choir with her “adventures in adult-ing” at Christmastime… and all the while gifting us with her gorgeously soothing soprano… and, at one point, riffs that (lovingly) rival Mariah’s.   

But though there’s no doubt she dazzles with her dulcet tones, she’s not the only one exhibiting a sublime vocal instrument. Joining Brown in song is consummate choral ensemble Essential Voices USA, who both accompany the soloist in the larger, more theatrical numbers — which created a rich, full-bodied timbre likely to induce goosebumps within even the most grouchiest of Scrooges — and showcase their separate harmonies with numbers of their own.


Ashley Brown


One such commendable example of the latter, which aids in the universal promotion of inclusivity, so prevalent and paramount at this time of year in particular, is a rousing Chanukah medley, shedding light on lesser-advertised Yiddish hymns and anthems — a praiseworthy addition to an evening that could easily be overpowered by the bouncy Christian catalogue; after all, though these songs may be the most commercialized, the festive season is not solely focused on the guy in red alone (though that said, no Christmas is complete without him, so naturally, he makes an appearance… and quite the impression on the orchestra, at that).

With that said, however, the program is pretty stellar. In true Pops fashion, several of the evening’s selections receive a “Reineke revamp,” separating them from the monotonous versions heard ad nauseam in malls or supermarkets, and allowing the room to experience them afresh; such robust revitalizations included a big band “Jingle Bells,” a bluesy “Winter Wonderland”, and their signature Dixieland “Jingle Bell Rock.” And, as an added bonus, Reineke regales us with the history behind the more traditional pieces.   


All in all, it’s a fun and festive evening; in keeping with the spirit of the season, the atmosphere is appropriately merry and bright throughout, not the least of which aids in that effort like the aforementioned visit from Papa Noel himself, or one of two jubilant audience sing-alongs which close out each act.

But amid all the revelry, the evening is not without emphasis of the true meaning behind the celebratory season. Brown, for one, continually expresses the magnitude of her gratitude, to the point that it becomes overwhelmingly palpable. At heart, she’s just a girl with a dream — a little munchkin in church choir who could only dream of two sold-out evenings front and center at Carnegie Hall. Now, as it’s come true, the venue packed to the brim with family and friends, she’s soaking it in, expressing her appreciation for her family, her audience, and the arts — and reminding us to share in that gratitude, and give back, support and accept each other as we are, as those, with the apt addition of music, are the factors which unite us in the times we need it most. Reineke adds, regardless of what you may celebrate, that you “make it joyful and make it full of love.” No doubt that’s what he, Brown, the Essential Voices USA, and the unmatched New York Pops did with this concert… which is perhaps what makes it such a shining New York staple that only furthers the magical mysticism of the most wonderful time of the year.

Photos: Richard Termine


Under the Mistletoe, featuring Ashley Brown, Essential Voices USA, and the New York Pops, was presented December 21st and 22nd at Carnegie Hall (57th Street and 7th Avenue). For more information on future performances, please visit and/or