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Philharmonic adds creative touch to its sparkling holiday concert

Even the biggest Scrooge should have found something to like Saturday during the Las Vegas Philharmonic’s holiday performance.

Music director and conductor David Itkin included Christmas standards, Hanukkah music, a contemporary spiritual, country tunes and songs that had nothing particularly to do with Christmas, along with proven crowd pleasers .

Itkin and the capable musicians of the Philharmonic shared the stage with the 60-plus members of the Las Vegas Master Singers, about three dozen members of the University Children’s Chorale and, as soloists the “Phantom — The Las Vegas Spectacular” duo of Kristen Hertzenberg and Bruce Ewing.

The afternoon, before a near-capacity crowd, included about two dozen holiday treats.

Itkin did not publish a list of the offerings, perhaps because he was refining it until the last moment. It was a disservice to him and the audience, though, since he arranged many of the numbers and composed one, but took no credit even in his between-number comments to the crowd.

The performance opened with a holiday medley featuring the orchestra, with about a half-dozen holiday chestnuts, in a bright and effortless manner. The children’s choir and the orchestra offered a sweet but strong “Christmas Time Is Here” with far more punch than Charlie Brown’s crew ever provided.

One of Hertzenberg’s strongest songs was one that is not associated with Christmas. “But it has ‘December’ in the title, and that’s close enough,” Itkin said before offering “Once Upon a December.” From the 1997 animated film “Anastasia,” the song is wistful without being saccharine, and Hertzenberg and the master singers conveyed just the right emotion.

There was some pure fun as well. Hertzenberg and Ewing’s duet on “Christmas Eve Blues,” an Itkin-authored paen to the problems of finding batteries and just the right parts for toys on Christmas Eve, was just silly enough to be on target.

After intermission, one of the highlights was Hertzenberg’s version of “The Christmas Waltz.” Her beguiling version was very easy listening, in a very good way. Ewing’s take on Alabama’s “Angels Among Us” wasn’t especially “country,” but the charming “what-if” tune enveloped the crowd.

Hertzenberg and the master singers offered an a cappella “Glory, Glory, Glory to the Newborn King” that had just the right amount of soulfulness and swing.

Itkin included a tribute to Hanukkah with a medley of tunes associated with that holiday. As he noted, it was the first time he has done so, and it was a welcome inclusion.

He took his turn at the piano for “In the Bleak Midwinter,” which was not as mournful as it sounds thanks to a stirring melody well enforced by the Philharmonic members.

The orchestra played “Sleigh Ride” twice, once a jazzy, big-band worthy arrangement with great drums, and a second time in a more traditional arrangement, complete with the “whinny” at the end.

After another Christmas medley came an enthusiastic “Angels We Have Heard on High” to end the performance.

Kudos to Itkin and the other performers for taking what could have been a pleasant but oh-so-familiar holiday program and turning it into a bright, sparkling — and unexpectedly creative — gift for all those in attendance.

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