The National Symphony Orchestra (NSO) returned with their annual Holiday Pops! concert at the Kennedy Center in 2022, welcoming Tony Award-winning actress and singer Laura Benanti as this year’s guest vocalist. The Kennedy Center’s Concert Hall was gorgeously adorned with ornament- and bow-decked wreaths and Christmas trees, as well as magenta lighting blanketing the orchestra and back-wall organ. Broadway veteran Benanti has been nominated for five Tony Awards and won for her performance as Louise in the 2008 Broadway revival of Gypsy opposite Patti LuPone.
I have known of Benanti as the actress behind The Late Show with Stephen Colbert’s Melania Trump, who has been a recurring guest character since 2016. I didn’t know before this concert that Benanti is also one of Broadway’s brightest stars, having been nominated for one of her Tonys for playing Cinderella in the 2002 Broadway revival of Into the Woods.
This was your quintessential holiday concert: it had classic radio-bound Christmas favorites, Hanukkah carols, some lesser-known holiday songs, an orchestral rendition of “Carol of the Bells” (which, as a Ukrainian carol, was dedicated to the people of Ukraine), an appearance by Santa Claus (the Man with the Bag himself), and falling snow (achieved with a cascade of bubbles from the Concert Hall ceiling!). In addition to this cornucopia was the sing-along at the show’s end, during which audiences were invited to join in on “Rudolph,” “Frosty,” “Here Comes Santa Claus,” and “Jingle Bells.” Plan to attend 2023’s Holiday Pops! for exactly the kind of world-class holiday music immersion you’d hope the Kennedy Center would offer, courtesy of some of the top musical talent in the country. And we also got candy canes on our way out. Want a big DC holiday concert? This is the one for you every year.
The night’s program sported a refreshingly varied repertoire, with big-band numbers like “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” and “Winter Wonderland” from the NSO with Benanti on vocals — sometimes alongside her mother, Linda Benanti, a McLean native, who was a special guest duetist. The two performed “I Wonder as I Wander,” a lesser-known carol that gave me chills and a song I will be putting in my YouTube Music rotation for the next month.
Multiple numbers featured only the NSO, under the direction of conductor Steven Reineke. These orchestral pieces included “Sleigh Ride,” “I Saw Three Ships,” and “Carol of the Bells,” in new arrangements with some twists on old favorites. David Hardy, the NSO’s principal cellist, delivered a haunting solo on the Hanukkah carol “Miszeh Hiklik” (“Behold the Lights”), which made me want to pick up my cello again. The NSO’s “Holiday Overture” at the top of the concert almost stole the show, with a combination of pieces of different tones that kicked off the night’s variety-show feel. My only wish for the NSO-only pieces of the night is that the guy who put on a horse mask during “Sleigh Ride” had brought it out again, or kept it on, or run across the stage in it during his neigh. I would like more horse, please. Thank you, Kennedy Center.
The show seemed split into three acts, defined by Benanti’s three glittering Christmassy dresses, which subtly guided the audience through the night’s tonal changes: her sparkly red ballgown for the first act of classics, her glittery white cocktail frock for the night’s more irreverent numbers like “The Man With the Bag,” and her long silver dress at the show’s conclusion with “O Holy Night.” Benanti seemed to be at her strongest in the concert’s second half, with her renditions of “The Man With the Bag” and “O Holy Night” being her best showings of the night. Both elicited “Wow, that was good”s from me to my plus-one during the applause.
Benanti was especially excellent in the latter half of the show. She impressed the most when a song gave her the chance to demonstrate her vocal prowess and extensive range, and crowd-pleased the most when we could hear her clearly over the orchestra and when she seemed clearly at home in a particular song. Some carols that she performed were not ones I am used to hearing with opera-esque vibrato, but Benanti pulled off this new tonal take on the children’s classics with panache. I also felt that she could have upped the ante on some of her comedic asides during the show. Her funny commentary about her precocious young daughter ended with a sentence that I felt needed a punch line. But it was all easily amusing enough for the audience, who laughed heartily.
One standout element of Holiday Pops! was its “Notes of Honor: NSO Salutes the Military” performance on December 8, to which the NSO invited current, retired, veteran, and prior service members and their families for free. If you or your family fit into any of these categories, keep an eye out for a heartwarming performance in next year’s NSO Holiday Pops!
When I was younger, I used to attend a Christmas orchestra concert each year in McLean with family and friends, and it had a formative effect on my love of the Christmas season. We haven’t gone to one of those McLean concerts in a long time — and the NSO’s Holiday Pops! flooded me with memories of how much I love celebrating Christmas by hearing live orchestral renditions of beloved songs. Don’t miss the NSO in performance — one of their “pop” concerts or otherwise — and don’t miss next year’s Holiday Pops.
On a related note, don’t miss NSO’s upcoming performance of Handel’s Messiah at the Kennedy Center from December 15 to 18, 2022.
Running Time: 80 minutes, including a 15-minute intermission.
NSO Pops: A Holiday Pops! with Laura Benanti played December 9 and 10, 2022, presented by the National Symphony Orchestra in the Concert Hall at Kennedy Center, 2700 F St NW, Washington, DC.
The program for A Holiday Pops! with Laura Benanti is online here.
COVID Safety: Masks are optional at Kennedy Centerl. If you prefer to wear a mask, you are welcome to do so. Kennedy Center’s complete COVID Safety Plan is here.