By Megan Westberg

The sun was shining on an unseasonably warm December 10 afternoon in Santa Rosa, California. At the Luther Burbank Center, patrons (many escorting children sporting a vaguely skeptical look) filtered in wearing varying degrees of red and green with flashes of sparkle. They were chatting as they sauntered to their seats, and looked happy at the prospect of experiencing the “Holly Jolly Pops” concert by the Santa Rosa Symphony, Santa Rosa Symphonic Chorus, and assorted special guests.

Maestro Michael Berkowitz took the stage and set the tone in a red-lined black jacket patterned with bold strings of Christmas lights. His bright red socks peeked at the audience beneath dark pants as he strode across the stage and took his place in front of the orchestra and choir. Berkowitz is an easy hand with an audience: He holds court with a kind of conspiratorial humor, inviting everyone to feel like they’re in on the joke.

Though peppered with contemplative moments, including a lovely “Ave Maria” led by concertmaster Jay Zhong, this show was not a deep dive into serious sacred music. It was an upbeat tour, for the most part, of holiday music meant to stir nostalgia, inspire a smile, and send an audience off with a jaunty tune in their heads. There were, for example, dancing Santas from the Burbank Center’s Roustabout Theater Apprentice program, a fair amount of crooning from vocalist Jonathan Poretz, and a (very) long sing-along portion of the program that stirred a surprising amount of audience participation.

A highlight, though not string related, arrived in the form of vocalist Tina Lloyd Meals in a stunning blue gown. She proceeded to detail, in strong soprano, what happened to the gifts she had accrued during the 12 days of Christmas during the 12 days after Christmas, once she and her sweetheart had a fight. Her delivery elicited a rapt smile even from the squirming seven-year-old beside me.

After watching a program that covered everything from a little Tchaikovsky (Danse russe Trépak from the Nutcracker) to Mel Tormé and Bob Wells’ “Christmas Song” (in the original Nelson Riddle arrangement) to Berkowitz himself conducting while singing “A Holly Jolly Christmas” in the style of Burl Ives (and sounding like him, too), the audience members cheerfully gathered their things and wandered out into the cool California evening.

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