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It's Callaway for the Holidays

It's Callaway for the Holidays

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Presents and cards are here,/ My world is filled with cheer/ And you, oh yeah,/ This Christmas./ And as I look around/ Your eyes outshine the town, they do./ This Christmas,/ Fireside is blazing bright,/ We’re caroling through the night.— From “This Christmas,” Ann Hampton Callaway

Cabaret can be many things, ranging from the demi-monde of Weimar Germany’s Berlin to the haut monde of New York City’s Café Carlyle. But it comes down to the same thing for Ann Hampton Callaway, one of the cabaret scene’s brightest lights.

“I don’t focus on cabaret as a concept, but as a means of communication,” she says. “We live in an intimacy-starved culture, a virtual culture. Cabaret is an intimate art form. Its heart is in creating an intimate bond, something that’s alive, between performer and audience. It doesn’t really have to do with the size of the room. It won’t work if you sing pretty, but there’s no feeling. It won’t work if there’s lots of feeling, but you sing out of tune. You put together a show that expresses a trajectory, an emotional arc. People can feel this and they get excited. It can be a profound experience.”

Callaway is between what we might call “big room” engagements. She is just back from Arizona, where she appeared with the Tucson Symphony Orchestra in “The Barbra Streisand Songbook,” a show she’s touring nationwide, and she’s preparing to join the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra for “Holidays with the NJSO,” Dec. 15 at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark and Dec. 16 at the State Theatre, New Brunswick. Also appearing will be the Masterwork Chorus of Morristown. The concerts will be conducted by John Morris Russell, maestro of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra’s Cincinnati Pops.

“I always feel a thrill when I perform with a symphony orchestra; really, it’s my favorite thing,” says the dusky-voiced Callaway, who has appeared with more than a score of symphony orchestras and big bands. “My intention is always to touch every single heart in that hall, to turn a hall full of strangers into a family. It’s an immensely powerful and beautiful thing to share the joy I find in music with people. And I listen with tremendous attention and love to all those wonderful musicians I’m privileged to perform with.”

One of the worst kept secrets about Ann Hampton Callaway is that she is, well, a fan.

Asked if she thought it takes “courage” to sing songs made famous by or associated with as singular an artist as Streisand, Callaway laughs. “If you say so,” she says. “I’ve spent a lot of my life honoring the artists who have inspired me. Ella Fitzgerald is my absolute favorite. I love painting portraits of these artists. It’s a labor of love.”

All of Callaway’s recordings pay tribute to the songwriters she admires; one of them, “To Ella with Love,” showcases the songbook of “the First Lady of Song.” (Hey, if you can cover Ella, you can cover anybody.) The remarkably versatile singer is hardly a slouch in the songwriting department, either, having written some 250 songs, including two Platinum Award-winning hits for Streisand: “At the Same Time” and “I’ve Dreamed of You.” Streisand sang the latter to James Brolin on their wedding day.

Callaway is well aware that audiences rarely seek novelty in holiday programs. “Holidays with the NJSO” will offer “the perfect cocktail of holiday melodies and timeless classics, including ‘Deck the Halls,’ ‘Silent Night,’ the Hallelujah Chorus, ‘Winter Wonderland,’ ‘My Favorite Things,’ and many more,” the NJSO promises. But you can keep it “fresh and personal,” Callaway believes, by the judicious addition of new material, such as “This Christmas,” the title song for her holiday-themed CD. She has written others, too: “Manhattan in December,” “Christmas Lullaby,” “God Bless My Family.”

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“As a songwriter I always respond strongly to the seasons of the year, and Christmas is a magic time, of course. It brings out the child within us. As a performer you want to show different sides of the holiday season — the family side, the spiritual side, the festive side. And you can express something serious at the same time as you’re honoring tradition and nostalgia,” she says.

“Sometimes there’s a bittersweet side. One Christmas season I was to be a guest performer with the New York City Gay Men’s Chorus in Carnegie Hall, and I offered to write a song, which turned out to be ‘This Christmas.’ My grandmother had just died. The concert was dedicated to the memory of those who had died of AIDS. The stage was completely covered by poinsettia plants. People have a very strong emotional response to this song.”

John Morris Russell sees eye-to-eye with Callaway on keeping programs “fresh and personal.” Like other front-rank pops conductors, Maestro Russell has a missionary zeal for the symphony orchestra as a medium for articulating the American musical experience. For instance, in March, he conducted the NJSO in “The Best of Dvorak’s American Legacy.” The program offered Dvorak’s ever-popular “New World” Symphony, which is standard orchestral fare. But the balance of the program showcased music by John Philip Sousa, Scott Joplin, Stephen Foster, Aaron Copland, George Gershwin and Duke Ellington. Now that’s a rich and attractive mix.

With the Cincinnati Pops, Russell is co-creator of “Home for the Holidays” (Fanfare), a “Christmas spectacular” CD that has succeeded in establishing itself solidly within a very crowded market.

“When I was growing up in Cleveland, the tire companies, Firestone, Goodyear, used to put out holiday recordings to encourage the purchase of snow tires. They offered the public a panoply of musical experiences — Mahalia Jackson singing a spiritual, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Steve and Eydie, the Cleveland Orchestra,” Russell says.

“It was a crazy and eclectic range of artists and styles, but it certainly put across the joy of the holiday season, and it also reflected the incredible diversity of American music. The cool thing about holiday programs is that you’ve got about a thousand years of material to work with, and every year some of that can be reborn in any type of style. For instance, we’re going to be doing ‘Go Tell It on the Mountain,’ but it’s going to be jazzy, it’s going to be funky, it’s going to wail. It works like that, too.”

Russell points out that pops orchestras are pretty much “unique to North America, which isn’t surprising when you consider the roots of American music. We’ve got everything the immigrants brought with them from all over the world; we’ve got idioms that are unique to us, jazz, blues, country, Broadway. Pops’ special niche is that we play all those styles.”

Russell is a fan, too, and of the NJSO, in particular. “These musicians can play it all,” he says. “You say to them, ‘Let’s swing’ or ‘Let’s twang,’ and they’re right on it. They know how to do everything.”

So this holiday season, Ann Hampton Callaway would like to know: September, November,/ I'm driftin’ fancy free./ But Yuletide and New Year’s,/ Just one place I could be./ It’s easy to remember/ Manhattan in December./ Try it and I’m sure you’ll agree. /Manhattan in December,/ Won’t you spend it with me?

Just make that Newark. Or New Brunswick. It’s close enough.

Ann Hampton Callaway will join the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra and the Masterwork Chorus, John Morris Russell conducting, in “Holidays with the NJSO,” Saturday, Dec. 15 at 8 p.m. at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, 1 Center St., Newark, and Sunday, Dec. 16 at 3 p.m. at the State Theatre, 15 Livingston Ave., New Brunswick. Tickets start at $20. For more information, call the NJSO at 1-800-ALLEGRO (255-3476).

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