Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Gangnam Santa, Peter Nero style

In these parts, it's not Christmas time until the man in the white beard says so. That would be Peter Nero.

Gangnam Santa, Peter Nero style

Peter Nero
Peter Nero

In these parts, it’s not Christmas time until the man in the white beard says so. That would be Peter Nero.

For more than a dozen years, he has presided over an annual holiday show with his Philly Pops. Nero is stepping down at the end of the season, which means that the current run in Verizon Hall is probably your last-ever chance to hear Enescu, Glière and Mussorgsky as the pike, carp and whitefish of a giant gefilte fish of a Hanukkah medley. Nero’s successor is not a pianist, which also suggests that if this tradition continues, the format won’t feature a jazz pianist who somehow manages to be both erudite and haimish, with a little show-biz humor thrown in for good measure. Nero is the end of the line.

Take his Christmas adaptation of “Gangnam Style” (please). PSY’s video has clocked 925 million hits on YouTube, and that’s good enough for Nero. He put together his own version for Santa, a line of leggy young dancers and a Korean singer from the University of the Arts as Nero chimed in at the punch line (“Oh, Santa baby”). This, obviously, is what a 78-year-old Jew from Brooklyn can do when he really puts his mind to it.

Just when you’re ready to throw up your hands at all the zaniness, Nero does something so interesting, so genuinely the work of an artist, that he leaves you unsure of who he really is. His arrangement of “White Christmas” starts off out in the cold, a disorienting snow globe of repeated patterns. The piano cadenza sounds like it could take you any place, and where it leaves you off is warming by the strings. It’s a lovely moment, and the journey there exposes Nero’s piano as more free-wheeling and inventive than Ahmad Jamal, and in a league of tastefulness with Marian McPartland in her prime.

In life, as at the podium, Nero free-associates, and the musical manifestations can be curious. Each show is a little different, but Sunday’s included a gospel choir and Handel’s Messiah. Count Basie and Mariah Carey tunes. And where else can you hear an arrangement of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” in the style of the 5th Dimension — with boychoir?

All traditions die. In Philadelphia, Christmas no longer arrives as Santa climbs atop a fire-truck ladder into a Market Street department store window, and next year it will no doubt come even without the jolly antics of Peter Nero. But it won’t be the same.

The video below was posted to YouTube by user caitisgreat6. 

Peter Dobrin Inquirer Classical Music Critic
About this blog

Peter Dobrin is a classical music critic and culture writer for The Inquirer. Since 1989, he has written music reviews, features, news and commentary for the paper, covering such topics as the Philadelphia Museum of Art at the Venice Biennale, expansion of the Curtis Institute of Music, the Philadelphia Orchestra's bankruptcy declaration in 2011, Philadelphia's evolving performing arts center and the general health of arts and culture.

Dobrin was a French horn player. He earned an undergraduate degree in performance from the University of Miami, and received a master's degree in music criticism from the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University, where he studied with Elliott Galkin. He has no time to practice today.

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