Christmas In Washington (2012 Television Appearance)

Diana Ross Christmas In Washington 1

The “Christmas In Washington” television special has become an annual tradition in the United States, featuring big-name stars singing holiday favorites for an audience including the President and First Lady.  Aired on the TNT Network since the late 1990s, the concert has featured some major headliners, including Mariah Carey, Mary J. Blige, and Christina Aguilera.  The 2012 lineup was one of the most eclectic yet, bringing together South Korean rapper PSY (of the “Gangnam Style” craze), pop star Demi Lovato, and Broadway belter Megan Hilty among others.  But the clear star of the night was Miss Diana Ross.

Diana Ross seems a natural choice for such a program, with her warm vocal style perfectly suited to the holiday season.  That said, Ross has actually recorded surprisingly little Christmas music in her decades-long career.  Aside from her popular Merry Christmas LP with the Supremes, Diana’s holiday output is relegated to three releases: 1993’s live Christmas In Vienna, the 1994 international-only CD A Very Special Season, and the Hallmark collection Making Spirits Bright (1994).  Thus, her performance on the special is a welcome addition to her limited holiday offerings.  The announcement of her participation was also a pleasant surprise to fans considering her television appearances had been quite rare in the years following 2007’s I Love You.

As headliner, Diana both opens and closes the show; she begins with a medley of songs featured on all three of the above-mentioned Christmas discs.  Because none of them were major mainstream releases, this was the first time many casual fans had heard the diva take on songs like “Someday At Christmas.”  Her opening notes on the Ron Miller-penned track are crystal-clear and controlled; there is little musical accompaniment — and no backup singers yet — which means Diana’s voice is the whole show.  The noticeable raspiness that had marred some of her early-2000s performances is gone, and the classic Ross warmth and perfect enunciation are a beautiful match for the slow, poignant song.  The medley then shifts to the upbeat, jazzy “Sleigh Ride,” during which Diana is joined by an energetic choir.  There’s a lovely lightness to Diana’s performance here; her proficiency in jazz singing clearly aides with the quickly-paced, almost improvisational-sounding melody.  Paul McCartney’s 1979 classic “Wonderful Christmastime” comes next, on which Diana delivers perhaps her much alluring vocals of the entire medley.  Sounding completely relaxed now, she practically “coos” the opening lyrics, “The mood is right…the spirit’s up…” in a tone reminiscent of her early Supremes recordings.  The song, unfortunately, ends after a few lines, transitioning to a quick snippet of “Jingle Bells” and then “It’s The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year.”  Listen to Diana at the beginning of this final number; she appears to have trouble finding the correct pitch, but smoothly lets her voice find the correct key.  It’s a great moment — not because it’s pretty hearing Diana sing a few words off-key — but because it shows how adept she is at live performing.  The medley as a whole isn’t, perhaps, a showstopper — but it is an accomplished, well-crafted opener to the show.

The showstopper comes at the end, when Diana takes the stage again to sing “Amazing Grace,” the traditional hymn for which she clearly has a strong affection (she’s performed it many times, including famous on the Christmas In Vienna special).  Though not necessarily a “holiday” song, Diana’s transcendent reading makes this the most memorable moment of the entire concert;  in fact, her performance is one of the highlights of her entire career.  Perhaps never before has the singer sounded more “soulful” — there is a deep, deep feeling coming through here, resulting in some quiet, surprising gospel flourishes.  Her reading of the line, “I once was lost…but now am found…” is achingly honest; the reverence is obvious on the faces of both her fellow performers and the audience.  And listen to the way she plays with the next line, “…but now I see” — her brief melisma on the word “I” is a religious experience unto itself.  As the song quietly builds to its climax and the singer is joined by a red-robed choir, she gets the chance to display a little vocal muscle, which she delivers effortlessly.  Finally, she thrusts her arms into the air in her iconic pose and the song ends — and the thunderous cheers and standing ovation that follows is well-deserved.

It’s worth noting that Diana Ross looks stunning during both performances — dressed in a floor-length blue dress first and then a black, white, and gold creation that effectively hides the cast on her ankle.  Not long before the taping of “Christmas In Washington,” the singer had broken her ankle while in India; she was still recovering when she traveled to Washington for the show.  That the 68-year-old performed at all with a cast on her foot is pretty impressive; that she nailed the performances — especially her closer — is even better.  During a time in the diva’s life when she’s finding herself memorialized with “lifetime achievement” awards and in Broadway musicals, it’s nice to see her take the stage and demonstrate again why she became a star in the first place.  Amazing grace, indeed.

Diana Ross Christmas In Washington 2

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About Paul

Album-by-album, track-by-track, a look at the entire Diana Ross discography...
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12 Responses to Christmas In Washington (2012 Television Appearance)

  1. Lawrence says:

    It was a lovely program with great performances from our Queen! By the way, I think you mean enunciation not annunciation, which has a different meaning 🙂

  2. Tony says:

    So good to hear from you Paul. Yes I waited with batted breath for this performance, afraid she would should off or horse as she can. She nailed it. She was in fine form and I was pleased with her voice. I sensed she was a little nervous and a tad shaky at times , almost pausing before hitting the higher notes. But only a true adoring fine would pick it up. She does have the perfect Christmas voice ….as well as a aDisney sound !

    • Paul says:

      Hey Tony! Sorry I’ve been “away” for a few weeks — lots of traveling and busy at work! I was like you — a little worried at what we might hear when Diana took the stage. Not that I don’t still have faith in her incredible abilities as a singer and performer, but because we’ve all seen her “coast” through performances before. Here, she did it right. She sang the songs as they should have been sung — simply and with reverence. I agree — in the first medley there were a few moments where she almost seemed nervous — but I also wonder if she was feeling any pain due to that broken ankle!

  3. Lawrence says:

    it’s funny – my mother doesn’t always want to watch diana ross perform. But I was home for the holidays, and we watched together – and my mom thought Diana was wonderful!

    • Paul says:

      I watched this with my mom, too 🙂 She was visiting for the holidays. She also thought it was a really nice appearance by Diana! I’ve subjected her to PLENTY of Miss Ross over the years!

  4. Mark Aherne says:

    Paul, Many thanks for emailing me this post on Diana singing Christmas songs last year in Washington, DC. Your dedication to this Site is something else! Keep up the work on Miss Ross’s and all our behalves. Merry Christmas, Mark Aherne, Ireland

  5. Peter says:

    Great review of a really nice recent performance. It’s heartening to hear Diana sing so well even today. She sounds as good as in her better 90s live shows. I enjoyed “Someday at Christmas”. Diana has the crisp clarity of a flute here. It opened the show on a very optimistic tone. “Sleigh Ride” is fun and flirtatious. She sounds like she’s singing directly to you here. A very appealing reading. “Wonderful Christmastime” returns those lovely flute tones. “Jingle Bells” was sort of a throwaway and “Most Wonderful Time of the Year” was a risk that didn’t pay off. I picked up that key problem right away and found it embarrassing. How did that happen? Diana wasn’t even close. But yes, she did a skillful save. But why did she choose this song anyway? Even way back in “Christmas in Vienna” she barely hit those notes. It’s simply too high for her to sing these days. “Amazing Grace” was a marvel. It’d been a long time since she’d sung it in a major performance (although I understand she performs in in concert from time to time). This is a song in which, like “Don’t Explain”, Diana continues to find new and beautiful colors. A great performance!

    • Paul says:

      I agree, Peter — she sounded better here than in some of her late-90s/early-2000s performances. The hoarseness wasn’t there at all. She sounded warm and relaxed.

      I can’t agree more about “Most Wonderful Time…” — though I think it was okay in the end, it probably could have been left off or replaced with something else. I wish she would have gone with “The Christmas Song,” which closed her VERY SPECIAL SEASON CD. I think the smoothness and warmth of tone would have really been a good match for that song here.

      And I’m with you that “Amazing Grace” is quite similar to “Don’t Explain” — Diana seems to get better and better each time she sings those songs. I think a lot of it has to do with her real reverence for those songs — you can tell she loves them and really feels them in her soul. As she gets older, I imagine they take on new meanings for her.

    • Tony says:

      Wow”. Bang on! I too agree with the ” it’s the Most wonderful time of the year”. It did pay off to take the risk!

  6. Paul, I think we are hitting on your next review, hint, hint! Consider some of Diana’s “heartbeat” songs, not necessarily hits–actually, better if they are not hits–and analyze how Diana’s interpretations of them have evolved over the years. How has Diana’s sense of melody, riffing, improvisation, et al. expanded as she has lived these songs? How has Diana’s musical vocabulary changed? What might it all mean? Diana said on Oprah (2000) that she cannot perform a song unless she can feel it. Not many singers have been as successful as Diana has been in creating genuinely new and appealing musical landscapes as their voices change. Only Sarah Vaughan comes to my mind. (Joni Mitchell sort of told us she was on to something great with “Travelogue” but that album was notable only for the orchestration.) This idea bears similarity to your “Home” review but concerns a much longer time period. I think this type of analysis would be a good way to make a case for Diana’s extraordinary skills as an interpreter of lyrics and her deft way with melody. What do you think?

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