Concerts by the American Festival Pops Orchestra are eagerly awaited, none more popular than the Holiday Pops program, always a highlight of the season. The ensemble of 65 top professional musicians from the D.C. area is conducted by Anthony Maiello, professor of music at George Mason University's School of Music. He first brought them together to perform local concerts of popular music. Now they assemble at least four times each year to promote the Big Band sound and jazz at various venues. Their holiday schedule features jazz-infused programs at both George Mason University's Center for the Arts in Fairfax and the Hylton Performing Arts Center in Manassas.

"We can't wait to play for the audiences because the program we've planned is so much fun," Maiello said. "A trio of vocalists from the U.S. Navy Band Sea Chanters, who sound just like the Andrews Sisters, will sing 'Boogie Woogie Christmas.' Our Holiday Brass Quintet will perform 'Christmas Sketches,' a medley of holiday tunes, and Rick Lillard, the jazz trombone chair of the Airmen of Note for 15 years, will feature the brass quintet in 'Santa Claus is Coming to Town.' "

"One highlight will be a special guest narration of 'Twas the Night Before Christmas' followed by Leroy Anderson's 'Sleigh Ride' and the Stan Kenton arrangement of 'The Twelve Days of Christmas.' Vocalist Kate Herndon, a professor of voice at GMU, will sing 'The Christmas Song' and 'The Most Wonderful Time of the Year.' Of course the audience will join in on the sing-along of traditional favorites."

"One of the surprises we've planned is an accordion trio performing 'The Skater's Waltz' arranged by Bryan Kidd. The trio will consist of Linda Monson, who is a Steinway artist and director of keyboard studies at GMU, Lou Coppola, a former member of the U.S. Air Force Strolling Strings, and me. The story behind this is that I actually began playing the accordion as a child."

The American Festival Pops Orchestra
Where: Hylton Performing Arts Center, 10960 George Mason Circle, Manassas
When: 8 p.m. Friday; Pre-performance discussion led by Bryan Kidd, AFPO arranger
Info: $32 to $48; 888-945-2468;
Where: George Mason University Center for the Arts Concert Hall, 4400 University Drive, Fairfax
When: 8 p.m. Saturday
Info: $24 to $48; 888-945-2468;

"I was still playing it when my high school music teacher asked me what I wanted to do for the rest of my life, I told him I wanted to play the accordion. He explained that the accordion was not an instrument I could major in at Ithaca College where I wanted to go. Still, he recommended me for their music program. After I was accepted, the instructor there told me I would have to learn another instrument. He suggested the clarinet and cautioned that the college would decide how well I was doing by the end of the year."