By Tim Munro
Ghosts and ghouls have been packed away, turkey leftovers have been devoured. The holiday season is underway, which means it’s time for the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra to do its part to ward off the December chill and bring families together.
Think of it as a holiday gift, from our family to yours. Who better to kick it all off than Leslie Odom, Jr.? Whether breathing life into Aaron Burr, giving his spin on a jazz standard, or sharing a holiday favorite, Odom floats his voice directly into our heart. Oh, and he is a truly wonderful person, says the SLSO’s Vice President, Marketing, David Nischwitz. At Odom’s sold-out show with the SLSO last year, “the orchestra adored working with him. And the feeling was quite mutual.” He returns on December 2 to perform selections from his new album Simply Christmas alongside Broadway favorites.
Then, on December 7-9, it is a return to a certified holiday Favorite. For Amy Kaiser, the SLSO’s Chorus Director, Handel’s Messiah holds very strong associations with this season.
“Peace, light, and tenderness are there, as well as suffering, triumph, and jubilation. Hearing it in November rehearsals is like getting a first whiff of balsam trees!” According to Kaiser, “Every chorus is brilliantly written, dramatically meaningful, and rewarding to sing.” But there are challenges. Some choruses “tend to be very fast, with a lot of coloratura passages that are very hard to sing but need to sound effortless.”
The SLSO Chorus will be working for the first time with guest conductor Matthew Halls. “I am happy that he is an experienced early music specialist and that he also has performed Messiah with numerous major American orchestras playing modern instruments and with choruses [like the SLSO Chorus] that also sing Brahms and Prokofiev!” When asked which Messiah chorus is her favorite, Kaiser is characteristically enthused. “My favorite choruses are the ones I’m rehearsing at the moment!”
The holiday season extends to the St. Louis Symphony: Live at the Pulitzer series. On December 11, five SLSO musicians will present Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s wintery In the Light of Air. The “natural drama” of Iceland “is part of me,” writes Thorvaldsdottir. “The dramatic change in light throughout the year, the changing weather, closeness to nature, and sense of space.” The fading light of December will be captured by a unique lighting design created for this performance.
Home Alone “is THE holiday movie for the generation of 30- and 40-somethings,” says Nischwitz. “Many make an annual holiday tradition of watching this film with friends and family.” The SLSO and the Webster University Chorale bring John Williams’ beloved score to life, accompanying the film live on the big screen for four performances, December 14-16. And audiences may notice some upgrades. The SLSO’s Operations team installed a brandnew sound system and purchased three new movie screens (for different film formats). “These upgrades will make the image 'crystal clear,'” says Nischwitz, the dialogue “crisper.”
On December 20, Take 6 will make its third appearance at the SLSO’s Gospel Christmas celebration. Conductor Kevin McBeth, director of the SLSO’s IN UNISON Chorus, is thrilled to work with the iconic group again. Using only their voices, they produce a whole kaleidoscope of sounds. “With their arrangements and vocal blend,” says McBeth, “it’s truly an orchestra of voices.” McBeth is particularly looking forward to performing the song “He Never Failed Me, Yet,” written by the IN UNISON Chorus founding director, Robert Ray. “It’s a staple in the IN UNISON Chorus’ repertoire and a crowd favorite!” Sharing the stage with Take 6 is a huge honor, “and the chorus is very excited.” A centerpiece of the December concerts is the annual Mercy Holiday Celebration.
The SLSO and Holiday Festival Chorus under Resident Conductor Gemma New warm up a splendidly decorated Powell Hall for five performances, December 21-23. They perform holiday favorites and welcome special guests, including (quietly whisper it!) the North Pole’s most famous resident. Nischwitz is quick to add the SLSO’s great thanks to Mercy Hospital St. Louis, “for its continued support of this special weekend of concerts which brings hundreds of employees with their families and friends to experience the SLSO each holiday season.” The SLSO has presented Disney movies live in concert before, but this year’s show, Walt Disney, A Decade in Concert, is a little different.
On December 28-29, the SLSO accompanies a full slate of highlights from Walt Disney Animation Studio’s work over the past ten years. Selections from Moana, Tangled, Frozen, Wreck-It Ralph, Zootopia, and more will be featured. And one SLSO player is particularly excited. “My kids (seven, six, and two) are huge music buffs,” says Principal Viola Beth Guterman Chu, “but they are also Moana fans. I can sing every word of a few Disney movies, and it will be hard for me to hold back while on stage.” David Robertson’s tenure saw many innovations. New compositions, new series, new tours. But it was one innovation that drew audiences, that lit a spark in the air: his New Year’s Eve concerts.
Programmed in secret, containing all manner of special guests and family appearances and on-stage antics, these shows were thrilling for orchestra and audiences both. The SLSO continues that tradition with this year’s BMO Private Bank New Year’s Eve Celebration on December 31. Guest conductor Ward Stare directs this musical surprise party. Stare, Music Director of the Rochester Philharmonic since 2014, was the SLSO’s Resident Conductor from 2008–2012. So it is fitting that he returns for this unique musical celebration. And like the best live performances, we cannot begin to anticipate what might happen. Who might turn up? What will they do? What might they say?
This article appears in the December 2018 Playbill. Tim Munro is the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra’s Creative Partner. A Grammy-winning flutist, writer, and broadcaster, he lives in Chicago with his wife and badly-behaved orange cat.