Wednesday, December 07, 2016

Symphony Preview: It's beginning to look a lot like a Powell Hall Christmas

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As it does every December, the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra will be delivering Christmas presents for St. Louis audiences throughout the month of December. Let's sneak downstairs and take a peek under the wrapping, shall we?

Kevin McBeth
December 8: Kevin McBeth leads the IN UNISON® Chorus in "A Gospel Christmas" - Grammy Award-winning vocalist Richard Smallwood and his group Vision are the guest soloists in a program that features many of Mr. Smallwood's original compositions along with Gospel favorites and popular Christmas tunes. There's even a soulful version of the "Hallelujah Chorus" from "Handel's Messiah: a Soulful Celebration" by Paul David Wilson. Tenor Curtis McGregor will be the featured soloist for that one.

Celebrating its 20th season with the SLSO, the IN UNISON® Chorus is "an all-volunteer, 120-voice auditioned ensemble that performs a variety of musical styles, with a focus on the interpretation, performance, and preservation of the music of African-American and African cultures." Kevin McBeth, who became director of the chorus in 2011, is Director of Music at Manchester United Methodist Church and serves as full-time administrator for the Music Ministry, which includes 18 choral and handbell ensembles, involving nearly 500 youngsters and adults. NOTE: as of Tuesday, December 6, this concert is sold out, but standing room tickets are still available.

December 9-11: A Mannheim Steamroller Christmas - Arnie Roth conducts the orchestra in this program of traditional carols from around the world as arranged by the group Mannheim Steamroller (of which Mr. Roth is a member), the classical/new age crossover group founded by composer and record producer Chip Davis back in 1975. Their sound is a blend of classical, jazz, rock that you will either find delightful or acutely annoying, depending on your musical taste. I find it pleasant, in a background music kind of way.

Arnie Roth
Photo by ainudil
In any case, their 1984 album A Mannheim Steamroller Christmas was a massive hit. It and their subsequent holiday-themed albums have been massive sellers and the group still tours extensively around this time of the year. They won't be here in St. Louis, though; this concert is SLSO all the way. And that's a good thing.

FYI the group's name is a joking reference to the "Mannheim roller," one of several innovations developed by composers writing for the court orchestra at Mannheim in the late 18th century. Most of those composers are little more than historical footnotes now (although Carl Stamitz still shows up on concert programs now and then), but they were very influential in the musical development of Mozart and Haydn, among others.

December 16-18: The Mercy Holiday Celebration - Steven Jarvi conducts the orchestra and Holiday Festival Chorus (consisting of students from local schools and colleges conducted by Kevin McBeth) in a program of traditional carols and seasonal pop songs. The featured soloist is singer/actress Nicole Parker, best known for her work on MADtv. She also has extensive musical theatre credits, including the plum role of Elphaba in the first North American tour of Wicked.

As I'm writing this, the program for this year's concerts hasn't been published yet, but based on previous years you can expect a mix of traditional and contemporary holiday songs, a few classical favorites, a "Holiday Sing-Along," and possibly some seasonal film music. There will also be the annual "surprise" visit from Santa (usually played by the ever-charming Whit Richert). "Pops" events like this are usually big moneymakers for the orchestra and great fun as well. Only a dedicated Scrooge could complain.

The concerts are sponsored by Mercy Healthcare and Macy's.

Soprano Emily Birsan
December 22: The Bach Society Christmas Candlelight Concert - Soprano Emily Birsan joins the Bach Society Chorus and Orchestra in a performance of the Magnificat by British composer John Rutter, who is perhaps best known for his original Christmas carols, in the first half of the program. What makes this annual program truly special, though, is the candlelight procession that starts the second half.

The lights dim, and the members of the Bach Society walk down the aisles singing, each with an electric candle. If you're lucky enough to be sitting downstairs in the orchestra section, you find yourself surrounded by singers - some carrying the melody, some harmony, enveloping you in a constantly changing kaleidoscope of sound. Charles Ives would have loved it. It's a St. Louis tradition and every music lover should get to experience it at least once.

This isn't an SLSO event, but the SLSO is handling the ticketing and it does take place in Powell Hall, so I figured it's fair game for this article.

There are other special concerts at Powell after Christmas. I'll give you a look at the in my next preview article.

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