Dallas — Christmas and the whole Holiday Season is full of long-established traditions—candy canes on a tree, greenery on a fireplace, Jack Frost nipping at your nose. For many, the season is not complete until they have sung “Jingle Bells” in a concert hall, accompanied by a premier orchestra led by a typically forbidding conductor in red suspenders and a Santa hat.
The Holiday or Christmas Pops concert has become a staple for most orchestras, either as one-off extravaganzas or, as is the case of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, in a series of repeated events. DSO has dedicated the whole season to a wide range of Holiday music all in the name of their Christmas with the DSO program, culminating in their Christmas Pops concerts which start this weekend at the Meyerson.
Obviously brass bands and sing-alongs have been part of the orchestral scenery at Yuletide for centuries. They trace their lineage at least to the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and their famous New Year’s Day concerts (tracing back to the 1830s). Arguably, the tradition of the Christmas sing-along goes as far back as the “Hallelujah” from Handel’s Messiah.
The American tradition of Holiday Pops concerts began with Boston Symphony in the 1930s. In an effort to soften the somewhat rigid reputation of the orchestra and especially the image of their legendary conductor, the notorious curmudgeon Arthur Fielder, they placed café tables on the floor of Symphony Hall, popped a Santa hat on Fielder’s head (with instructions to occasionally smile) and commissioned now famous arrangements of Christmas songs like “White Christmas” and “Sleigh Ride” from Richard Hayman and others. By the ’60s, the concerts were generating huge revenue for the BSO, along with their groundbreaking Fourth of July fireworks performances. The season expanded from sporadic to daily and the Pops went from being an offshoot of the main orchestra to a discreet ensemble (albeit made up largely of BSO performers), ultimately after Fielder’s death in 1975 with its own conductor (John Williams and then Keith Lockhart) and, most important, its own recording contracts.
The DSO has not quite followed this path. Their Pops orchestra is still embedded in the larger ensemble. But each year has a robust Pops calendar, often playing one or two theme based concerts during its yearlong schedule. The concerts feature their own conductors with specialty interests in Pops programing. And over the past few years, the Christmas Pops programming has expanded to an entire slate, including this year a John Williams Holiday concert (complete with a specially shortened family performance), a brass and organ extravaganza and the Christmas concerts themselves, this year conducted by Pops specialist (and former DSO Associate Conductor) Lawrence Loh. The programs yearly have brought the promise of everything from Tchaikovsky to Irving Berlin, with a liberal sprinkling of sparkling solos (provided by soprano Katy Shackleton Williams), thundering choirs (the larger-than-life Dallas Symphony Chorus), trumpets imitating horses, and “Silent Night” and “Jingle Bells” sing-alongs. All the boxes are ticked for the Holiday season.
But the Holiday Pops format is much different from standard orchestral fare. The sheer number of performances can make it difficult for musicians to perform in both the main orchestra and the Pops ensemble. And whereas typical orchestras may play a program two or three times, the large number of Christmas Pops concerts is a substantial variation from a typical symphony schedule. How does an orchestra maintain its energy and focus over such an extended run? How many hearty “Merry Christmases” can a group say? How many times can they walk through a “Winter Wonderland?”
Conductor, Lawrence Loh was graciously willing to answer these questions and more:
TheaterJones: How different is performing a Christmas concert than a regular one? Do you notice a difference in the audience? The performers?
Lawrence Loh: In some ways, performing Christmas Pops is like performing any other popular programming with a symphony orchestra. We perform great music with a central theme to an enthusiastic audience. But there’s something that sets these kinds of concerts apart. The audience base is particularly broad and multigenerational, attracting kids to great grandparents, and many make it a yearly tradition. For some, it is the first time attending an orchestra concert, so for that reason, we always make the program and atmosphere as welcoming to the newcomers as it is to the repeat patrons. The musicians on the stage are often moved by the emotion we sense from the audience and it makes it very special to present these concerts.
What tricks for maintaining the energy over a repeated series of concerts such as the Christmas Pops?
The Dallas Symphony and I maintain our energy in these concerts by thinking of each concert as the main event. We know that for the person in the audience, it IS the main event. I also like being musically spontaneous. Sometimes in the course of a concert run, the interpretations evolve in an exciting way, especially as the orchestra gets very comfortable with the music, and this sometimes leads to a shift in the expression. If you attend an earlier performance, you may hear more adrenaline, and towards the end of a run, perhaps more spontaneity!
How do you balance traditional music with trying to do something fresh for a given holiday season? What chestnuts do you feel you need to play because of audience expectation?
We like to balance traditional with new every year, and because there is a huge amount of music out there for this occasion, it’s easy to find new and exciting pieces to perform. Many times, it is more of a new take on an old chestnut, like this year we are performing “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” but in a new setting that we haven’t performed in the past. People will recognize the carol, but may be surprised by the setting. We also find new carols, like an Eric Whitacre piece called “Glow” which is a reflection on winter. It is probably brand new to many in the audience and it isn’t a traditional carol, but I know people will love it. This year, we are also adding a ‘John Williams Christmas’ concert series, with many surprises from Home Alone, Star Wars, Christmas at Hogwarts and music by some of John Williams’ friends and mentors.
How much influence do other Pops concerts (especially Boston Symphony and Arthur Fiedler) have on what DSO performs?
In our traditional Christmas Pops (Dec. 7-16) we are making a nod to the Boston Pops and Arthur Fiedler with a Richard Hayman arrangement of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” that was a Boston Pops exclusive. This is a hilarious orchestra showpiece that just recently became available for non-Boston Pops orchestras to perform and I jumped on it. But as far as history goes, here in Dallas, we have our own great holiday tradition. When I was the Associate Conductor of the DSO, I would assist my friend and former Dallas Symphony Chorus director, the late David Davidson. My personal tradition began with those meaningful and thoughtful concerts and his artistic approach still exists in the programming today. As my friend Paul Capehart (former horn player in the Dallas Symphony) used to say in artistic meetings “we have to present Christmas concerts that you can’t get anywhere else” and in saying this, he means, the Dallas Symphony and Dallas Symphony Chorus should focus on what it does best—perform great symphonic, choral music in a magnificent hall with an awe-inspiring organ. Every year, my goal is to present an artistic product that we can be proud of and will be meaningful and inspiring to our audiences!
John Williams had evolved into being one of the standard "voices" of Christmas. How does his work and those of others in the canon (Berlin, Marks, etc) affect the programming and performance of Pops concerts?
Even before we added this first weekend of a special John Williams concert series surrounding the holidays, we used to perform some music by John Williams every year, usually from Home Alone. Since he wrote music for so many popular films, including some holiday films, he is a natural choice for us as a recognizable voice of Christmas. We can also easily fit in less overtly holiday films into these concerts, like Star Wars, which has recently become a holiday tradition with the release of new Star Wars films every December (except this December!). There’s always a thread we can find: Star Wars, leads to The Empire Strikes Back, leads to Hoth, leads to snow, leads to Christmas!