Christmas is a time when we get together with family to watch the same holiday specials, sing the same carols and squeeze into the same scratchy red and green sweaters as we did the year before. There’s something comforting about seasonal predictability, but that festive repetition can get to be a bit monotonous.
That’s the dilemma the Spokane Symphony faces every year when putting together the annual Holiday Pops concerts: How do you take the most famous tunes, the songs everyone in the crowd has heard countless times before and can recite from memory, and make them sound fresh and original?
“The challenge is finding good arrangements of these familiar carols, to try and give them a different twist and to really showcase the brilliance of the full symphony orchestra,” said Morihiko Nakahara, who will be conducting this year’s Holiday Pops program. “You might hear the same carols but always in a different, fresh, fun way.”
Accompanying the orchestra is the Symphony Chorale, led by Julián Gómez Giraldo, and the Spokane Area Children’s Chorus. “I think they add a very different kind of sparkle to the program” Nakahara said.
You’ll hear classics like “Frosty the Snowman,” “Here Comes Santa Claus” and “Sleigh Ride” (the latter is conducted by none other than Santa himself), but there are a few curveballs: Nakahara points to “Gloria,” a signature piece by British composer John Rutter, as one of the left-field selections in the program.
“Rutter has this way of finding these lush sounds in the chorus,” Nakahara said. “It’s almost like a Hollywood film score, like a blockbuster soundtrack.” Because Rutter’s compositions tend to blend orchestral and choral components, Nakahara says it’s an ideal piece for the Holiday Pops. “We take all of that into consideration,” Nakahara said. “It’s fun, but it’s also something that they can all dig deep and really sink their teeth into.”
And if the Holiday Pops is a tradition for many members of the symphony’s devoted audience, Nakahara says that it’s become custom, too, for the symphony’s veteran musicians.
“It’s more of a family event for the symphony extended family,” he said. “And it’s appropriate at this time of the year, when we come together just like many families are doing over this holiday season. It’s sort of like having a bunch of families over for our family dinner.”
Hearing holiday chestnuts bolstered by soaring instrumentation and angelic vocal arrangements will no doubt inspire warm, fuzzy feelings, and Nakahara said he hopes that warmth will extend to very specific members of the audience.
“I’m hoping that there will be people who might originally be from Spokane but are living and working elsewhere, and they are visiting home for the holidays,” Nakahara said. “I want to give them comfort food. It’s almost like chicken noodle soup. … That sense of familiarity, I think, is important for this particular program.
“And we also have a few surprises up our sleeves, but it’s best they remain surprises,” he added with a laugh.