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Sunday, September 22, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Uzcátegui brings Venzuelan flavor to Spokane Symphony’s Holiday Pops

Mike Cantlon, as Santa, will again conduct the orchestra during the Spokane Symphony’s annual Holiday Pops concert.
Mike Cantlon, as Santa, will again conduct the orchestra during the Spokane Symphony’s annual Holiday Pops concert.

The Spokane Symphony’s upcoming Holiday Pops concert promises to feature some big names. Mozart. Handel. Bach. Santa.

The annual Christmas spectacular, which lights up the Fox Theater this weekend, will showcase vocalist Abbey Crawford, the Spokane Symphony Chorale and Spokane Area Youth Choirs performing some holiday favorites. But it’s the appearance of Santa Claus that everyone attentively awaits.

Mike Cantlon, a geometry and biology teacher at the Libby Center, has been filling the role of Symphony Santa for more than two decades. He doesn’t have a musical background, though his wife, Barb Cantlon, played English horn and oboe with the symphony for 37 years. It has become a tradition for Santa to appear midway through the concert and conduct the orchestra in a rendition of the Christmas standard “Sleigh Ride,” and Cantlon says his first time taking the podium didn’t quite go as planned.

“I took this big candy cane and was using it as a baton,” he said. “I accidentally smashed it against the podium, and candy bits splintered everywhere. You could see the orchestra members ducking to one side.”

Cantlon continued donning the trademark red suit and beard year after year, and audiences have come to expect Santa’s arrival during that performance of “Sleigh Ride.”

“It’s become a part of the tradition,” Cantlon said. “It’s not just observable; it’s something you feel. … Barb was a part of that orchestra for so long that one of the greatest gifts of my life was the day I could actually stand on stage and do something with them.”

The shtick does change a bit from year to year, Cantlon says: One year he performed a comic bit in which Santa realized his elves had taken his sleigh for a joy ride; another year he read names of orchestra members from a “Naughty or Nice” list.

“The people in the audience don’t quite know what to expect,” Cantlon said. “I think that keeps it fresh.”

While Cantlon is an old pro when it comes to the Holiday Pops concerts, this marks the first year the symphony’s new assistant conductor Jorge Luis Uzcátegui has participated.

“It’s going to be interesting to see how this works out,” Uzcátegui said. “Everybody has done this so many times, and the only one who has yet to figure it out is me.”

This year’s program opens with a trio of masterworks: The “Hallelujah” chorus from George Frideric Handel’s “Messiah” oratorio, J.S. Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” and Mozart’s choral arrangement of the hymn “Ave Verum Corpus.”

“They’re masterpieces by these master composers,” Uzcátegui said. “To start the concert, you get to hear three of the most beautiful pieces ever written. It almost feels like you’re seeing heaven.”

Uzcátegui has also included two traditional carols – “Corre Caballito” and “El Niño Criollo” – from his native Venezuela on the program.

“It’s very interesting working on this music with American people,” Uzcátegui said. “I grew up listening to this music, and I never, ever dreamed of having this music played in the United States. It’s so dear to my heart.”

The Holiday Pops concerts always aim for that kind of emotionally stirring program, and it’s the reason so many Spokane families have made it a part of their Christmas traditions.

“It’s a special type of concert because it’s celebrating the festivities of the holiday season, regardless of your religion,” Uzcátegui said. “It’s a time to look forward to time with family, and this music can bring that kind of joy to people.”

“The Fox Theater is almost like an ornament inside, if you think about it,” Cantlon said. “It lends itself beautifully to the holiday spirit, and I think it’s pretty wonderful.”

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