The Spokane Symphony’s annual Holiday Pops concerts is a tradition for a lot of area families, who gather at the Fox Theater every December to hear a collection of Christmas songs old and new. And it’s become a ritual for the symphony’s musicians, too, many of whom have been decking the halls for decades.
“The symphony feels like a family,” Pops conductor Morihiko Nakahara said. “I think that feeling is accentuated even more with these Christmas concerts – ‘The Nutcracker’ and the Holiday Pops.”
Nakahara was actually visiting his own family in Japan at the time of the 2015 Holiday Pops performance – assistant conductor Jorge Uzcátegui took his place – but he returns this weekend with a new batch of tunes.
“There will be a few surprises,” Nakahara said. “Santa will, of course, be there. … We have the collection of mostly familiar carols or Christmas songs wrapped in new clothes, so to speak.”
The orchestra, as they have for Holiday Pops past, will be joined by the symphony chorale, most notably on a suite of classic carols called “The Seven Joys of Christmas.” Also on the docket is the annual performance of “Sleigh Ride,” which is when St. Nick typically makes his appearance.
One of the notable additions to this year’s program is a screening of the 1982 short animated film “The Snowman” with accompanying score. Based on Raymond Briggs’ children’s book, it’s a mostly wordless fairy tale about a boy whose snowman comes to life and whisks him away to the North Pole.
“It’s an extension of what we’ve been doing more and more, this multimedia aspect,” Nakahara said, referring to earlier symphony film screenings. “It’s newer territory we’re exploring. This film is the perfect one to do for these concerts. It’s a cute story, beautiful animation and the music is very effective and very charming, theatrical at times. And it’s nice that it doesn’t take up the whole evening.”
The key to assembling a memorable Holiday Pops program, Nakahara says, is balancing established favorites with songs that audiences might not immediately recognize. You want to provide listeners with the appropriate amount of nostalgia, he says, but you also don’t want to repeat yourself every year.
“With these concerts, I think it’s crucial to have the mix of familiar and new discoveries, trying to strike that balance,” Nakahara said. “More than any other time of year, we tend to associate the season with a particular set of (songs). I think it’s important to honor that and share that together.”
And, Nakahara points out, the atmosphere of yuletide warmth inside the theater isn’t merely a product of the music but of the venue itself.
“It’s such a magnificent setting,” he said. “I’m more keenly aware of it during the month of December, when it’s decorated with the lights and the tree and everybody is in festive attire in the lobby. … It makes me realize how fortunate we are to have this orchestra playing in this particular theater. It’s a jewel, both the orchestra and the hall.”
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