Reindeer Games

Christmas with the Symphony is sacred and secular spectacle

Some people put on a Bing Crosby album and drink a little eggnog to get into the spirit this time of year. The Omaha Symphony chooses an all-out, full-frontal, everything-Christmas blitz. Christmas with the Symphony includes an audience sing-along, Broadway style singing and dancing, chamber music, local TV personality Dave Webber, live reindeer outside the Holland Center and of course, a kick line entirely of Santas. Rockettes, eat your hearts out. With such a smorgasbord of holiday features, it can be difficult to keep all the moving parts aligned. Co-director Vince Pesce is up to the challenge. “The trick to this is, you have to actually create a flow, even if it’s just song to song,” Pesce says. “It’s a big musical review. You have to craft the evening so there [are] highs and lows. When do we want to bring the singers out, when do we want dance energy, when do we want to add Dave. The challenge is making it seamless and making it make sense. You want the audience to go on a journey with you. You have to kind of shape it. The joy also is that you get to pack in as many Christmas songs as you can.” Pesce admits he’s been listening to Christmas albums since summer in preparation for the Omaha Symphony’s production, and he’s relieved the time’s arrived that he’s not the only person playing seasonal standards. “We’ve been talking about this for months,” he says. “It’s August and we’re talking about Christmas songs, and I’m listening to Christmas album after Christmas album. You feel like everybody is on the same wavelength now. I don’t feel crazy as opposed to listening to Christmas songs in August.” Omaha Symphony Resident Conductor Ernest Richardson fesses up to listening to Christmas music in the off-season, but points out the long planning process is necessary to make a show with so many components work. "It is the show with the largest number of moving parts,” Richardson says. “In order for that to all work, we start working on it in January or February. I’ll start working on the next Christmas show in January or February coming up.” The process starts with choosing “central roles,” such as directors and choreographers. Soon after, Richardson heads to New York City and joins the directors to audition a pre-selected group of 20-30 singers. “We move from a classical presentation to standard holiday songs to a jazzy presentation to a Broadway presentation,” Richardson says. “It takes a tremendous flexibility in singing.” In the spring, the cast is finalized and the show is built around it, but also specially tailored to the Omaha audience. “We’re the resident orchestra here,” Richardson says of the Omaha Symphony. “We are able to craft programs that really fit our community as opposed to another organization that comes in and does a show here.” Richardson says that by September, the show is pretty much put together, with a few modifications still to be made for the Omaha audience. The directors and choreographers start working on those details in the fall, and finally, in early December, rehearsals start in New York then move to Omaha. Even though it’s been 11 months in the making, there’s not a lot of extra time in the planning process for Christmas with the Symphony. “There’s really no room for errors, especially by the time everyone is working in Omaha,” Richardson says. “Everyone has to be ready to go. It’s about implementing.” Returning this year to Richardson’s cast is Broadway veteran Peter Lockyer, who first participated in Christmas with the Symphony last year. Despite the nearly Arctic temperatures and snowfall of late 2009, Lockyer had an overwhelmingly positive experience in the show. “The show is so thematically consistent,” he says. “It is about the Christmas spirit and family. It’s not about being a star on stage. You have the ensemble feeling. We all felt there wasn’t an individual spotlight or pressure. You just feel the spirit and go with it. That’s what draws me back.” Last year, Lockyer performed “Ave Maria” in Latin, with his part doubled on the violin. This year, he takes on “Gesu Bambino” in Italian. “Oftentimes, you sing in another language and you don’t feel as though it’s accessible for the audience,“ he says. “Everyone in Omaha was responsive to ‘Ave Maria’ in Latin.” “Gesu Bambino” is Lockyer’s primary solo performance, for which he’s backed by a chorus, as he was last year. “They (the Omaha Symphony) hire an enormous chorus there. It was so great to hear last year. I will be singing with them. In the spirit of the season, singing a seasonal song like that will be fantastic.” The lineup includes some fun, catchy, sometimes overlooked songs, too. This year’s program includes a tune that was once a hit for Bing Crosby and has been remade by everyone from the Rat Pack to the Cheetah Girls. “Then we do some fun numbers, like ‘Marshmallow World,’” Lockyer says.” Some numbers will feel like fully operatic singing, then we move on to some swing. Their program is evenly distributed. We end up singing a lot of quartet stuff and some jazzy numbers.” Even though the cast is working, Christmas with the Symphony is so powerful, the performers get caught up in the season, just like the audience. “I got in the Christmas spirit so easily there just by seeing everyone dressed up and smiling,” Lokcyer says. “And the live reindeer — how cool is that? How can you not get in the Christmas spirit?” Christmas with the Symphony is Dec. 17-19, at the Holland Center, 1200 Douglas St. Show times are Fri. at 8 p.m., Sat. at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m., and Sun. at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Tickets are $10-$15, and available via 345.0606 or omahasymphony.org.

posted at 11:04 pm
on Wednesday, December 15th, 2010

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