A Tale of Holiday Pops

This week, as I’ve done every year since 1990 (with one notable exception*),  I’ll have my head, voice and heart immersed in the Grand Rapids Symphony’s annual Holiday Pops concerts, as part of the GR Symphony Chorus.  The Symphony, Chorus, Youth Chorus, Embellish Handbell Ensemble, baritone Justin Hopkins and conductor Bob Bernhardt come together for five shows (Thursday, & Friday nights, two shows on Saturday, a Sunday matinee) in DeVos Performance Hall.

This is always an enjoyable week for me — there’s nothing quite like knowing that the audience is already on your side!  Whether they’ve attended before or not, they’re looking forward to the familiar set pieces — a carol or two by British composer John Rutter, soundtrack excerpts from John Williams’ Home Alone, Santa coming onstage for some jokey byplay, Leroy Anderson’s swinging “Sleigh Ride”, and a big singalong.  It’s a time when our Chorus director, Dr. Pearl Shangkuan, reminds us that this is many folks’ only Symphony concert of the entire year — and our job is to blow them away, with the same precision and intensity we bring to Mozart, Bach or Mahler!

This isn’t to say the audience is only after a good time, with just the secular, sentimental side of the holidays.  Sacred carols are a major part of the mix every year (including the singalong), in solid arrangements by choral stars like Mack Wilberg, director of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.  And a few years back, the conductor decided to switch out Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” from the program’s closing spot (where it had been since at least 2003) in favor of  “White Christmas.”  This well-intentioned change lasted one show; instant feedback from that Thursday’s opening night crowd brought Handel back to the finale slot, where he’s remained ever since.

And Holiday Pops in Grand Rapids consistently means more than favorites and fluff; for example, this year the GR Symphony’s Youth Chorus premieres two new pieces by their accompanist and director.  Leah Ivory’s The Star brings tantalizing West African vocal and percussive traditions to the West Michigan concert stage; and Sean Ivory’s setting of a liturgical poem for Hanukkah, Ma’oz tsur, is dedicated to the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting victims, inspired further by the words of the nurse who treated the shooter:

I wanted him to feel compassion. I chose to show him empathy. I felt that the best way to honor his victims was for a Jew to prove him wrong. Besides, if he finds out I’m Jewish, does it really matter? The better question is, what does it mean to you?

Love. That’s why I did it. Love as an action is more powerful than words, and love in the face of evil gives others hope. It demonstrates humanity. It reaffirms why we’re all here. The meaning of life is to give meaning to life, and love is the ultimate force that connects all living beings. I could care less what [the shooter] thinks, but you, the person reading this, love is the only message I wish instill in you. If my actions mean anything, love means everything.

Love deeply. Love blindly. Love faithfully. Love selflessly. Love unexpectedly. Love without question. Love with every breath. Love so that even when the world seems as dark as it did in Pittsburgh, love casts light.

And Symphony Chorus gets in on the serious fun as well, performing the thrilling, highly syncopated setting of Gloria in Excelsis from Dan Forrest’s new multi-movement choral suite Lux – The Dawn from On High:

So, all in all, I’m thinking this should be another week to remember!  If you’re anywhere near Grand Rapids, Michigan, come on down to DeVos Performance Hall for a beautiful concert of holiday music that will furnish both high spirits and rich nourishment for your soul!  Details and tickets here.


— Rick Krueger

* I took a sabbatical from Symphony Chorus the year I got married.  My wife approved — but she also let me go back the next year!