Christmas may still be a few weeks away, but Houston Symphony is getting started early with Houston Symphony's Very Merry POPS. Michael Krajewski, the beloved former principal POPS conductor, will be joined by local vocalist Chelsea Cymone along with the orchestra at Jones Hall for a joyous romp through holiday tunes December 11 - 13 and 18 - 20.
All the holiday favorites are in the lineup: “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” “Feliz Navidad,” “O Holy Night,” and “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” plus more. The concert will last approximately one hour, and it's an hour that Krajewski promises will be packed with enough joy to last the entire season.
"That hour will be packed full of holiday music. My main goal is to have a lot of traditional Christmas songs and carols and to have it be very spirited and uplifting because that’s what everyone is looking for right now," he said. "My goal is to leave everyone with a positive, upbeat feeling about the holidays."
The holiday season for 2020, as everyone knows by this point, will be demonstrably different than years past, but that isn't stopping the orchestra from presenting music under different circumstances. Thankfully, the skilled conductor and a handful of music arrangers were ahead of the curve.
"First, I had a new challenge that the orchestra would be a little bit smaller, the instrumentation would be smaller, and there wouldn’t be a chorus. That means a lot of music from past years wouldn’t work with this size of an orchestra. It was one of those 'making lemonade out of lemons' moments," he said.
"I started looking around and doing research, and some nice music presented itself to me, and next thing I knew I had more than enough to choose from. It’s still the traditional carols, but they are different arrangements that are really enjoyable," he continued. "Also, there are some really good arrangers I know who were anticipating that orchestras would need pieces for smaller orchestras, so they were already making arrangements of Christmas music in anticipation. These arrangers really came to our rescue. Instead of having a piece written for a full orchestra, they wrote something customized for the orchestra that I have, so it’s going to sound great."
One special treat is that local vocalist Chelsea Cymone will sing during parts of the program. She has performed several times with Houston Symphony, most recently in 2019 for the Fourth of July concert. She says that she has been rehearsing and preparing for every single detail in expectation of her big moment on stage.
"The first thing I do is I get all the information I need to prepare for the concert. I get the music, the arrangements, and I listen to previous recording from other singers. I practice, practice, practice," she said. "I prepare my looks, my gowns, my performance attire — up to an including the earrings — so that I will present the Christmas spirit with my image."
Even though this year's arrangements will be slightly different than the ones audiences might be used to, Cymone feels she's ready for this year's presentation, thanks to a little help with an accompanist. She specifically makes time to rehearse with an accompanist before joining the orchestra for full rehearsals so that she can learn the nuances of the new arrangements. And, like most other performers, Cymone finds reason to celebrate during this extraordinarily odd year.
"I will say that this COVID-19 experience has put a lot of things in perspective in terms of creating, being an artist, and performing. The biggest thing it put into perspective is to take advantage of every opportunity given to you. You never know when something like this might happen again and we have to shut down. I’m so looking forward to getting back to the stage," she said. "We’ve been through a lot this past year, and people deserve the holiday cheer the symphony provides every year. I’m honored to be asked to join this experience."
Cymone's thoughts ring true. 'Tis the season to celebrate, socially distanced or otherwise.
Houston Symphony's Very Merry POPS plays 8 p.m. December 11 and 12; 2:30 p.m. December 13; 8 p.m. December 18; 2:30 and 8 p.m. December 19; 2:30 p.m. December 20 at Jones Hall, 615 Louisiana. The Saturday performances are available via livestream. For information, visit houstonsymphony.org or call 713-224-7575. $20.