Highmark Holiday Pops is a beautiful tradition
The most often performed Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra program every year is the Highmark Holiday Pops.
Heinz Hall is decked out for the season, including a large and generously decorated Christmas tree. The musical programs have new features each year, in the same way tree ornaments are freshened each season.
Daniel Meyer will conduct vocal soloists, the Mendelssohn Choir and Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra at eight Highmark Holiday Pops concerts from Dec. 14-23.
The conductor, who is returning to the Holiday Pops after several years absence, has led countless performances of Christmas music here and elsewhere, but his outlook changed “dramatically” four and a half years ago when his son Leo was born.
“I get to look at all of this scenery with fresh eyes and hear all of this music with fresh ears,” he says. “When Leo was too young to know who Clara is, he knew which tracks he liked best on the CDs of ‘The Nutcracker.”
Three dances from the ballet are part of the Holiday Pops program, and will be performed by students from the pre-professional division of Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre School. Since shortly before Leo was born Meyer has been conducting three performances of the ballet with the Westmoreland Symphony in Greensburg to accompany the Laurel Ballet. He loves the music so much that conducting multiple performances remain a joy for him.
The conductor programmed the concert bearing in mind the lessons of the Broadway and film composer Marvin Hamlisch, who was principal Pops conductor here when Meyer first came to the symphony.
“Keep things moving along. Keep things interesting and varied. Pacing is a big issue for creating a quasi-variety show for a pops concert,” Meyer says were some of the lessons he learned from Hamlisch.
“The cast is as important as the program,” he says. “It starts with the incredible musicians of the orchestra and the voices of the Mendelssohn Choir. We’re bring back Broadway’s Doug LaBrecque and Pops violinist Jenny Oaks Baker. In creating the program, I look for ways to mix and match elements that are consistent from year to year with ones that will make it a new experience even if you’ve made the Holiday Pops a tradition in your family.”
Features of the Holiday Pops that recur every year include a sing-along, the Santa Cam (during which children in the audience are interviewed by Santa and shows on large screens on both sides of the stage, “Nutcracker” dances and the “Hallelujah Chorus.”
Meyer loves the sing-along as much as the audience. “I remember growing up when people still did carols door to door, but I haven’t experienced that in my adulthood,” says the conductor.
The fresh sounds of Randol Alan Bass’s “Gloria” will open the concert.
“It’s like Leonard Bernstein meets Christmas,” says Meyer. “It has all the sassiness of ‘Chichester Psalms,’ with mixed meters and dancing rhythms, as well as brilliant and bright writing for the brass. It’s fun right on the cusp between serious and fun.”
Meyer will also present a new version of Hamlisch’s “Chanukah Lights,” with a more intimate tone than the original arrangement.
Mark Kanny is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.