The atmosphere was cheerful and the show was a success on Friday December 17th, when Symphoria returned to the Crouse-Hinds Concert Hall, performing at ‘house’ for the first time since March 2020. ‘Home for the Holidays’, the orchestra’s popular December Show, bringing together a rich palette of talent and a festive program of seasonal music.
Last year, COVID-19 protocols only allowed a live concert, with musicians behind transparent barriers in Inspiration Hall in Syracuse, and Pops’ principal conductor Sean O’Loughlin across the mainland in his Californian home. This year, with travel restrictions and relaxed social distancing, Symphoria has scheduled the holiday concert for the Civic Center. In light of spikes in illness spurred by COVID-19 variants, however, a last-minute decision eliminated intermission and cut a few chunks of the schedule. After showing proof of vaccination or a negative test, the audience remained masked, and a modest crowd on Friday meant plenty of room for distancing.
Despite the changes to the program, many favorite winter-themed tunes were there for traditionalists – “Deck The Halls”, “White Christmas”, “Twelve Days of Christmas” and a mix of Hanukkah songs. But, artists have also performed new music and presented familiar music in new ways.
Sean O’Loughlin’s orchestral composition “Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus” is the most enchanting in the new music category. He wrote the article to accompany the reading of the most reprinted editorial in English: Francis Church’s 1897 Response to 8-year-old Virginia O’Hanlon. Her letter to the editor expresses doubts about Santa Claus, and she tells Church that her father said if she sees her in the New York Sun then it’s true.
The full accompaniment of O’Louglin’s orchestra provides a beautiful setting for a dramatic read of the famous editorial, which includes: “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. There is as sure as love, generosity and devotion do exist, and you know that they abound and give your life its highest beauty and joy. Guest artist Rachel Mulcahy read the letter from the young girl, then ceded the stage to the ideal reader of the editor’s response: Santa Claus himself.
Based in New York City, singer / violinist Mulcahy grew up in Liverpool and Skaneateles and received a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from SUNY Fredonia. She has performed solo and in musical theater productions across the East Coast, touring with “A Charlie Brown Christmas”, appearing on “Bright Star” with the Florida Studio Theater, and much more.
Mulcahy’s emotional interpretation of “I Dreamed a Dream” was his strongest piece. She played the role of Fantine in “Les Miserables”, and she told O’Loughlin that the song, which perfectly matches her range and timbre, is close to her heart. The multi-talented artist enriched the program with a violin performance on O’Loughlin’s arrangement of “A Celtic Carol”, and she sang a catchy tune on a novelty Irish song, O’Loughlin jokes, which was only heard around midnight throughout the Christmas period. – musical radios.
A meditatively beautiful interlude featured Robert Auler, piano, and Heidi Hoffman, solo cello, on the expressive opening bars of “Stille Nacht”. Auler’s sensitive interpretation of the long lyrical passage was in perfect balance with Hoffman’s dramatically poignant cello. Beautiful orchestral color emerged as other instruments were introduced to the Calvin Custer-inspired arrangement of the beloved Christmas Carol.
The Syracuse Pops Chorus, celebrating the 10th anniversary of its founding as an independent and voluntary choral group, under the direction of Lou Lemos, performed several selections. The singers demonstrated their talent beautifully on Kirby Shaw’s four-part acapella arrangement of “The Christmas Song”, colloquially known as “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire”. Numbering just under 100, the choir performed with masks, as did the musicians of Symphoria, to maximize safety.
As for making familiar tunes in a new way, look no further than O’Loughlin and the gang performing on perennial favorite, Anderson’s “Sleigh Ride”. It might be possible to do a holiday gig without this song, but so far we just don’t know. Over the years we’ve seen a variety of gadgets to bring it to life, but nothing quite like this version. O’Loughlin walked around the stage playing the clapper to mimic the sound of the sled driver’s whip, he danced a two-step with Mulcahy, and (spoiler alert) picked up a John Raschella trumpet to create a nasty imitation of the neighing of the horse . When not involved in Hijinx, Raschella is Symphoria’s principal trumpet and Robert C. Soderberg chair.
Symphoria audiences adore O’Loughlin, a musician from his hometown who grew up in Eastwood and graduated from Syracuse University. He set an upbeat tone at the start of the concert simply by welcoming people and adding, “It’s so good to be back,” a simple statement that drew applause before a note was played. And, he was right. Despite some microphone / sound issues and the adaptations needed to accommodate pandemic protocols, the Pops Holiday Concert was a great way to come home with the professional Central New York Orchestra.
Which: Symphoria, with Syracuse Pops Chorus and Rachel Mulcahy
What: “Home for the holidays”
Or: Crouse-Hinds Theater, 421 Montgomery St., Syracuse
When: Revised December 17; performances continue on December 18 at 1:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.
Tickets: From $ 20 (free for children under 18) in person. Live broadcast option available at $ 25, individual or $ 50 with family for the Saturday show at 7:30 p.m. only
To buy: 315-299-5598 or experiencesymphoria.org
Operating time: About 90 minutes; no intermission
Covid Protocols: Proof of vaccination or recent negative test and masks for all; check the Symphoria website for updates