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New arrangements of old favorites keeps Holiday Pops fresh

| Thursday, Dec. 7, 2017, 12:39 p.m.
The Highmark Holiday Pops concerts feature the Pittsburgh Symphony and the Mendelssohn Choir.
Pittsburgh Symphony
The Highmark Holiday Pops concerts feature the Pittsburgh Symphony and the Mendelssohn Choir.
Baritone Christopher Sanders will play Santa, and leave the stage with a cameraman in tow to interview children in the audience at the Holiday Pops concerts.
Wade H. Massie
Baritone Christopher Sanders will play Santa, and leave the stage with a cameraman in tow to interview children in the audience at the Holiday Pops concerts.

Conductor Andres Franco had an extra long holiday shopping list this year because, in addition to selecting presents for family and friends, he's leading the Pittsburgh Symphony's Highmark Holiday Pops concerts and had to choose the musical gifts that will fill the program.

And while his options weren't as numerous as if he searched Amazon, he had many more appealing options than could fit in a two-hour concert.

Franco will conduct vocal soloists, the Mendelssohn Choir and the Pittsburgh Symphony in eight performances of Highmark Holiday Pops Dec. 8 to 17 at Pittsburgh's Heinz Hall.

The symphony's resident conductor grew up in Bogota, Colombia, singing traditional carols. “Everyone in the family, whatever their singing voices, would take a part and sing,” he recalls.

Franco moved to the United States in 2000 and has since conducted many holiday concerts. Singing Christmas repertoire in English is second nature to him now.

Traditions provided the starting point for the conductor in programming the concerts.

“You can't do these concerts with the ‘Hallelujah Chorus.' We also do Marvin Hamlisch's ‘Chanukah Lights.' I always tend to include Leroy Anderson's ‘Sleigh Ride' and of course the traditional singalong to give everyone an opportunity to be part of the concert,” he says.

Some of his choices combine many familiar tunes in a single piece. Jim Stephenson's Holiday Overture will feature the orchestra playing eight familiar Christmas and Chanukah pieces in as many minutes. Some deserve more than to be in a medley, such as Irving Berlin's “White Christmas” and Franz Gruber's “Silent Night.”

Stephenson also created an arrangement called “Wassail, Wassail, All Over the Tuba.”

“It's a fun take on an old Christmas carol that I hope will put a smile on people's faces,” says Craig Knox, the symphony's principal tuba. “It's basically a theme and variations on a song about eating and drinking and being festive and merry during this season. It's a whimsical account which starts with the simple version and gets more and more raucous leading to a funk waltz with a jazz bass line and cadenzas which span the whole range of the instrument.”

One of the vocal soloists will bring some personal relevance to one of her songs, according to Franco.

“Vanessa Campagna auditioned for Marvin Hamlisch, he sort of discovered her. Now she is living in Nashville as a singer and songwriter. She'll be singing, ‘I'll Be Home for Christmas,'” the conductor says.

No Holiday Pops would be complete without one of the Pittsburgh Symphony's non-musical traditions, the Santa Cam. Baritone Christopher Sanders will play Santa, and leave the stage with a cameraman in tow to interview children in the audience.

Mark Kanny is a Tribune-Review contributng writer.

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