Claire Nowak

Holiday Fare for Kids From One to 92

Three diverse MSO performances capture spirit of the season

By - Dec 3rd, 2014 10:39 am
Francesco Lecce-Chong

Francesco Lecce-Chong

Acrobats, Broadway stars and children’s books don’t have much in common, but all are main components of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra’s three upcoming holiday shows. The orchestra is purposely going for more diversity in content this season.

“It’s up to us to provide the variety that we can, not just ‘The Messiah,’ not just pops, but the whole structure of what Christmas can bring,” says MSO associate conductor Francesco Lecce-Chong.

So bring on, for starters, Cirque Musica Holiday, a high-flying, mind-boggling acrobatic production set to lively holiday music, performed tonight. The entertainment group, Cirque Musica, performs classic cirque feats with acrobats, strongmen and contortionists. Meanwhile, MSO plays a variety of accompaniments, including “Let It Go” from “Frozen,” John Williams’ “Flight to Neverland” and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Waltz of the Flowers.”

Lecce-Chong will conduct. He’s a little nervous, considering that he can’t see the performers while conducting—he faces the back of the stage the entire show—but he is excited MSO is attempting something it’s never done before.

“(The show) literally covers every kind of genre of music an orchestra can play,” he says.

On Dec. 6, MSO teams up with the Milwaukee Children’s Choir for an orchestrated retelling of the classic Christmas tale, “The Polar Express.” During the 20-minute piece, baritone Ryan Milstead acts as the narrator, half-singing, half-reading the text from the original book. The 60 singers in the Children’s Choir join Milstead in song and supply narrative lines from other characters in the story. Those featured songs are not from the soundtrack of the 2004 animated film starring Tom Hanks, which is only similar to the MSO’s program in plot. Slides with the book’s original artwork will be projected behind the musicians.

The show is part of MSO’s family series, which includes several shows throughout the season aimed at kids and their parents. But the effort and talent from the Milwaukee Children’s Choir puts it on par with the orchestra’s regular season performances. When Lecce-Chong, who is also conducting this work, started rehearsing with the choir and its artistic director Marco Antonio Melendez, the young singers had already memorized the entire score.

“I have no idea how they pull this off,” Lecce-Chong says. “I’ve worked with them once before, and I’m always amazed at how well-prepared these kids are. … I wish I was like that when I was their age.”

Since Chris Van Allsburg’s story is familiar to many of the musicians—it was Leece-Chong’s favorite Christmas book as a child—“The Polar Express” was a clear choice for the program.

“Every kid at some point goes through a phase with ‘The Polar Express,’ so we wanted to take something the kids can really relate to,” Lecce-Chong says.

The relatively new orchestration offers a different way to experience the story in a way that Lecce-Chong calls “the workshop equivalent of ‘The Messiah.’” It has the characteristics of a cantata, telling a narrative through orchestration, a chorus and solos. Lecce-Chong considers it more on the level of a standard classical program because of the seriousness of the music.

“It’s giving the kids a real concert experience,” he says, “a serious piece of music …like ‘The Messiah,’ but a little shorter and it’s a story the kids are already going to be really excited about.”

Ashley Brown.

Ashley Brown.

MSO’s “Under the Mistletoe with Ashley Brown,” opening Dec. 5, offers a different type of Christmas spirit. For this annual pops concert, the orchestra, under the director of Steven Reineke, and the MSO Chorus play traditional Christmas carols and popular hits like “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” “Where Are You, Christmas?” and plenteous holiday medleys with Broadway veteran, Ashley Brown.  Brown originated the title role in the stage musical Mary Poppins and has performed with numerous orchestras throughout North America.

Though “Under the Mistletoe” is a full two-hour performance compared to the 45-minute family program, Lecce-Chong thinks both will appeal to similar audiences. Those in attendance should warm up their vocal chords for guaranteed sing-alongs, which are as fun for the musicians as they are for audiences.

“It’s the one time of year we can actually do that with everyone,” Lecce-Chong says, “and it is a great way to connect the community with the orchestra.”

Cirque Musica Holiday – 7:30 p.m. Dec. 3
Under the Mistletoe – 8 p.m. Dec. 5 & 6 and 2:30 p.m. Dec. 7
The Polar Express – 2:30 p.m. Dec. 6

All shows are at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts. Tickets are available online or by calling 414-291-7605.

Festival City Symphony’s Holiday Storytime

Holiday Storytime, the next installment of the Pajama Jamboree series, features Newsradio 620 WTMJ broadcaster John Mercure. But instead of reading Wisconsin’s Afternoon News, Mercure will read “Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus” and “’Twas the Night Before Christmas.” Festival City Symphony will provide seasonal background music, including Krogstad’s “Christmas at the Movies” and Anderson’s “Sleigh Ride.” All in attendance are encouraged to bring a nonperishable food donation for Hunger Task Force and their singing voices for an audience sing-along.

7 p.m. Dec. 10 at the Bradley Pavilion of the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts. This is a free event geared toward children and their families.

Cantare Chorale

As Mother Nature prepares the city for winter, Milwaukee community choir Cantare Chorale persists in the spirit of fall. The choir hosts its 2014 Fall/Winter Concert this Saturday under the direction of Lani Knutson. The group of 40 to 50 singers will exercise its repertoire of sacred and secular music.

7:30 p.m. Dec. 6 at the South Milwaukee Performing Arts Center. Tickets cost $10 with $8 student and senior discounts. They are available online or by calling 414-766-5049.

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