Ballet has “The Nutcracker.” Theater can count on “A Christmas Carol.” And “The Messiah” stands as a holiday staple for choruses. But the symphonic world does not have a similarly tried-and-true work that can serve as an artistic anchor during the yuletide. But that has not stopped the Chicago Symphony Orchestra from building its own holiday traditions by presenting a lineup that keeps Orchestra Hall abuzz and provides a variety of ways to celebrate the season.
From Thanksgiving weekend through Dec. 23, patrons may choose from seven different programs, including several that emphasize families and festiveness and encompass Christmas carols and holiday songs from around the globe. The most prominent of these holiday offerings is the the CSO’s “Merry, Merry Chicago!,” which debuted last year and is back for its second installment with six performances from Dec. 16 through Dec. 23 (one more than last season).
This family-friendly program retains certain essential ingredients from year to year, including a sing-along of cherished carols and an appearance by Santa Claus. This year’s edition also will feature vocalist Ashley Brown, best known for originating the role of Mary Poppins on Broadway, and the 160-member Chicago Children’s Choir.
Along with the premiere of “Merry, Merry Chicago!” in 2015, the CSO also introduced annual screenings of a holiday film accompanied by the orchestra performing the movie’s score live. The CSO first ventured into the realm of movie music in 2001, with performances of Charlie Chaplin’s “City Lights.” The success of that film/orchestra event led to the launch in 2004-05 of a series now called CSO at the Movies, which has become one of the orchestra’s most popular offerings.
For the first of its holiday films, which are presented in addition to the CSO at the Movies lineup, the orchestra screened “Home Alone” and drew near sell-out houses. This year, the CSO will present “It’s a Wonderful Life,” Frank Capra’s 1946 classic tale of a small-town dreamer who needs the help of his guardian angel when his life suddenly seems hopeless. Guest conductor Justin Freer and the orchestra will perform on Dec. 9-11 the original version of Dimitri Tiomkin’s score, including sections that were cut by Capra and never heard by moviegoers.
Another cinema classic, Steven Spielberg’s “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” (1982), will open this season’s CSO at the Movies series on Nov. 25. (Two additional non-subscription performances Nov. 26-27. While not a Christmas movie per se, this beloved 1982 sci-fi fantasy offers a diverting way to get the holiday season started. Directed by Steven Spielberg, it tells the story of a lost extra-terrestrial who is stranded on earth and needs the help of a 10-year-old boy and his friends to get home. Conductor Richard Kaufman and the symphony will present accompanying live performances of John Williams’ Academy Award-winning score.
The other holiday offerings:
- “Handel’s Royal Fireworks,” Dec. 1-3. Handel’s famed “Messiah” is not part of this symphony program, but a selection of the great baroque composer’s other masterworks are featured on this program, including his spirited “Music for the Royal Fireworks.” Joining guest conductor Nicholas Kraemer are the Chicago Symphony Chorus and soprano Amanda Forsythe, whose interpretations of Handel are particularly esteemed.
- “A Chanticleer Christmas,” Dec. 6-7: Chanticleer, the San Francisco-based, all-male a cappella ensemble, will return to the Fourth Presbyterian Church, 126 E. Chestnut St., for its 16th annual yuletide engagement in Chicago. The Grammy Award-winning chorus will perform Christmas music from around the world and across the centuries.
- Chicago Symphony Orchestra Brass, Dec. 14: This is also not, strictly speaking, a Christmas concert, but this annual offering always takes place in December and brass has long been associated with the holidays. The orchestra’s internationally renowned brass musicians will perform familiar and not-so-familiar masterworks written or transcribed for their gleaming, big-voiced instruments.
- Vienna Boys Choir, Dec. 20: Not just one of the world’s oldest choral groups, it is also among the best known. Like Chanticleer, this group of vocal boy wonders will back for its annual holiday stop in Chicago, performing a program not surprisingly titled “Christmas in Vienna.”
All in all, the symphony’s smorgasbord of seasonal presentations provides no shortage of ways to pay tribute to the season, keep the kids (and visiting grandparents) engaged and enjoy some joyous music from past and present.
Complete holiday programming information is available at cso.org/holidays.