There is no better way to ring in the season than with a visit to Symphony Center, and this year marks the beginning of a brand-new holiday tradition. “Merry, Merry Chicago,” a festive extravaganza debuting for five performances Dec. 18-23 at Orchestra Hall, features members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and special guests — more than 100 musicians in all — ringing in the season with beloved songs and surprises that are sure to delight the entire family.
“’Merry, Merry Chicago’ is a celebration of the music of this season, from beautiful traditional carols to new favorites,” says James Fahey, director of programming for Symphony Center Presents. “The intention with each selection on the program is to showcase the breadth of holiday music as performed by the wonderful musicians of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.”
The program is filled to the brim with music, ranging from sacred melodies to family favorites perfect for singing along. Each half of the program opens with the orchestra playing three seasonal showpieces including “Angels We Have Heard on High,” “The Little Drummer Boy” and Bizet’s rousing Farandole, led by celebrated pops conductor Stuart Chafetz.
The Midwest Young Artists: Voices Rising children’s choir joins in the fun, performing with the CSO for two selections: “This Christmastide,” a gorgeous carol originally written for opera star Jessye Norman, and “Jingle Bell Rock,” a popular classic that lets the infectious energy of the choir shine.
Audiences will not only be able to appreciate the music, but also lend their voices to cherished carols like “Joy to the World” and “The First Noel” — and of course, the CSO’s very own Christmas carol, “Christmas in Chicago.” Originally commissioned in 1996, the song is now in its 20th year as a cherished Chicago tradition. This year, composer Gary Fry composed new lyrics to mark the move of the city’s official Christmas tree from Daley Plaza to Millennium Park; it’s just the latest step in the song’s evolution as it continues to reflect the city’s ever-changing landscape.
As usual, Symphony Center will be decked out in all its finery, with decorations and special lighting that are hallmarks of the season. At each of the five performances, local musical groups will perform holiday songs in the lobby spaces of Orchestra Hall, so that the entire building is filled with Christmas cheer. Along with the musical merriment, expect some surprises, including a visit from a special guest from the North Pole.
“Merry, Merry Chicago” also welcomes The von Trapps as the guest artist for the revue’s five performances. This group of four singers — Sofia, Melanie, Amanda and August — are great-grandchildren of the iconic musical family made famous in the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic “The Sound of Music.” The group, known for its rich harmonies, returns to Symphony Center after making its debut with the vocal ensemble Pink Martini in March 2014.
For these concerts, the group has selected pieces that blend beloved tradition with new memories. In a nod to the past, The von Trapps are performing selections that have special meaning for them, such as “In Stiller Nacht,” a beautiful German carol by Johannes Brahms that the original von Trapp singers performed 50 years ago on their farewell tour. “The piece is a cappella, and it has the most fantastic and heartbreaking story, lyrics and harmonies,” says August von Trapp, the youngest member of the singing family. “Sometimes when we’re on tour, we’ll realize they had sung that song 50 years ago, on that same day that we are singing it today. That connection is an amazing feeling.”
Also featured on the program is is “Storm,” an original song that the group wrote a few years ago as a deliberate tribute to some of its favorite yuletide melodies. Notes August von Trapp, “It’s an a cappella piece that draws on something similar to ‘In Stiller Nacht.’ It comes from us, it comes from within. Every time we sing it on stage, it feels very good to speak our hearts.”
Besides these a cappella numbers, The von Trapps perform with the orchestra on “Carol of the Bells” and “Noel Nouvelet,” another von Trapp family favorite that August describes as simply “the most beautiful Christmas carol I think I ever have heard.”
The von Trapps also will sing two selections from “The Sound of Music,” “Edelweiss” and “The Lonely Goatherd,” as a nod to the family’s enduring musical legacy. “What’s lovely about singing the songs is that you can tell that people have a strong emotional connection. I have yet to run across someone who has bad memories or a negative reaction to songs from ‘The Sound of Music,’” says von Trapp with a laugh. “Being able to bring joy to people and being able to represent our family through such a public and meaningful interaction is pretty amazing.”
“Merry, Merry Chicago,” like its predecessor “Welcome, Yule!,” promises to be a can’t-miss experience for the entire family.
Maggie Berndt is a Chicago-based arts writer.
TOP: Santa takes the stage at last year’s “Welcome, Yule!” and he’ll return this season for “Merry, Merry, Chicago.” | Todd Rosenberg Photography