If December represents “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” then Symphony Center is the place to be. From Thanksgiving weekend through Dec. 23, the halls will be alive with the sound of holiday music, with six different programs to make the season bright.
The most prominent of these holiday offerings is the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s yuletide revue “Merry, Merry Chicago!,” back for its third run, with six performances from Dec. 15 through Dec. 23. This family-friendly program retains essential components from year to year, including a sing-along of carols and an appearance by Santa Claus. Once again, the featured vocalist will be Ashley Brown, best known for originating the role of Mary Poppins on Broadway, and the 160-member Chicago Children’s Choir, led by Josephine Lee. Also returning is guest conductor Emil de Cou.
Along with the premiere of “Merry, Merry Chicago!” in 2015, the CSO also introduced annual screenings of a holiday film, accompanied by the CSO performing the movie’s score live. The CSO 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” (1990) and drew sell-out houses. This year, “Home Alone” returns for three concerts Dec. 9-10, with guest conductor Richard Kaufman leading the Members of the CSO in John Williams’ Oscar-nominated score. Also appearing will be the children’s chorus Anima-the Young Singers of Chicago, led by artistic director Emily Ellsworth.
Another cinema classic, “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” (2001), the first of the blockbuster film series based on the best-selling young adult novels by J.K. Rowling, will open this season’s CSO at the Movies series on Nov. 24. There are two non-subscription performances Nov. 25-26, but all three dates are virtually sold out. Back on the podium will be Richard Kaufman, leading the CSO in another Oscar-nominated score by John Williams. While not a Christmas movie per se, “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” offers a diverting way to get the holiday season started. Directed by Chris Columbus, it stars Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint as the young wizards, guided in the magical arts by a cast of British cinema icons such as Maggie Smith, Richard Harris, John Hurt and Alan Rickman.
Other holiday offerings at Symphony Center (and beyond):
- Vienna Boys Choir, Nov. 25: Not just one of the world’s oldest choral groups, it is also among the best known. Like Chanticleer (see below), this group of boy wonder vocalists will back for its annual holiday stop in Chicago, performing a program titled “Christmas in Vienna.”
- “A Chanticleer Christmas,” Dec. 5-6: Chanticleer, the San Francisco-based, all-male a cappella ensemble, will return to the Fourth Presbyterian Church, 126 E. Chestnut St., for its 17th 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. 20: 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 acclaimed brass musicians will perform familiar and not-so-familiar masterworks written or transcribed for their gleaming, big-voiced instruments.
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.
TOP: Santa Claus and vocalist Ashley Brown celebrate the season in “Merry, Merry Chicago!” | ©Todd Rosenberg Photography 2016