Pasadena Symphony brings the holidays home for its listeners
By Bridgette M. Redman

The wistful, nostalgic phrase of “home for the holidays” has taken on an all-new meaning in 2020, as everyone is staying home rather than traveling to see family.

The Pasadena Symphony is taking that phrase a step further by beaming one of its most beloved holiday traditions into people’s homes for free this holiday season.

“Our annual holiday candlelight concert is the most sought-after holiday tradition in the community,” said Pasadena Symphony CEO Lora Unger. “We have sold out this concert since its inception in 2013 and it is so popular. We do two in a day. It is a community treasure.”

They presented several concerts digitally last fall and Unger said they couldn’t imagine cutting this concert from their slate. So, they reimagined it, keeping all the well-loved elements and calling it “Home for the Holidays.”

It will include, as always, the orchestra, a handbell ensemble and soloist, the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus, the Donald Brinegar Singers and well-known vocalist Lisa Vroman.

The concert will be available for free on the symphony’s YouTube channel and its website for 48 hours starting 4 p.m. Saturday, December 19.

“We really take on this beautiful journey that flows for a good 75 minutes,” Unger said. “It crosses different genres of popular music and holiday carols. It has something for everyone. The pace and dynamics of the concert is something that inspires everyone this year. We decided this year to make it free for the entire community given the hardship everyone is going through right now with the COVID stay-at-home orders.”

Concert is the same, but different

Concert organizers are including all the elements people have come to expect. But music director David Lockington said the experience will be different.

Everyone will have a front-row seat and will have the opportunity to get a closer look.

“The camera will provide a look inside the process of making music, which is a much more intimate one,” Lockington said.

“The camera reflects the drama of the music and ends up being another player in the creative process. We go through everything twice and we may edit a little bit, but we edit as little as possible.”

The candlelight concert is known for its processional, which Unger called an acrobatic feat. The bell choir danced in the aisle while performing and the audience went on a journey during the concert.

“A priority for me was to maintain, as much as we can, the integrity of what we would normally be doing with our candlelight concert,” Unger said.

“The groups we always bring together to make the magic happen, we are bringing together. Lisa Vroman is a superstar Broadway singer who happens to be local. She is a favorite of the Pasadena Symphony audiences and is known as one of the finest voices of Broadway.”

Capturing the music safely

The vocalists will not perform live. The singers will create their sound files and send them to the production director, who will merge the files into a honeycombed screen. Audiences will see a digitally remastered performance of the choruses.

The handbell choirs are also being shot separately.

The live elements are the orchestra—which will perform masked and physically distanced, without any wind players—with Vroman as the vocalist.

“We have some really great surprises with some intimate holiday movements with Linda (Krantz, solo handbell artist) and David on cello and with the bells,” Unger said. “You’ll see David on your screen as a solo cellist and then the camera will contract, showing 70 singers on stage with the ensemble slowly growing. It will be a very dynamic concert.”

The use of the camera—and even the masks—are something that Lockington calls fascinating. He feels it creates a closer bond between the listener at their computer and the music that is separate from the live experience.

Lockington said masks help with the musicians’ self-consciousness.

“There is sort of an ego element that is taken away,” Lockington said.

“I quite like that, actually. It is a leveler. Everyone looks the same. You can’t project anything with your face, you can’t project how you are feeling about the music. You’re not communicating with your body as you are when you play for a live audience. What you’re doing is communicating just through the music and that is a very beautiful thing.”

Concert features Lockington on cello

One special moment in this year’s concert will involve Lockington performing on cello a melody he wrote for his granddaughter, Violet, just after she was born a few years ago.

Unger said audiences will want to cry, smile and dance simultaneously. Lockington will play it as a solo piece on the cello and then it will blossom into 70 singers singing “Silent Night.”

“The melody has a lovely, quietly joyful feel about it and I suddenly thought it sort of sounds like Christmas music—it was about the birth of a baby and I thought it could work for Christmas,” Lockington said.

“I did the usual little trick of flecking it with recognizable bits of Christmas carols, so ‘O, Come All Ye Faithful’ is in there, ‘Silent Night’ is in there. It will have a seasonal feel to it because of handbells, cello and piano.”

Other highlights include the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus singing John Lennon’s “Imagine,” pieces from the “Nutcracker Suite,” and Vroman belting “Ave Maria.”

Bringing holiday joy to Pasadena and beyond

“The thing I’m most excited about is continuing the tradition of what we do for the holiday candlelight concert,” Unger said.

“We are aiming to have people at home feel and experience this concert even remotely the way that they would sitting in their concert hall seats. It is our calling, our gift to the community. We’re not charging admission. Only about 2,000 people a year get to see this, and we are giving the world the opportunity to see it.”

While the concert is free, the symphony will take donations as it relies on the support and generosity of their patrons, especially during this time.

Unger hopes people will make a special occasion out of this concert, even though they are watching from home.

“I want people to feel inclined to dress up, have dinner, to make it a special event happening in their home,” Unger said.

“I think audiences need to feel there is a special event that they are attending to get through the monotony of this temporary, difficult situation we’re in. We’re all craving to feel that there is a special event we can attend. I want people to not feel isolated, to feel connected to their community in a way that is hard to feel connected to.”

It is important, she said, to remember the holidays are not canceled this year. People are just celebrating differently and in their homes. It’s something the symphony wants to help make special.

“If we can bring joy, that is our mission as a nonprofit and an orchestra and an arts institution,” Unger said. “We want to bring joyous experiences that inspire and make you feel good and bring you warmth and comfort.”

“Home for the Holidays”
4 p.m. Saturday, December 19, and for 48 hours afterward Pasadena Symphony and Pops YouTube Channel