Kevin Mcmahon | music director and conductor

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November 26, 2018

December 8, 2018 Program Notes

Christmas Treasures, 2018

The SSO has been offering Holiday concerts since its second season, when a “Community Christmas Concert” was given on December 16, 1919, at Eagles Hall on New York Avenue, a joint venture with the Sheboygan Choral Union. Since then, during most Decembers, the SSO has performed in venues large and small, from the Armory in the late 1940s to the theatre of the John Michael Kohler Arts Center, where in 1978 William Block led a Saturday matinee “Shoppers Special” for gift-seekers along 8th Street to take a break.

Since 1994 the Sheboygan Symphony Chorus has joined the SSO in annual concerts, alternating between Handel’s Messiah and a more pops-style “Christmas Treasures” concert. For tonight’s concert, part of our 100th anniversary celebration, Maestro Kevin McMahon has combined elements of both programs, with special emphasis upon the Angels’ message to the Shepherds, “Peace on Earth”—and, on the secular side, some musical portrayals of favorite Yuletide vehicles.


Texan Randol Alan Bass (b. 1953) composed his Gloria for Skitch Henderson and the New York Pops in 1990. It is a setting of the “Gloria” section of the Catholic Mass, beginning with the words of the Angels to the Shepherd on the night of Christ’s birth, according to Luke 2:14: in Latin, Gloria in excelsis Deo, et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis; or “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men” in the words of the King James Bible. This jubilant work has been an SSO/SSC favorite, performed in 2010 and 2014.


“Sleigh Ride,” also called “Winter Night,” was originally a piano piece, which the English composer played for Edvard Grieg, on the latter’s own piano in his home in Bergen, Norway, Christmas Eve, 1897. Delius orchestrated it three years later, but it did not become popular until the conductor Thomas Beecham championed it long after the composer’s death.

GERALD FINZI: In Terra Pax: Christmas Scene

In Terra Pax, one of Finzi’s last compositions, is based upon a poem by Robert Bridges, “Noel: Christmas Eve, 1913.” The poem describes hearing church bells ring across a hilly countryside at midnight on a clear, starry Christmas Eve: they remind the poet of the words of the angels to the shepherds, “Who heard music in the fields/and marveling could not tell/Whether it were angels/or the bright stars singing.” The poem in turn reminded Finzi of a very similar experience he had as a young man in the Cotswolds.

Finzi sets the midnight scene with a quiet orchestral introduction in which just a hint of “The First Nowell” can be heard. Next, a solo baritone sings the first verse of Bridges’ poem. A solo soprano and the chorus take over for the Gospel of Luke’s telling of the Angels appearing to the Shepherds. In the final section we return to the present time as the baritone sings the last verse of Bridges’ poem.

ALAN SILVESTRI: Polar Express Suite

Alan Silvestri (b. 1950) is noted for his contributions to fantasy and action films (such as The Avengers and Night at the Museum) and for having scored all of Robert Zemeckis’ films since 1984’s Romancing the Stone, including Back to the Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Forrest Gump and The Polar Express. Chris Van Allsburg’s 1985 children’s book was the inspiration for Zemeckis’ 2004 motion-capture animated film about a young boy who rides the Express to the North Pole and is given the present of a bell from the harness of one of Santa’s reindeer.

GEORGE FREDERICK HANDEL: two choruses from Messiah: “For Unto Us a Child is Born” and “Glory to God in the Highest”

Though written to be performed during the Easter season, Messiah does contain enough references to the Nativity Story for it to have become more of a Christmas favorite. The SSO first performed Messiah complete (Parts I and II) in 1983, led by Manuel Prestamo, with the JMKAC Oratorio Chorus, as part of that year’s subscription series, The just-formed Sheboygan Symphony Chorus, prepared by Janet Herrick and conducted by Guy Victor Bordo, began its semi-annual performances in 1994.

“For Unto Us a Child Is Born” moves from its delicately joyful opening line to the magnificent declamation of “Wonderful! Counselor! The Mighty God! The Everlasting Father! The Prince of Peace!” After we are introduced to the Shepherds, the next chorus is a setting of the Angels’ message: “Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth, good will towards men!” Handel has saved his trumpets for their first appearance in this chorus, and he makes great contrast of high and low notes to represent “the highest” and “earth.”


GIAN CARLO MENOTTI: Suite from Amahl and the Night Visitors

Amahl and the Night Visitors was the first opera to be commissioned for television. It was broadcast by the NBC Opera Theatre on Christmas Eve, 1951, conducted by Thomas Schippers, and for many years was broadcast live, and later on tape, each Christmas by NBC. The one-act drama is about a poor disabled boy who is visited by the Three Kings on their way to the Nativity.

Menotti arranged a short suite of orchestral music from Amahl, consisting of a gentle, somewhat melancholy “Introduction”; the Prokofiev-flavored “March” of the Three Kings into the hut of Amahl and his mother; and a charming “Shepherd’s Dance,” which begins with the intertwined voices of oboes and gets faster and faster as the shepherd boys and girls dance for the Magi. Tnight’s performance offers an additional moment from the opera, in between the March and the Dance: the a capella chorus “Emily, Emily,” sung by the shepherds as they arrive to greet the Magi.


John Debney (b. 1956) has written music for television animated series, video games, Disneyland attractions, and films as different as Cutthroat Island, The Princess Diaries and The Passion of the Christ. Elf (2003) is about an overgrown Santa’s elf who leaves the North Pole for New York City after he realizes he is actually a human being. The suite, arranged by Victor Pesavento and featuring a wordless chorus, opens with the bustle of Santa’s Elf Shop and continues with tender music suggesting the loneliness of Buddy, the human elf, and finally the warmth of the Christmas season.

KEN DARBY: ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas

Ken Darby’s Christmas credentials include his Ken Darby Singers’ backup of Bing Crosby in the original 1942 recording of “White Christmas.” Darby was an award-winning composer and arranger for movies, radio and television, and his vocal quartet The King’s Men was heard and sometimes seen in many Western movies. His musical version of Clement Moore’s “A Visit from St. Nicholas” was written for the Fibber McGee and Molly radio show in the 1940s.


A Christmas carol sing-along has often been a feature of SSO holiday concerts, including the very first in 1919—though on that occasion it was at the very beginning of the concert. Dan Groeller’s arrangement of seven carols has in recent seasons been a favorite with “Christmas Treasures” audiences.


“Sleigh Ride” was begun in 1946 (reportedly during a summer heat wave) but wasn’t recorded until 1949, a hit for Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops. Though a version for the Andrews Sisters was created and recorded in 1950, the original instrumental arrangement reigns supreme with its jaunty rhythm, jazzy passages, sleigh bells, whiplash, and trumpet whinny.

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