“For the holidays, you can’t beat home sweet home.”
That’s a familiar refrain these days for the folks at the Paramount Theatre in Cedar Rapids — and especially for the venue’s primary tenant, Orchestra Iowa.
“I’m still pinching myself,” says Maestro Tim Hankewich of Cedar Rapids, the orchestra’s musical director. “I don’t think it’s really going to sink in for at least another year. Like an instrument, it’s going to take at least a year or two for that facility to really hit its stride. We’re still discovering the full capabilities of that facility and how we can use it to maximum effect, and that’s going to be an ongoing learning process.”
That learning curve will take a giant leap this weekend with the return of the orchestra’s “Holiday Spectacular” at 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday.
When the Floods of 2008 forced the orchestra into smaller venues, the already-bulging “Holiday Pops” format of orchestra with singers and guests was divided into a classical holiday concert and a separate pops-oriented variety show with singing, dancing and acting threaded through a storyline.
Expansions and renovations to the Paramount stage allow for a return to the previous format, with improvements visible onstage and off.
- Orchestra Iowa's "Holiday Spectacular"
- Paramount Theatre
- 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday (12/15) and 2:30 p.m. Sunday (12/16)
- Tickets: $20 to $50 at the Orchestra Iowa Ticket Office, (319) 366-8203 or Orchestraiowa.org
- Information: Orchestraiowa.org
“Prior to flood, these holiday programs were extraordinarily difficult, because the (Paramount) stage was not large enough,” Hankewich says. “To fit the orchestra was next to impossible. The cramped backstage made it an incredible challenge to find space for everyone as they waited for their entrances and exits, and now it’s just gonna flow.”
“The Twelve Days of Christmas” has nothing on this cast: 70 Cedar Rapids Concert Choral singers, 80 orchestra musicians, 70 or 80 Discovery Chorus singers from the Orchestra Iowa School, 17 Espressivo Strings players from Iowa City’s Preucil School of Music, 12 bell choir ringers from St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in Cedar Rapids and several solo guests.
“We’re going to have a lot of people,” Hankewich says. “Actually, the exciting (thing) — what audiences don’t see — is the ballet of logistics of shepherding people on and offstage smoothly.”
While artistically, he had enjoyed dividing the classical and pop holiday music post-flood, he is satisfied with revisiting and revising the former format.
“It’s really difficult to pivot from the sacred to the secular — it really is,” he says. “I think I’ve found a pretty good balance for that. Because of the variety, you can bring in soloists, chorus and children’s chorus and the like. You can reach that fine balance between the two styles and yet still have a very elegant evening.”
The program will open with John Williams’ glimmering, larger-than-life “Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas” from the 1990 film “Home Alone.”
“It’s just this side of a fanfare,” says Fred Kiser, 43, of Ely, director of the Cedar Rapids Concert Chorale. “It’s a great concert opener.”
“Everything that John Williams writes is amazing,” says Hankewich, 45, “and the music from ‘Home Alone’ — that movie is how many years old now? It’s still just fantastic.”
Other pieces range from traditional carols like “Good King Wenceslas” and “O Come all Ye Faithful” to “Ave Maria” and “O Holy Night.”
New twists come with Hankewich’s new setting of “Yes Virginia, There is a Santa Claus” for orchestra and actor/readers; his arrangement of “O Holy Night,” featuring the orchestra, vocal soloist Kimberly Roberts from the Simpson College faculty in Indianola, Concert Chorale and Discovery Chorus; “Carol of the Bells,” which he calls a “Wagnerian, huge” arrangement with bell choir, orchestra and chorus; and “A Musicological Journey Through the 12 Days of Christmas.”
Hankewich says soprano soloist Roberts is going to be “a spectacular addition to this program,” showcased in several numbers.
“An improvement that I wanted to make from previous holiday spectaculars is a little bit more variety in the music — not just in terms of forces, whether it’s choral or orchestral, but also some solo performances, as well,” Hankewich says. “One of great benefits of partnering with organizations like the ballet and the opera is that it gives me an entrance way into a whole wealth of talent. Thanks to Daniel Kleinknecht and Tony Nickle (from the Cedar Rapids Opera Theatre), they were able to point me in the right direction of finding some really great voices.”
Hankewich and Kiser both point to the new take on “The Twelve Days of Christmas” as a fun departure from the norm, with each “day” presented in a different musical period — Gregorian chant, medieval, baroque and contemporary sounds — and even a Sousa march.
“I first encountered this piece when I was in Kansas City,” Hankewich says. “It’s a tongue-in-cheek version ... for music geeks, nerd and aficionados. ... It’s clever and funny, but very difficult.”
“From the people-watching perspective, it will be interesting to see how that one comes across,” Kiser says.
He may be watching from the wings or actually sitting for a spell with his family in the audience, since Hankewich will be directing the concert.
“Most of the time, I’ll be standing in the wings, biting my nails,” Kiser says with a laugh.
His chorale has been rehearsing the music for about four weeks, investing about 20 to 25 hours in the literature before getting to the Paramount stage. Even though it’s a hectic time of year for musicians, Kiser says it’s always a pleasure to sing with the orchestra.
“It’s such a fun program to begin with,” he says. “The music — especially some of these arrangements — better lend themselves to chorale and orchestra rather than just choir and piano. The chorale always enjoys singing with the full pops orchestra. ... We have stepped out with smaller chamber orchestras, but when you’ve got all the bells and whistles, there’s just something a little bit extra special and exciting about that.
“It’s just fun to be part of this great holiday tradition.”