Eddie Piccard will be jazzing up the holidays with Orchestra Iowa in a trio of weekend Holiday Spectacular performances, for a trio of reasons.
“He’s got a great following, and I haven’t really worked with him for the many years that I’ve been here now,” said Tim Hankewich, the orchestra’s music director. “He’s clearly one of great jazz icons of the area, and I thought his style of music would be a great addition to our program.”
Piccard will be at the piano several times, beginning with “Violets for Your Furs,” a nod to love and winter in Manhattan, performed over the years by Frank Sinatra, composer Matt Dennis and Billie Holiday.
Piccard also will put his spin on “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town,” then join forces with Cedar Rapids vocalist Sarah Cram Driscoll of the Awful Purdies and the Diplomats of Solid Sound on “Baby It’s Cold Outside.” And he’ll help the Cedar Rapids Concert Chorale scale new heights in what Hankewich said is “a wonderful rendition” of “Go Tell It on the Mountain.”
The chorale, prepared by director Gerald Kreitzer, will be featured throughout the program, and in the second half, will move from the sublime (“I Saw Three Ships”) to the silly, teaming up with some dancing Penguins and Santa for a “Chrith-muth” favorite.
“Didn’t you know that Santa was a hockey fan,” Hankewich said with his trademark hearty laugh. “Imagine if you will, a hockey team singing ‘All I Want for Christmas is My Two Front Teeth.’”
However, the RoughRiders aren’t trading their hockey skates for jazz shoes. Instead, the Paramount Penguins will be dancers choreographed by Lovar Davis Kidd, founder of MOvMNT Dance Collective in Cedar Rapids.
“And thanks to our local hockey team, they will sporting the jerseys of the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders,” Hankewich noted.
The novelty number also features an homage to the maestro’s northern roots. “In this arrangement, I included one of the most sacred melodies in all of Canadian history,” he said, “and that’s ‘Hockey Night in Canada.’”
Finding such moments of levity and variety keeps the annual holiday concert tradition fresh for Hankewich, the orchestra and their audiences.
“Putting a holiday program together is like shopping for clothing,” he said. “You can buy a suit off the rack or you can have it tailor-made. And if you’re going to do something interesting and unusual, which we normally do every year on our holiday program, you’ve got to tailor something unique. ...
“Even though the format is essentially the same from year to year — there’s only so many ways you can get armies of people on and off stage smoothly — the only way to keep it fresh is to create new arrangements and change up the playlist, which is why ‘All I Want for Christmas’ is so important to this program.”
The variety offers a change of pace for the orchestra musicians, too.
“They get to see a lot of fun onstage,” Hankewich said. “For the musicians, this isn’t a very strenuous program to play, so it’s kind of fun for them to look around beyond the scope of their immediate music to see what’s going on around them. As a result, they have a lot of fun.”
They also bring out ribbons and bows to festoon their instruments and themselves after intermission, when the tone turns from more serious music to lighter, pop-oriented numbers like Vince Guaraldi’s “Christmas Time is Here,” from television’s perennially popular “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” That song will bring to the stage the Discovery Chorus from the Orchestra Iowa School.
The auditioned youth group, under the direction of Amy Hanisch, will be featured in several songs in the second set, while the opening segment will feature the Espressivo Strings from Iowa City’s Preucil School of Music, directed by school founder Doris Preucil.
Adding a festive ring to the concert will be the Carillonneurs bell choir from St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in Cedar Rapids, under the direction of Timothy Hein. The audience will be called upon to add some festive fa-la-la ringing through the rafters, too, during a “Deck the Halls” singalong.
And the Mighty Wurlitzer organ will be called into play during the program and in a solo spotlight at intermission, with Mark Baumann of Marion from the Orchestra Iowa School’s piano and organ faculty on deck.
The concert gives the guest musicians “an opportunity to shine. It also gives them the very rare opportunity of performing with an orchestra,” Hankewich said, which is otherwise outside the budget reach for local performing groups. “Not too many people really understand how expensive a professional orchestra is and how rare that opportunity is, and so this is a really great way of having a lot of people get that opportunity.”
Orchestrating so many guest performers onstage is no easy feat, Hankewich said.
“When I’m putting a program like this together, the first thing I’m thinking about is the succession of pieces and how to get the guest artist on and offstage,” he said. “For example, we’re beginning with the Carillonneurs. They are going to need tables, so that means after they perform their work and they leave the stage, how are we going to change the stage seamlessly?
“One way to do that is to program a work on its heels that is lengthy so that the stage crew can change the set. In many ways, the choreography of the entire evening is planned out well in advance while the program is actually being developed. You don’t want a dead space of three minutes while people are moving chairs and tables, so you just go directly into the next piece and during the music, the set changes. That’s a much smoother way of getting through the evening, rather than starting and stopping all the time.”
Orchestrating holiday concerts is in his DNA, stemming from his first professional assignment with the Kansas City Symphony.
“It comes second nature to me,” he said, adding that he tells young conductors it’s “one of hardest things to do well,” finding the right mix of music to keep it flowing and not be too costly.
“I’ve spent the last 20 years of my life writing Christmas arrangements,” he said. “Now it’s like falling off a log.”
WHAT: Orchestra Iowa: A Holiday Spectacular
WHERE: Paramount Theatre, 123 Third Ave. SE, Cedar Rapids
WHEN: 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday (12/16); 2:30 p.m. Sunday (12/17)
TICKETS: $18 to $54, Paramount Ticket Office, (319) 366-8203 or Paramounttheatrecr.com; youth, student tickets at (319) 366-8203
GUESTS: Local jazz icon Eddie Piccard, Cedar Rapids Concert Chorale, Discovery Chorus, Espressivo Strings, St. Paul’s Carillonneurs and more
EXTRAS: Come early for cookies and pictures with Santa; also, donations of new, unwrapped toys accepted for Toys for Tots