Maestro Timothy Hankewich can’t imagine a holiday symphonic concert without singers.
“It’s inconceivable not having a choir in a Christmas program, because of the vocal nature of the holidays,” he said.
This year, the Cedar Rapids Concert Chorale is returning to the Paramount Theatre stage to make a joyful noise with Orchestra Iowa — as are the Orchestra Iowa School’s Discovery Chorus of fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders, and local celebrity singer Alisabeth Von Presley.
“To have a holiday program with just the orchestra would be one-dimensional,” Hankewich said. “This is one of the few concerts that we perform where community ensembles can participate. It’s important in terms of community outreach, and also important artistically, as well.”
Hankewich has been rotating among the area’s various choral groups, and Concert Chorale is excited to be back in the spotlight.
“The singers are really jazzed,” said Gerald Kreitzer, artistic director for the 55-member Cedar Rapids Concert Chorale. “It embodies a sense of pride in the organization, and drives them to strive to do their best in rehearsals, and keep building a great ensemble.”
Kreitzer chose two John Rutter carols, which present contrasting styles: the uplifting “Angels’ Carol” and “Candlelight Carol,” which he describes as “a beautiful, lush, meditative, serene setting.”
“A lot of church choirs perform Rutter,” Hankewich said, “but they don’t get a chance to actually perform it with full orchestra. Probably most people’s ears are acclimatized to just the piano accompaniment. It’s kinda nice when you actually have that extra dimension as it was originally intended.”
The chorale members are “just really, really excited for the opportunity to sing with the symphony — as would any of the great choral ensembles in Cedar Rapids,” Kreitzer said. “(The orchestra) is one of the flagship ensembles in the state of Iowa, so any time you get the opportunity to sing with them under the direction of Maestro Hankewich in the Paramount Theatre, it’s a real special opportunity.”
Kreitzer is in his second full season at the chorale’s helm, but he’s a familiar face on the local music scene for 30 years. He spent two years at the University of Northern Iowa, then 22 years at Cedar Rapids Washington High School, and now six years at Mount Mercy University, where he serves as director of music activities. He also has directed the chancel choir at First Congregational Church in Cedar Rapids for 16 years.
“It’s what I like to do,” he said of his busy schedule.
He has worked with Hankewich over the years, and helped assemble the massed choir for the symphony’s 2015 season opener on the lawn at Brucemore mansion in Cedar Rapids.
“He’s such a tremendous musician,” Kreitzer said. “He’s got a great, great choral background. ... His knowledge of choral repertoire and choral music is just as vast as his symphonic knowledge. He understands exactly what the chorus needs to do to be prepared.”
Preparation is paramount for this production. For Hankewich, the holidays begin in the summer, when he arranges pieces for the symphony and the singers.
“The pieces you’ll hear performed for the first time are the fruits of my summer labors,” he said, noting that he tailored the naughty-and-nice “Santa Baby” especially for the coquettish Von Presley, to give her a piece she “would really be able to sink her teeth into.” She’ll also wrap her serious and sparkly sides around another couple of musical presents.
Creating his own arrangements serves several purposes, he said.
“To keep the musicians engaged, it is essential that the holiday arrangements that they play are of great quality and utilize the full potential of the symphony orchestra,” he said. “This is why I do so much of my own arranging. It is very difficult to find holiday arrangements in the public domain for symphony orchestra that are really good. The vast majority are written for community ensembles and the really advance music is usually expensive to rent. So to provide the orchestra something interesting to play in a fiscally responsible manner and at the same time, tailor something specifically for the Cedar Rapids concert experience is what makes this program successful.”
It’s a mix of sacred and secular, with an intermission separating the two. As in years past, Neal Marple will make the Mighty Wurlitzer sing in between the halves. Other favorites include the return of Hankewich’s arrangement of “Yes Virginia, There is a Santa Claus,” featuring radio personality Ric Swann and young actress Lily Adams, as well as the 70-member children’s Discovery Chorus, under the direction of Amy Hanisch since 1994.
“Many students ... want an additional singing opportunity outside of their regular music classes at school,” said Hanisch, who has been with the Cedar Rapids Community Schools for 29 years, and teaches at Coolidge Elementary. “(Discovery Chorus) provides kids with an opportunity to build vocal skills while learning quality choral literature for young voices.
“,,, Singers have also shared how much this chorus has helped boost their confidence in front of a crowd,” she said, “and given them the courage to audition for other groups.”
WHAT: Orchestra Iowa: Holiday Spectacular
WHERE: Paramount Theatre, 123 Third Ave. SE, Cedar Rapids
WHEN: 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Dec. 17, 2:30 p.m. Dec. 18
TICKETS: $18 to $54, Paramount Ticket Office, (319) 366-8203 or Paramounttheatrecr.com
GUESTS: Cedar Rapids Concert Chorale, Orchestra Iowa School’s Discovery Chorus, Preucil School’s Espressivo Strings, Alisabeth Von Presley