The Mobile Symphony Orchestra isn’t known for wizardry but their upcoming Christmas spectacular might earn that reputation. The complete experience is intended for children, inner and actual.
“What’s different this year about the program is everything is staged and coordinated with lights, scenery and action. Because it’s not only a musical experience, it’s a visual experience that’s going to hit all the senses,” General Manager and Director of Artistic Administration J.C. Barker said.
Barker drew inspiration from his own youth, when his parents journeyed from their Mississippi home to New Orleans on holiday excursions. They inevitably visited the Maison Blanche department store.
“It was decorated to the hilt a lot like the Roosevelt is now over there. I associated that with Christmas, that overwhelming visual sensation of absolute magic,” Barker said.
Planning started about “seven to eight months ago.” To find their own magician, MSO looked to a local associated with another holiday.
“Ron Barrett was the only person considered for this. He is capable, has the expertise and the talent to decorate and create large spaces because of his Mardi Gras history and does huge stage work,” Barker said.
It’s the first time MSO has employed the decorator’s renowned skills. Barker was specific — with directions that made an impact.
He described washes of hue with specific musical numbers, with snow, with Santa Claus. Barrett got an idea of the scale required.
“He said there’s going to be literally millions of lights,” Barker chuckled.
So extensive are the plans, Barrett will have to tackle it in phases. A crew that normally sees their workload increase in the fall until reaching a zenith at Mardi Gras will become a busy bunch of elves at the historic theater on South Joachim Street.
“Some of the lobby and arcade will be up for an extended period but the stage itself will only be in place for the symphony concerts. We’re going to do two days of load in, that’s how much time it takes,” Barker said.
The shows are Dec. 9 at 7:30 p.m. and Dec. 10 at 2:30 p.m.
“They’re doing some of the installations on Dec. 2 and they’re doing the stage installation on Dec. 7 so he’s got to split it up because in the midst of it he has other projects,” Barker explained.
As to the music itself, they have taken another cue from the past. It starts with a tire manufacturer.
“Firestone tire company made these albums and if you went into the Firestone store you got a Christmas album and on there would be all these big Hollywood Bowl numbers. The arranger who did them all was Carmen Dragon,” Barker said.
More than just the father of Daryl Dragon of Captain and Tennille fame, Dragon undergirded the holidays for generations. The role Nelson Riddle played as the favored arranger for mid-20th century crooners, Dragon filled with Christmas music.
“This show is chock full of his arrangements — ‘Deck the Halls,’ ‘Hark the Herald,’ ‘Away in a Manger,’ ‘First Noel,’ ‘Adeste Fidelis,’ they’re just lush,” Barker said.
The symphony will share the stage with a choir courtesy of Mobile’s Singing Children. Soprano Diane Penning will be on hand, too.
True to Barker’s department store inspiration, the show opens with work from “Miracle on 34th Street.” Benjamin Britten’s “Ceremony of Carols” features the choir and harpist Katie Ott.
The remainder of the first half is filled with work by Vince Guaraldi, Irving Berlin and traditional holiday fare. Penning is featured on the last of those.
The strains of John Williams follow the intermission and then it’s back to the traditional work and 20th century fare. Penning returns for an acoustic “Ave Maria.” Barker even promised a “jolly old elf” will be on hand.
Guest conductor Theresa Cheung will be at the podium in place of MSO’s Scott Speck.
“We love her. She’s amazing. This kind of a program is right up her alley,” Barker said.
Tickets run $15–$75 and are available at mobilesymphony.org. You can also phone 251-432-2010.
If Barker and Barrett are successful, this will be more than a couple of good shows. It will build something to carry on for generations.
“I want every child of every age to associate going to the Saenger and going to the symphony with Christmas,” Barker said.