For the second year in a row, Santa will share the limelight at the Evanston Symphony holiday concert with a gospel choir singing the “Soulful Celebration” version of Handel’s classic Hallelujah Chorus from the oratorio “Messiah.”
The program, which takes place at 3 p.m. on Dec. 4 at Evanston Township High School, 1600 Dodge Ave., also includes popular numbers with the North Shore Choral Society, Evanston Children’s Choir, Evanston Dance Ensemble, and sing-along holiday carols led by Santa and his elves.
“The annual Evanston Holiday Concert is one of the year’s most enjoyable and thoroughly inclusive arts events of the year, bringing together hundreds of local instrumentalists, singers, and dancers to put on a wonderful show designed to entertain people of all ages,” said Evanston Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl.
ESO Music Director Lawrence Eckerling said he had been thinking about programming the gospel piece for many years. “When I first came to Evanston in 2003, I was interested in trying to find a gospel choir to perform it. But for various reasons we had to put it aside. Then the idea rematerialized last year. Our two biggest challenges were orchestrating the piece and finding the gospel choir.”
Orchestration was needed, he explained, because the original piece is from a 1992 Grammy-award winning album called “Quincy Jones’ Handel’s Messiah: A Soulful Celebration.” The gospel Hallelujah Chorus, with arrangement credited to Mervyn Warren, Michael O. Jackson, and Mark Kibble, is backed by an R&B ensemble, not an orchestra.
The ESO commissioned the orchestration from Bobby Schiff, a north suburban arranger. “It was a labor of love,” explained Mr. Schiff, “because I love the original ‘Messiah’ by Handel as well as the gospel version on the album.”
Finding the gospel singers was fairly straightforward. ESO board member Kelly Brest van Kempen knew the Rev. Kenneth Cherry, pastor of Christ Temple Church, 1711 Simpson St., and in early 2015 invited him to put together the gospel choir.
“I was surprised, excited, and honored they asked me,” recalled Rev. Cherry. Any concerns he had about combining gospel and classical music were immediately put to rest, he said, “once I met Larry. He’s an outstanding teacher and conductor. His skill was to take our untrained chorus and very quickly train them to sing with a full orchestra.”
The gospel number also includes the North Shore Choral Society and Evanston Children’s Choir.
Orchestral numbers on the program include Leroy Anderson’s “Sleigh Ride,” excerpts from Menotti’s “Amahl and the Night Visitors,” the Prelude to “Hansel and Gretel” by Humperdinck, and Mannheim Steamroller’s arrangement of “Deck the Halls.”
The Evanston Dance Ensemble will perform more than 20 minutes of selections from Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker” Ballet, accompanied by the orchestra.
The North Shore Choral Society will join the ESO in selections from Rutter’s “Gloria” and Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus from “Messiah.”
The Evanston Children’s Choir will perform William Mathias’ exuberant carol, “Sir Christemas” as well as join the North Shore Choral Society for Robert Wendel’s “This is Chanukah.”
The gospel choir will also perform “Jesus, What a Wonderful Child.”