Rob Istad is slaving over a hot stove.
He took the time to speak with me in mid-November, as he was in the midst of one of his own holiday traditions. Every Thanksgiving, the Pacific Chorale’s artistic director makes Julia Childs’ legendary cranberry chutney for his holiday feast and he’s busy preparing it as we talked about the chorale’s upcoming holiday concert Tis The Season! When you’re as busy as he is, you have to multi-task.
“Everyone begs for it,” he says. “It really is amazing. And there are a lot of things in the recipe that you think, ‘Really? This goes in cranberry chutney?’ But it totally works.”
Lesson learned: sometimes it’s the surprises that make a dish, and in the case of the concert, surprises are part of that recipe as well.
“Every concert should have a surprise,” he says. “Every one.”
Tis the Season takes place at Segerstrom Concert Hall on December 22 and 23. Members of the Pacific Symphony, and the Southern California Children’s Chorus, will join the chorale in an eclectic mix of sacred vocal music, traditional hymns and carols, and popular song. There will also be surprises, which Istad and I have mutually decided not to discuss. In all, it’s close to 20 selections, which means a lot of preparation.
“I’m in the holiday spirit already,” he says. “My Christmas is pretty crazy.”
When we spoke, the Chorale had just rehearsed the program for the first time. Of course, this time of year has its staples, its evergreen compositions, and it takes planning and thought to create a program that appeals to both audience and performers.
“I’m very excited,” he says. “We have a lot of new music this year, not a lot of repeats. It’s going to be a great concert with something for everybody. I have a really gorgeous Mendelssohn ‘Ave Maria,’ the Opus 23, which is one of my favorite works. It’s going to be amazing. And at the same time we have a pop set, with ‘Holly Jolly Christmas’ and ‘Feliz Navidad.’ It’s going to be a really fun concert for families with lots of music for children.”
As for the performers, Istad is watching out for them too.
“These programs can turn into crazy weird pops programs that singers feel they have to perform but aren’t crazy about,” he says. “I love to give the Chorale things they love to sing. And they had fun doing it the other night.”
The program was put together by Istad, a privilege he greatly appreciates. For many holiday concerts, conductors and choirs are afterthoughts.
“So many of my colleagues around the country don’t get to program,” he says. “They’re the background choir for whatever conductor and pops concert is coming in. To have this relationship with the Pacific Symphony, to collaborate on a program that’s imaginative–with singalongs and artistic moments and silly fun – it’s a real treat. And my colleagues are jealous that I get to do that. They interpret someone else’s program. I put my own together.”
Among the other selections, Istad has programmed two works by Latvian composer Ēriks Ešenvalds: “Trinity Te Deum,” and “Northern Lights.”
“‘Northern Lights’ is a really interesting piece,” he says. “Ešenvalds grew up near the Arctic Circle and often saw the northern lights, and this piece includes a Latvian folk song about northern lights with an account of an explorer seeing the lights for the first time and what that would be like. It’s totally a cappella, played with tuned wine glasses and tone chimes, and the wine glasses create an overtone sound that they sing around and that captures the feeling of what it must feel like, and the tone chimes add a halo. The singers are loving it, and having a great time performing it.”
Beyond that, the performance also includes the Southern California Children’s Chorus which will sing with the Chorale for a number of pieces.
“I love working with the kids,” he says. “It’s the highlight of the whole season working with them. This group sings the highest level. And we’ve now been around long enough that we have members of the Pacific Chorale that used to be members of the Children’s Chorus. The educational scene, everything in SoCal has changed – in Orange County specifically – and what’s going on in schools is superb. We’re raising up generation of musicians and artists that are making things better and better and that’s what we’ve always wanted.”
Peter Lefevre us a contributing writer for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.